Teaching high school students about `star wars,' nuclear issues

``Maybe `star wars' research isn't such a bad idea,'' says Scott Divitta, a senior at Sunset High School here in Hayward. ``I mean, if it's only 3 percent of the military budget; and if it saves lives . . . .'' Scott's comments were in response to a talk given at Sunset High by Thomas Thompson, a weapons designer from Lawrence Livermore Laboratories who supports the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The two-day series of pro-and-con talks at the school was one of many similar programs taking place in high schools around the country, anticipating the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Geneva, which begins tomorrow.

Sunset High history teacher David Payne had engaged Dr. Thompson through the California chapter of Educators for Social Responsibility, a teacher organization based in Cambridge, Mass., which seeks to educate students on nuclear-age issues. ESR itself sponsored a presummit national program last week called ``Days of Dialogue, 1985: Finding Common Ground.'' Schools in Baltimore; Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; St. Louis; Philadelphia; and New York took part.

ESR president Tony Wagoner says the pre-summit education was not a form of preaching, but teaching. ``No one has the answers to the large questions being raised in Geneva,'' he says. ``Therefore, we are trying to complicate the issues in the minds of students.''

There is a national debate as to whether such ``nuclear age education'' should be taught. Some fundamentalist groups oppose it, and it is frowned upon by leadership in the United States Department of Education. Critics say such programs expose students to fear tactics, bias, and an unrealistic view of the Soviet Union.

During his morning at Sunset High, Thompson filled two blackboards four times in describing to groups of students how SDI entered the national debate. He took students through a brief history of warfare, then focused on the development of modern war -- from citizen soldiers, to airplanes, to missiles -- and told how the lines between the East and West were formed after World War II. He also familiarized students with such terms as ``destabilizing,'' ``builddown,'' and ``mutually assured desruction.'' T his was to give students a context for the SDI debate.

Mr. Payne says he is certain students benefited from the presentation: In preparing them for the discussion, for example, he found that many at the more than 50 percent Hispanic school did not know what an ICBM was. After the talk, students on both sides of the issue agreed the discussion had been useful and important.

Physicist Scott Corman, one of Thompson's colleagues, who was also present at Sunset, agrees. He feels students need to learn the facts. Too often, he says, ``Kids go home and see `The Day After' or `Dr. Strangelove' and think they understand the problem.'' The flip side of the ``ignorance problem,'' Dr. Corman says, is that students decide war is evil, and therefore decide that ``we don't want to deal with it.''

Thompson noted that, in his experience, students' parents were often poorly informed as well.

The next day, students heard Hugh Dewitt, a physicist also from Livermore, who opposes SDI research. In a phone interview, Dr. Dewitt said he told students the arms race is ``out of control, dangerous, and not benefiting the security of either side.'' He discussed the reasons for a test-ban treaty, along with its now-certain verifiability. He stressed the importance not of technical but of political solutions to eliminate the nuclear threat.

As for the question of ``nuclear age education,'' Dewitt says it is urgent that Americans form educated opinions on the issues of the day -- ``High school is not too early to start.''

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