Campus & Community

Crash course

8 min read

Teachers reflect, improvise, exhort, teach, and learn in the wake of Sept. 11

Frank Vogel, director of the Law School's Islamic Legal Studies Program, has planned a new course for the spring that aims to 'bring to bear our resources to dissipate the ignorance of Islamic law, with its complex history of social, political, and religious change.' (Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell)

Unlike other days, Sept. 11 didn’t end at midnight. The country still roils; the reverberations of the terrorist attacks continue to be felt in spaces private and public, including this University’s classrooms and in the quiet of professors’ research activities. Teachers and students alike struggle to understand, and respond to, the unprecedented tragedy.

“Islam isn’t a violent religion, is it?” When Frank Vogel heard this question posed to a Muslim spokesperson on a television news interview shortly after Sept. 11, he knew he had to mount an academic response to the terrorist attacks. Vogel, director of the Law School’s Islamic Legal Studies Program and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Adjunct Professor of Islamic Legal Studies, says “the way the spokesperson’s question combined an eagerness to learn with understandable doubt and suspicion showed the urgency of an academic response to the crisis.” He quickly moved to replace a planned course with a new one, titled “Contemporary Islamic Legal Thought: Law, State, and World Order,” to address the events of Sept. 11 directly.

Calling for students to assist him in designing the new course, Vogel says many of them “displayed a visceral desire” to jump into this activity. “A lot of Muslim students in particular have come forward to participate. These students feel a need to gain a better understanding of how people who are Islamic or Muslim ever got to be associated with such horrible events, and, having gained such an understanding, to help to communicate it to others.”

The new course, to be offered in the spring, will seek to enhance understanding of the terrorist attacks by illuminating one of the contexts – that of Islamic law – within which violent Islamist extremists claim justification for terrorist acts, a justification that most Muslims feel is completely false. Vogel says his mission is to “bring to bear our resources to dissipate the ignorance of Islamic law, with its complex history of social, political, and religious change.”

Across campus at the Kennedy School, two students switched their topics in the seminar on international security and political economy. Rather than pursue their original subjects, these students will examine the effects of the terrorist attacks on the military and on homeland defense. Why? “I want to change topics because I want to do something that will matter.”

The students in Jessica Stern’s class on “Non-State Threats to International Security” at the Kennedy School jumped into their studies on terrorism with a vigor their instructor had never before seen. “There was a very different atmosphere in the class than in past years,” says Stern, a lecturer in public policy. “I saw unprecedented emotional involvement in the course. Students worked incredibly hard, they had this insatiable curiosity about all aspects of terrorism, and their performance was extraordinary.”

The class included an Israeli man; a Palestinian woman; policemen from Singapore, Pakistan, and Japan; and United States military and intelligence officers. Content ranged from expressions of acutely felt fears about terrorism and biological attacks to discussions about whether the bombing of Afghanistan is the best approach in dealing with terrorism.

“Americans are not perceived as the white hats of the world, and this fact has come as a big shock to many Americans, including our president,” Stern claims. With this notion as backdrop, “we talked about whether public diplomacy – public relations, in essence – is important in a war on terrorism. I said the bombing raids potentially play into the hands of the enemy, because ‘collateral damage’ – in other words, dead Afghani children – is exactly what the enemy is hoping to see on television. Some people objected to the idea of focusing on how you’re perceived versus the morality of your actions. I suggested that the best way to look good may very well be to do the right thing – to be good – and that this may apply not only in politics but in ordinary life.”

While no student said the military bombing is “utterly immoral,” reports Stern, “they generally support a proportionate, careful response” to the attacks of Sept. 11.

Teaching teachers and holding steady

The thorny moral problems posed by the terrorist attacks have brought new urgency to some of the cases that Dennis Thompson, director of the University Center for Ethics and the Professions and the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy, first taught some 25 years ago.

In a center that brings together faculty and graduate students from schools around the world, Thompson teaches ethics. In the wake of Sept. 11, he says, “cases that had begun to seem antique are very much alive and relevant again.” An example is a case posing the “problem of dirty hands.” In this hypothetical situation, you are the leader of a major country. You’ve captured a terrorist and you think he may know the location of bombs that have been planted by the terrorists and that, if not rendered harmless, could kill many thousands of innocents. Would you order this person’s torture to try to extract whatever knowledge he might have about the bombs, even if you weren’t prepared to torture the person yourself? If so, should you feel guilty? Should you feel guilty if you did not order the torture?

“It’s a dilemma,” says Thompson. “Whatever you do is in some important sense wrong. In the ’90s, these kinds of cases seemed less relevant. Now students feel the force of the dilemma more sharply. Their reactions to these issues are different than they would have been a year ago.” As a result of this change, the “problem of dirty hands” is firmly back on Thompson’s syllabus.

Lee Warren, an associate director of the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, is also in the trenches with the teachers, as the center’s mission is to improve the quality of teaching in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Because classes started on Sept. 12, faculty members had to decide with lightning speed how, or even whether, to respond in class to the calamity that had just befallen the nation.

“A lot of teachers struggled with questions of how to approach their courses,” says Warren. “They asked themselves, ‘How much should I just get down to business? Should I discuss Sept. 11 in the context of an economics course, a chemistry course?’ It was a real dilemma for the professors.” Some students were upset when one faculty member didn’t mention the terrorist attacks in the first class.

Warren says a central challenge created by Sept. 11 was “the grownups had to be grownups more than usual. We had to provide a holding environment, where students could feel secure. Yet all of us were shocked, bewildered, unable to figure out what was going on. We held forums for the students so they’d have somewhere to go in their grief, and on the other hand, we grownups were going through the same thing. This was one case in which the teachers were as uncertain as the students.”

Fear and disease

In the quiet of a sabbatical leave during which he’s writing a book, David Barnes, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the History of Science, responds to Sept. 11 by bringing to light Louis Pasteur’s anthrax research in 1880 in Rozières, France. In an obscure experiment that up to now has scarcely been heard of, the famous father of bacteriology observed sheep contract anthrax simply by sniffing a patch of barren earth which 12 years earlier had served as the burial ground of sheep that had died of the disease.

Pasteur concluded that not only could anthrax spores survive more than a decade and kill via inhalation, but that deadly contagions, in general, could potentially travel far and wide, wreaking tragedy wherever they wafted.

Barnes comments, “If epidemiologists today saw the research Pasteur did in Rozières, they’d probably think, ‘What a genius! He recognized the danger of inhalation anthrax.’”

But in his writing, and in his classes, Barnes will argue that “the focus on germs as hidden enemies that can attack us at random is dangerous thinking and is, for the most part, wrong. This kind of thinking,” he suggests, “causes us to lose sight of the fact that disease is determined by social, political, economic – and always human – mechanisms.”

While stressing that he finds the thought of bioterrorism just as frightening as anyone else, Barnes believes that “poverty, malnourishment, overwork, and the lack of access to health care lie at the root of all infectious diseases. And these conditions, which create susceptibility to contagions, are remediable.”

Rather than panic at the admittedly terrifying thought of an anthrax or smallpox attack, Barnes would have us assail, instead, what he sees as the underlying causes of infectious disease in general – including, first and foremost, poverty. “There’s no single answer on how to fight poverty, but if we could just have a debate about how best to spend the money that is now pouring into fighting one microbe at a time, we might get more bang for the buck in terms of improving our overall health conditions.”

As for how Barnes will respond to Sept. 11 in the classroom, he says “I guarantee that the phenomenon of the fear of anthrax in the fall of 2001 is going to be part of my teaching forever.”