Commentary

The Schools Must Teach Nuclear-Weapons Issues

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When Jefferson declared, "Preach, my dear sir, a crusade against ignorance ..." in advocating the creation of public schools, he intended public education not only to civilize and cultivate those it touched, but to make them better citizens, better thinkers, more informed people.

There is a civic element to American public education that is essential to our democracy. Preparing citizens to think about public questions is part of the role public schools traditionally play. It is not enough that young people be able to add and subtract and write. They must be able to judge public issues as well.

Public schools have always taught the basic system of our government and some of that system's values. They have also taught--in history and social studies--the substance of our political debates. Recently, whole courses have been focused on important issues of current public concern: ecology, urban problems, poverty, and so on.

Nuclear-weapons issues are one of the greatest concerns of our time. If we fail to meet the dangers nuclear weapons pose, other problems will be erased or dwarfed by nuclear war. The issues of environmental debate, for example--clean air, clean water, wildlife preservation--pale when forced to compete with the issue of human survival after a nuclear war.

If nuclear-weapons issues are the most important public concern today, and I think they are, and if schools prepare citizens to understand and take part in the public debates of democracy, then nuclear-weapons issues must be taught in public schools.

"But how can such issues be taught in public schools?" people ask. "They are too controversial." The point is a valid one: Nuclear-weapons issues are a current topic of national debate on which no consensus exists. But this position is not really an argument against the importance of their being taught, it is an appeal to be excused from doing something difficult. However, I believe an unbiased, fair, and acceptable course is possible.

Another objection people raise is that nuclear-weapons issues are too frightening to teach to children. There are three responses to that. One is that if we don't teach them in high school we may never teach them. Nearly 70 percent of people over 24 have graduated from high school, but less than 20 percent have graduated from college. Another is that students are already exposed to quite a bit of information--much of it rumor and exaggeration. The psychologist John Mack of Harvard and others are discovering that children have heard a lot more about nuclear weapons and are a lot more affected by the information they receive than one would expect. In addition, protecting them from the fear doesn't protect them from the danger.

Finally, because teaching materials are scarce, people say, "This has strong bias. How can I get away, either in the classroom or in the community, with using biased materials?" Why not turn the tables on this disadvantage? Point out the bias and use it as an opportunity to bring in a speaker with contrasting views. Or ask a local group concerned about the bias to prepare materials for a week's worth of classes. By involving people outside the classroom, both the course and its support in the community will be strengthened.

The most important thing to remember when preparing to introduce or teach a course on nuclear-weapons issues is that there are no right answers. No consensus exists. In trying to understand why we should build these weapons, when--if ever--we should use them, how we could plan for a nuclear war, or how we as a country should act with this new responsibility, we have arrived at no certain answers.

As a result, a course on nuclear-weapons issues cannot simply present answers or values to be absorbed. The course would have to have the same purpose as a college seminar: Students would be introduced to the facts and the assertions that follow from them, but they would be left to draw their own conclusions.

The course would have to provide a jumping-off point for informed debate--a framework without answers. Such a framework would have two elements: the facts and the arguments. The facts would include as much of the several sets of information--scientific, historical, and political--as students will need to set a context for debate.

The arguments would include as many viewpoints (and their counters) as possible, because where experience provides no measure of success, all theories hold equal value. The favoring of one proposed solution over another by a teacher or an administrator or a school-board member will not only create the practical problem of setting one segment of the community ablaze with hostility, it will set an example of intellectual dishonesty.

A course on nuclear-weapons issues that offers no answers is not incomplete; it is honest. Who can pretend that he or she has the key to such profound and fundamental questions?

This course would not be easy to teach. The pitfalls are many and deep. For example, it is easy to dwell on the horrors of nuclear war. They are stunning, and once you begin to think about them, they grip the mind. But if a teacher teaches that no horror could be worse than nuclear war (at first, an appealing and apparently safe assertion), he or she has failed to teach the issues fairly. The idea presupposes a moral and political judgment. For if no horror could be worse than nuclear war, including a world controlled by a Communist dictatorship, then a certain balancing of human freedom versus suffering has been assumed. And there will be people who will argue, in Jefferson's words, that we should be "resolved to die free men, rather than to live slaves."

