EVERY year I teach a class about nuclear war. Until now, it has been what George Lopez of Notre Dame calls a ``Gloom and Doom 101'' course, focusing on the threat of global annihilation. I'd always been able to get away with that. Students seemed satisfied understanding the danger and expressing their outrage about what we in the older generation had let happen. This year was different. They wanted more: a reason for hope. They asked new questions that went beyond the dangers of nuclear war - that went to the larger question of what it means to live in a globally interdependent world.
From what colleagues at other schools and in the peace movement tell me, people everywhere are beginning to voice those concerns and demand answers to those questions. If so, the time has come for peace educators and peace activists alike to shift gears.
Thinking back on this year's class, I see evidence of this change in three ways.
First, my students have moved beyond outrage. Almost all of them entered the course already convinced that we dare not fight a nuclear war. Instead of asking who to blame for the threat, they wanted to know what could be done to ease it.
Second, they ``knew'' the cold war is over. All but the most conservative assumed that we could now work out our remaining differences with the Soviets without great difficulty. Indeed, I found myself in the unprecedented situation of urging caution, stressing the serious divisions that remain.
Third, and most important, they were far more willing to see the nuclear threat as part of a larger global crisis. It seemed obvious to them that we live on an interdependent planet and that our problems are so intertwined that they cannot be tackled separately. Most, too, now accepted my argument that widely different problems - from the threat of extinction in nuclear war to the explosion of so many nuclear families - have roots in the values and assumptions we use in coping with conflict.
What's more, they were willing to consider equally far-reaching proposals for solving the crisis. Even a year ago, most found my ideas about ``new thinking'' and a world without war attractive but impractical. This year all but four of the 76 students wrote final papers arguing that only broadly based international cooperation could end the arms race or solve any of those other problems that imperil civilization. And for the first time ever, the focus of the course shifted away from what is wrong toward what each of us can do to make things right.
So I've come to the conclusion that we need to shift our teaching away from doom and gloom. There are still huge gaps in what my students and people in general know about the dangers we face. Nonetheless, because most of them already know that our planet is in deep trouble, it's probably counterproductive to continue focusing on the problems, since doing so only seems to make them feel even more powerless.
We need to concentrate instead on the questions my students were forcing me to deal with. Are the issues we face ``superordinate,'' solvable only through the cooperation of many nations? Can we produce a world without war without providing a world without hunger or pollution or injustice? What are the appropriate ethical values for our ever-shrinking planet? What should we be doing as individuals now that we know that everything we do at least indirectly influences everything and everyone else? Will it take putting the good of the whole planet first, ahead of our national or individual interest to guarantee our survival?
Don't get me wrong. We still have to ask the tough questions. Should we build SDI? How should we react to Gorbachev's latest proposals? What will it take to maintain our deterrent given the Soviets' new weapons? These remain important issues that must still have a central place in our classes and our organizing efforts.
But my students - and people like them around the country - are right. Thinking about peace means more than thinking about the end of war, for even if the cold war really does end, all those issues will still be on the agenda.
Thinking about peace also means thinking about new ways of living with each other, and with all life. Thinking about peace finally means thinking about new ways to inspire people to help create a world that works.
During this trying semester, I often found myself thinking back to the questions of my generation in the 1960s. It took a long time for our parents and teachers to understand that it was time to change. I just hope we respond to the questions today's students are beginning to ask a lot faster than they did!