Teaching the Iraq War

By Kirstein, Peter N. | Academe, September/October 2006 | Go to article overview

Teaching the Iraq War


Kirstein, Peter N., Academe


Many conservatives such as David Horowitz, Laura Ingraham, Roger Kimble, and Sara Dogan assert that the academy is dominated by leftwing professors who indoctrinate students with antiwar advocacy. I debated Horowitz last March in Chicago on the topic of the Iraq war "in the classroom and beyond." He charged not only that professors impose antiwar views on students, but also do so indiscriminately in courses unrelated to war. Tactically, Horowitz wants to confine critical thinking on the war to relatively few courses.

Horowitz created Students for Academic Freedom to monitor and sanction progressive professors who construe teaching as a moral act. The group has declared that only courses whose topics encompass "contemporary American presidents, presidential administrations, or some similar subject" can legitimately examine the Iraq war.

Academic freedom has application here. If a professor teaches the Iraq war, she need not justify it. The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure states that "teachers . . . should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject." A 1970 "interpretive comment" on the statement clarifies, however, that "controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the statement is designed to foster. . . . [T]eachers [should] avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject." "Persistently intruding material" is imprecise, but I believe it means presenting unrelated course material with such frequency that the catalogue description of the class is marginalized. Yet many courses can legitimately cover the war.

In my Vietnam and America course, I compare the disastrous conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq. Both wars were initiated with distorted intelligence, such as the nonexistent attacks on the Maddox and Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin and the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Both conflicts became guerilla wars in which U.S. forces became mired in nonconventional conflict. Building viable nations and winning the hearts and minds of the people failed.

I offer a course on American protest music. I discuss antiwar songs and censorship, including the government's blacklisting of Pete seeger and Paul Kobeson during the Gold War and the banning by commercial entities of Bob Dylan from the Ed Sullivan Show and of Natalie Maines and the Dixie Chicks from radio playlists. …

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