No sure-fire formula exists for avoiding mistakes in teaching or introducing a course on nuclear-weapons issues. There are no models of past courses, and because this is unknown territory, mistakes will be made. Count on it. But if teachers and school-board members will make a commitment to themselves to be fair--fair to all points of view, fair to all groups in the community--the course will be a success. If, on the other hand, they seek to press their own views, no matter how sincerely they believe in their superiority, the result will be in doubt.

There are important practical questions about a course on nuclear-weapons issues. At what level should it be taught? Since it will require analysis and debate rather than memorization and discussion, the later the better. Junior or senior year--11th or 12th grade--would be best.

Who would teach it? There are no experts at teaching this kind of course, since, with a handful of exceptions, it has never been taught before.

What is the best spot in the curriculum for a course on nuclear-weapons issues? The best way to introduce such a course into the curriculum will vary from place to place. I think one very likely candidate is social-studies "topics" courses. Three of four currently important topics are usually covered during such a course and nuclear weapons could easily be made one of them.

What should the course cover? A course on nuclear-weapons issues should include three areas. First, it should discuss the scope of the problem, the physics of nuclear explosions, and what makes these weapons different. Trying to imagine what the effects of a nuclear war might be and looking at examples from Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be necessary for this.

Second, it should cover the history of the arms race--how people came to build, use, and rely on these weapons. (Attempts to control the arms race should be covered, too.) Many of the fundamental issues raised by the existence of nuclear weapons have been faced before. Most questions of whether to build new weapons, for example, are analogous to the debate over whether to build the hydrogen bomb.

And third, the course should cover current issues such as the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and possible proliferation of nuclear weaponry. It should also include a discussion of the ethical problems raised by the use of these weapons. Ethical problems are hard to treat fairly. But on reflection, I think it is better to make a clumsy stab at this than to imply by omission that nuclear weapons raise no moral issues at all.

What course materials could be used? One of the main practical difficulties with teaching these issues is that no single comprehensive text is yet available. There is a plethora of "curriculum materials" available, but most were prepared by groups that have a specific point of view on the arms race and a particular solution to push, so care must be used in selecting materials. As far as I know, high-school materials that advocate increasing the nation's nuclear arsenal are not available.

Here is a sample of what is now available:

  • Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR) has published A Day of Dialogue: Planning and Curriculum Resource Guide: Dealing with Issues of Nuclear War in the Classroom. This is a guide to creating and introducing a course on nuclear weapons in schools. ESR's position is that students must learn to formulate their own opinions on these issues. There is a strong focus on the dangers of nuclear war in ESR's materials.
  • The Union of Concerned Scientists, in cooperation with the National Education Association, has just finished preparing a curriculum guide for junior-high-school (and up) teachers called Choices: A Unit on Conflict and Nuclear War. The 144-page unit stresses the continuum of conflict from individual to national disputes and relates conflict resolution to nuclear-war issues.
  • Ground Zero, the organization that published the best-selling book Nuclear War: What's In It for You? has prepared a curriculum guide for secondary schools called The Nuclear Age. The 57-page guide outlines lectures that could be given, provides quotes and discussion topics, and includes graphs and charts. The guide could be used by someone familiar with the issue as the basis of a course.
  • Finally, Roberta Snow, a board member of ESR who is currently doing research at Harvard University on the effects of the threat of a nuclear war on children, has produced a book called Decisionmaking in the Nuclear Age, now in a second, expanded edition. This 3- to 12-week course for high-school-age students focuses on the process of making decisions about nuclear-weapons issues.

These curriculum materials are good. But they do not completely answer our need. What is needed more than a curriculum that teaches about a solution to the threats posed by nuclear weaponry--arms control or conflict resolution or strong defense or whatever--is one that examines the problems themselves as a prerequisite to understanding and deciding among the solutions.

Albert Einstein said, "Nuclear weapons have changed everything--except our way of thinking." It is time to begin the debates that will change our way of thinking.

Vol. 02, Issue 29, Page 19

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