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Campuses should be hotbeds of ideas, not just protest

By Avi M. Spiegel / November 6, 2001



The tragic events of September 11 sparked two rallies here at Harvard University. A peace vigil included over 500 people; a rally organized to celebrate patriotism attracted only 50.

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While talk of war takes our nation and media by storm, a new antiwar movement, with teach-ins and demonstrations, galvanizes many universities. As more questions surface about our war effort, students must not allow disillusionment to breed disengagement. In this new environment, our capacity to produce new ideas and inventive policy proposals has often appeared deadlocked in invective.

We can draw on the diverse opinions, backgrounds, and specialties found on campuses to reinvigorate the national debate. As the Pentagon plots military strategy, we should heed their advice to think "outside of the box" - but not just for military solutions.

Our education and divinity students, for example, could work hand in hand with law students to develop an acceptable curriculum for the instruction of religious history in our schools. Surely we can teach about religion without infringing on the separation of church and state. Our religious ignorance has been fatal for Sikhs mistaken for Muslims.

We should help craft a nationwide "America the Beautiful" curriculum, showcasing what makes our country stunning: our religious and ethnic diversity. In this new age of American religious pluralism, we need to teach students about Sikhs and Muslims as well as about the Puritans. Indeed, if Americans knew more about Islam, they might be less likely to dismiss the entire tradition based on the actions of a few extremists.

Students of the arts might unite to make US film and TV more representative. Our most popular exported product should not continue to mislead the world into thinking that all Americans look or think the same. Where are the nation's millions of Buddhists, Hindus, or Bahai's on TV? "Baywatch" continues to be one of the most popular shows in Iran. Is this the only image we want to project?

Public policy and advertising students could team up to battle heroin addiction among the nation's youth, using our newfound antipathy for the world's largest producer of opium as our catalyst. We should do to heroin what Kathy Lee did to sweatshops and child labor.

Finally, all students should lobby, not for the termination of foreign-student visa programs - as some members of Congress have suggested - but for their expansion, and for more cultural-exchange programs. We could begin by sending thousands more American scholars, development volunteers, and students abroad and by bringing more foreign counterparts here.

During my two years of Peace Corps service in Morocco, I was often the first American my fellow villagers had everencountered - let alone the first who spoke Arabic. Since my colleagues and I have returned, we have shared our stories of Morocco and Islam with students here. The Peace Corps should also facilitate bringing foreigners to the United States, and civil-service programs should involve an option for international duty.

If such initiatives were developed, drawing on the diverse perspectives found on American campuses, universities would soon become hotbeds of ideas, not just protest. Constructive, creative engagement with policy would flourish. The nation, then, would have much to learn from its students.

Avi M. Spiegel is a student at Harvard University Divinity School on leave from NYU School of Law.

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