To think more globally, talk more locally

As a graduate student in international relations, Ahsen Khan spends a good deal of his time pondering big topics: globalization, diplomatic initiatives, conflict resolution - that sort of thing.

But last week, on a bright, late-fall morning, his focus was a lot more basic. Standing in front of a group of seniors at Boston's New Mission High School, the Canadian-born Muslim tried to explain how to point yourself in the direction of Mecca.

It was just one of many questions he and his colleagues fielded as part of their effort to respond to the Sept. 11 attacks. If others could give blood or send donations, they decided they could team up behind an equally practical and potentially far-reaching idea: direct contact that would lend fresh perspectives and humanity to a conversation that has become a daily part of many high-schoolers' lives.

"Indirectly, we felt that by making such visits, we were striking a blow against everything the terrorists stood for: the hatred, the division, the fear, the ignorance," says Peter Neisuler, who, like Mr. Khan, attends the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., where they study Islamic civilizations.

Such ideas have been gaining ground nationwide. Whether hosting foreign-policy experts, Muslims, and military veterans, or participating in Web exchanges with students in Islamic countries, schools across the United States have been seeking new ways to help students grapple with the complex issues surrounding Sept. 11.

This week, many schools are responding to President Bush's request to invite veterans to speak to students. Dubbed "National Veterans Awareness Week," its aim is to have veterans relay their firsthand experiences - and also teach about the value of freedom.

For Valerie Vasti, the high school's curriculum coordinator, it's an important piece of students' education - and one teachers have to take advantage of. "We're in a tremendously tragic, but very teachable moment," she says.

On this particular morning, seated in a classroom in this weathered building, students get right to the point.

Would you be willing to kill for your religion?" asks student Paul McKoy.

Khan responds that he prefers fighting with a "pen and knowledge."

"And besides," adds Mr. Neisuler, "Islam doesn't say that if you have a problem with some people, you should go out and kill them."

Although the seniors are clearly well versed on the events and history surrounding the attacks, several say they have found real value in speaking to a Muslim for the first time.

Student Patrick Wallace says he was "surprised to hear how few Muslims actually support Osama bin Laden."

And, Valon Gregory says, "it was really interesting to discuss whether we should bomb during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan."

He, along with about a quarter of the class, raised their hands unhesitatingly when Neisuler asked how many agreed with US military activities in Afghanistan.

About the same number didn't agree, while half indicated mixed feelings.

Their responses don't quite jibe with a nationwide survey of young people taken last week by Newsweek magazine. About 85 percent of those polled favored the current military action, while 83 percent said they approved of Mr. Bush's job performance.

Most likely, though, it's just too early in the war on terrorism to gauge whether students in general will be more like those during World War II, when campuses and the country were united, or Vietnam, when a historic clash emerged.

What students in the poll and at New Mission do seem to agree on, however, is that the future is increasingly unpredictable, and that values and assumptions will be tested in the next few years.

"Won't we be attacked again?" asks Patrick Wallace, a diminutive guy wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt.

Neisuler responds, "The best battlefield each of us can fight in is in our own head, not to let fear get to us."

Khan goes on to discuss what it feels like to be "profiled" as a Muslim American. Even before Sept. 11, he says, he got second looks from US airport officials when he flew back from visiting his family in Pakistan.

"As a son of immigrants from Pakistan, I feel like I am from neither here nor there," he says.

Later, Neisuler questions whether we will decide to give up our civil liberties in exchange for safety.

But the humanities teacher, Kona Roberts, challenges his use of the collective "we." His class has been reading "Howard's End," which has led them to discuss the concept of artificial unity.

"As minorities, we truly don't reflect the decisions that are being made," Mr. Roberts says, looking around at a class full of African-Americans and Hispanics.

"Who of you can walk into a store in [an affluent part of town] and not get second looks?"

But Patrick is quick to rebuke his teacher, saying, "This is the time to put our differences aside and say 'we.' "

After class, Roberts says he is proud of Patrick for standing up to him.

"We're all in this learning together, sharing how our experiences affect our beliefs, and vice versa," he says.

When asked if teachers at the school have struggled to hold back their own beliefs about Sept. 11, Ms. Vasti says no.

Most Americans were shocked by the attacks, but young people lacked any context and need to be exposed to a wide range of perspectives, she says.

E-mail sara@csmonitor.com.

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