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Where Have All the Teach-Ins Gone? Gone to Classrooms...

INSIDE a trunk in my attic there is a pair of bell-bottomed trousers, a tie-dyed shirt, and an assortment of love beads. They are vivid reminders not only of how foolish their owner once was, but also of how powerful popular culture was and is. Even during the much ballyhooed summer of peace and love, I had intimations that, at 23, I was probably too over-the-hill for the hall.

But if I felt ill at ease among the flower children, the ante rose considerably at campus teach-ins about the Vietnam War. There, the problem was not with politics (like many in my generation, I was against the war, for what I thought were sound reasons), but, rather, with the word "teach." As one who divided his time between being a graduate student and teaching a few sections of freshman composition, teaching meant something - and still does. Whatever its complicated arithmetic of caring and intellectual concentration might be, teaching is not indoctrination. Indoctrination is what happened at teach-ins against the war.

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No doubt some students learned where to place Vietnam on a map and even something about its complicated socio-political history, but mostly what they got was the excitement of a rally, like those that had tried to whip up support for the fight against Franco or later, the war against Adolph Hitler.

In the late 1960s, teach-ins took place in the quad, which is to say, outside the classroom. Education of the more traditional sort went on inside campus buildings and operated on the assumption that a balanced presentation of the evidence, followed by an open discussion of all points of view, was essential.

No longer. In recent years, proponents of advocacy in the classroom have insisted that some viewpoints are so wrongheaded, so "politically incorrect," so evil, that they no longer deserve a place on the syllabus, much less in class discussion.

Worse, shutting off dissent has become a badge of honor rather than a cause for shame. At one recent conference on teaching methods I attended, a participant proudly detailed how it was decided that white women in a class on "Third World Women" would be prohibited from speaking for the entire semester. Such are the insidious forms that participatory democracy can take - in this case, with the full blessing of the teacher. Not only did these privileged white women need to "listen," we were told, but also to understand the subtle ways they were bound to the abuses of history. When I raised vigorous objections, some participants stared shamefaced at the floor, but others tried to shout me down.

At other sessions we were told that "redressing the balance" created by a white, male hegemony justified what looked like indoctrination. But as an old New Yorker magazine cartoon once put it, dress it up as you will, "It's still spinach...."

Those in the victim-studies racket mean business, although it is hard to see how their agendas have much to do with "instruction" as we once defined the term. Rather, what course in oppression studies (women, blacks, Latinos, and gays and lesbians) generally do is cobble a handful of narratives to a smattering of postmodern theory, and then get to the task at hand - namely, raising the political consciousness of an essentially captive audience. Opposing viewpoints are rigorously checked at the classroom door - whether they are by Christina Hoff Sommers ("Who Stole Feminism?") or Ralph Ellison ("Invisible Man").

The results are not only courses more impoverished than they need to be and professors who clutch at a narrow truth, but also students who spend their time doping out what their teacher wants. Toe the party line and your paper will garner praise; raise uncomfortable questions and count on being hooted down.

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So where have all the teach-ins gone? Gone to classrooms, alas. Years ago I understood enough to know that the applause that greeted most antiwar poetry had more to do with sentiment than with aesthetics. The strident verse of that time and place has faded away, but the insistence that sincerity justifies censorship remains. Only now we meet the enemy of open classrooms; rigorous, disinterested scholarship; and a commitment to authentic teaching - and have begun to realize, with a pang of conscience, that the enemy we gaze at in the mirror is too often ourselves.

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