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Last Updated

07 Dec 2002

Source: Washington Post, February 8, 2002.

Schools Translate Terror Into Curriculum Changes

By Amy Argetsinger and Valerie Strauss, Washington Post Staff Writers

The Sept. 11 terror attacks and their aftermath are taking a front-and-center seat in the nation's classrooms, sparking a surge of student interest in topics from Arabic to crisis management and prompting educators in fields as disparate as Islamic studies and microbiology to revamp their courses.

This scramble to stay relevant to current events recalls other upheavals in U.S. education, such as the flurry of studies inspired by the Cold War and the Vietnam War. It is highly unusual, though, for a single crisis to send ripples through such a broad sweep of disciplines -- not just language studies and international relations, but also religion, criminal justice, literature and information technology.

Even some elementary and high school teachers are retooling their typically rigid curricula to reflect the concerns of a changed world. Like many area science teachers, Ptery Iris collected newspaper articles to teach her sixth- and seventh-graders about anthrax and biological warfare.

"I would feel I wasn't doing my duty if I didn't make them aware," said Iris, of Harper's Choice Middle School in Columbia. "This is a momentous thing for our country, and I consider it a teachable moment."

Typically slow to change, academia kicked into high gear to develop new programs after Sept. 11. The University of California at Los Angeles unveiled 50 noncredit seminars on topics from "National Security in the 21st Century" to "Poetry and Loss," while Washington State University drafted a proposal for a master's degree in emergency management. Gaithersburg High School announced plans to become the only high school in Maryland to offer Arabic this fall, and several District schools are adopting a curriculum on terrorism.

But whether Sept. 11 will leave a permanent mark on instruction beyond history textbooks remains uncertain. David W. Breneman, dean of the education school at the University of Virginia, said current events rarely have a lasting effect on courses.

"It's the subject of discussion in class for a brief time" before schools return to old priorities and established scholarship, he said.

Others, though, believe that last fall's events could hold sway over academic life for countless semesters. Lisa Barry, a communications professor at Trinity College in the District, reorganized her course on "Minority Images in American Media" to reflect TV news coverage of Middle Eastern natives. She expects she will return to the themes of Sept. 11 for years.

"It personally affected so many of us," she said.

Some of the sharpest impact of that day has been noted in degree programs focused on professional training. Marymount University in Arlington experienced a significant spike of interest from students in "service" or "front-line" careers, said Chris E. Domes, vice president for enrollment management. Inquiries about Marymount's criminal justice program rose 90 percent, while applications for its nursing school are up 30 percent.

Instructors have moved fast to respond. A University of Maryland health class on stress management now has a chapter on terrorism. John Damino, a professor at Southern Vermont College, added material on technology to his criminal justice classes. From airport security to terrorist surveillance, Sept. 11 has highlighted the use of technology in fighting crime, he said. "We've ramped up what was once a minor part of the curriculum to meet this need."

Others are basking in the sudden interest that their long-overlooked fields now command. American University professor Akbar Ahmed said his new "World of Islam" course is similar to what he would have offered a year ago. Except for the FBI agent he added as a guest speaker. And the waiting list of students vying to enroll.

"In a sense, I've been fighting for this for the past decade," said Ahmed, a veteran Pakistani diplomat. "For someone like me, who has been arguing that these tensions are going to explode, that [Islam] will have an impact in the West . . . it's a great opportunity for scholars."

Ahmed opened the first day of his course last month by fixing his students with a question: Why are you here?

The answers varied across a room filled with students of all races and religions, including a few practicing Muslims. But many acknowledged that Sept. 11 had piqued their curiosity.

"Everything I've learned is from my parents or from my synagogue," said James Rappaport, 20, a junior from Concord, Mass. He said the little he knew about Islam was in relation to the conflicts in Israel, but he was eager to know more.

That kind of open-mindedness characterizes much of the Sept. 11 course work. It's a far cry from the curriculum shakeups of World War II, when educators yanked Wagner, Goethe and German language instruction from classrooms. Today's academics are vigorously trying to promote understanding of other cultures, including those of the terrorists.

Richard Handler said "it was just a natural" to add material about Islamic cultures this spring in his introductory anthropology class at the University of Virginia, where the primary task is "understanding human diversity."

"Even if you are only interested in a military response or a response grounded in power politics, you would want to know who you are dealing with," Handler said. "If you're interested in questions of world community, of people getting along with one another, you also want to know those things."

Like Handler, most instructors are amending their courses to include a few days of reading or discussion focused on Sept. 11. Professor Robert A. Strong created an entirely new one.

The idea came up just days after Sept. 11, in conversations with his dean at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. The topic, they decided, would be terrorism. Strong spent the next few months conferring with experts in the field, drawing up a reading list and recruiting a roster of high-profile guest speakers, including retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni and former national security adviser Anthony Lake. To keep the class rooted in scholarship, Strong touched only lightly on the late-breaking revelations about al Qaeda and focused instead on well-studied terrorist groups such as the Irish Republican Army and Aum Shinrikyo.

"There's an excitement in throwing out all your old syllabi and notes and trying something from scratch," Strong said.

But his efforts illustrate the challenges for educators who seek to respond to current events. Strong would like to keep teaching the course beyond this semester. But the university would have to hire a terrorism expert or cut something important from the curriculum. Strong had to cancel his freshman international relations course this spring to make time for the terrorism seminar.

Similarly, Sam W. Joseph, a cell biologist at the University of Maryland, had to drop his normal discussions of Lyme disease, E. coli, influenza and mad cow disease to restructure half of his epidemiology course around anthrax. He couldn't resist the opportunity to engage his undergraduates with a topic so many were already talking about.

"I thought it would be therapeutic and educational," he said.

Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University's Teachers College, predicted that Sept. 11 would bring small but lasting changes to the academic canon. The study of world civilization will probably emerge with a broader perspective, he said.

But he wondered whether many of the new courses can linger beyond this year. As institutions tighten their belts, "courses that aren't thought of as fundamental are lost."

Yet at the highest levels of academia, educators have expressed a desire to take advantage of an altered climate. At George Washington University, President Stephen J. Trachtenberg -- who signed himself and his vice presidents up for Arabic lessons this spring -- is working to create a center for Abrahamaic studies: the study of the linkages among Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

"We had it on our minds before, but we got greater energy" after Sept. 11, he said. "Now it's not just academic but practical as well."

Staff writer Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.