Profs view war through

by Richard Lazarus | 11/14/01 6:00am

History Professor Kenneth Shewmaker has been keeping a copy of the Koran by his bed recently.

"I'm self-educating now," he explained. "My nightly reading is the Koran, which I've never read before."

Professors across a wide array of disciplines are trying to gain a greater understanding of the origins and consequences of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as well as the United States' involvement in Afghanistan and surrounding territories.

Judging from professor responses to questions about their reactions to the developing conflict, there are about as many opinions on what America should do as there are ways to study the conflict.

"I think there is a current in American intellectualship right now worried about America's bluntness in response to this," said Ronald Green, director of Dartmouth's Ethics Institute and chair of the religion department. "It's based on military force and not intellectual and cultural understanding."

He called America's action "brute force more than informed political involvement."

While some commentators have been calling America's military action a new type of war, Green said the current conflict in some ways is not a war at all: "It's a battle for people's minds and hearts, to win over and retain a lot of moderate Muslims."

He continued, "Many academics lived through Vietnam. Lessons from there make us wary" of American military involvement.

Shewmaker, who teaches about the history of American foreign policy, was much more enthusiastic about the American military action.

"This is one we can't afford to lose -- the consequences for failure would be horrendous," he said, explaining that a loss would embolden terrorists.

Still others chose not to address the issues from an academic perspective at all. Speech Professor James Kuypers explained that some academics prefer responses that are "not scholarly in nature, but more human."

He, for example, has not been examining Bush's recent speeches with students in his class on historic American speeches.

He asked his students whether they were interested in studying the recent presidential speeches, but they declined. Kuypers explained: "It was too much to handle."

Instead, his class has focused on an in-depth discussion of College President James Wright's speech announcing the Student Life Initiative.

Professor Lewis Glinert, an expert on discourse analysis, was intrigued by how President George W. Bush was speaking about war in a speech Saturday before the United Nations.

"There seems to be a very deliberate attempt to avoid portraying this war as an American war," he said of the language used by Bush.

There was a wide variety of interpretations and analysis of U.S. action, but all the humanities professors contacted by The Dartmouth saw a new reason for Americans to be learning more.

"The days when the leaders led and everyone followed are gone," said Glinert.

"Students should be given tools for judging spin," Glinert said. "Language is not just as a cognitive phenomenon, it has a profound effect on society and culture."

Glinert plans on focusing his upcoming classes on some of these issues.

Green complained about what he called Americans' "appalling ignorance" of Arab language and culture and their "poor understanding of parts of the world different from ours."

"Start reading," advised Shewmaker.

In general, academics are learning more, but they are still hesitating to publish academic papers on the events and aftermath of Sept. 11.

"Generally, academics who are just going to bring a theoretical understanding are not interested at this time," said Kuypers.

"Disciplines, if they want to be taken seriously, will take a long, hard look before coming out with major opinions," explained Glinert.

However, Green feels that there is a place for academics to promote understanding in American culture.

He praised the example of a colleague in the religion department who is an expert on Islam, Professor Kevin Reinhart, who has been speaking in the surrounding communities about the complexities of Islam.

"That seems to me very representative of what those with something to bring can do," said Green.