Panel Calls for Dialogue on 'National State of Fear'

By Robert B. Bluey | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

( - The fighting in Iraq has drawn to a close, but for the nation's schoolchildren, emotions about the war are running high and many questions remain unanswered, a panel of educators, psychiatrists and students said.

The group gathered in Washington, D.C., Tuesday for an informal discussion on the consequences of teaching students about war and the best way to address their fears in the age of terrorism.

While the panel came to no concrete conclusions - it was billed as a discussion - the six participants and a couple dozen audience members called for the creation of a national commission to stimulate dialogue on the topic.

"It could be a beautiful experience to start processing some of this pain we've gone through in the past several years," said Jimmy Kirkpatrick, editor of and a senior fellow at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution. "I think we need a broad-based dialogue with religious communities, military communities, education communities, parents, children - get everyone together and start the dialogue."

Student participants shared their classroom experiences, including the impact that events like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had on their lives.

Clarence Cross III, a senior at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in Washington, D.C., experienced the shock of the terrorist attacks in a classroom with other students. He said his teacher's reaction - who immediately condemned Osama bin Laden - sticks with him to this day.

It's hard for teachers not to bring their opinions into the classroom, Cross said. At his school, he said he was fortunate to observe a diversity of viewpoints, including a teacher who shared anti-war sentiments with students.

"With anthrax, the sniper and now SARS, everything's been emotionally draining," Cross said. "The teachers are there to comfort and teach, yet they have their own political agenda, which they abide by. It is a difficult task to ask them to teach about war, something's that so opinionated, and for them to do it from an objective standpoint."

Keeping personal opinions out of the classroom is crucial to the healthy development of students, said Dr. Eliot Sorel, a physician and professor of psychiatry at George Washington University.

"It is really not, I believe, the role of the teacher to take a political position about the war," Sorel said. "The role of the teacher is to teach about the war."

Sorel acknowledged that it's sometimes easier said than done. Like Kirkpatrick, he also encouraged a dialogue on the topic, but he said it didn't need to be done only at a national level. He told audience members to start talking at their congregations or schools.

Teaching about war is always difficult, Sorel said, but it's particularly tough now because of the circumstances facing Americans. He said the country has been under "significant and unprecedented sustained stress" since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The nation as a whole and specific regions endured a stream of stressful moments, from fear about opening mail because of anthrax to the Columbia space shuttle disaster. The war in Iraq only heightened those fears, he said.

"Between factors of the anteceding pervasive violence in our nation, coupled with the sustained stress of these serial events since Sept. 11, has created a national state of fear," Sorel said.

One way to help students cope is simply to listen, said Maj. Nancy Black, a practicing physician and program director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Although panelists differed on the best way to address the current conflict in Iraq, they appeared to agree that it was better to focus on its historical context rather than specific events.

Former teacher Joe David, author of The Fire Within, said memorizing names and places is worthless because it leaves students with little context about how the war in Iraq compared to past struggles.

Kirkpatrick said following that approach has become increasingly difficult, especially with the onset of high-stakes testing. Teachers are also left with little time to adequately address complex subjects when they're forced to compete with all of the activities in students' lives these days.

Given the fragile state of the nation, Kirkpatrick said people might be asking for too much.

"This country has been through a tremendous amount of trauma," he said. "No one's given us any time to process any of this pain. It's one hit right after another. People are screaming at each at other, we're screaming at our educators."

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