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This Vietnam vet says: let's hear from the Taliban

Arlington County's decision to cancel a debate in which some eighth graders would have had to defend the Taliban proves once again how vulnerable good teachers are to well-meaning but short-sighted parents. Maybe 13 year olds are a bit young for this vital examination of the enemy in Afghanistan, but if I hear of any high schools imposing similar limits on student debate, I will be very upset.

I have seen my country go through many phases of fear and resentment since I watched my first political convention on television in 1952. Like all human cultures, we tend to demonize whomever is killing our troops, and I understand that. But as Americans we have also had the intellectual stamina to try to understand what the bad guys are thinking, and the Arlington decision goes against that.

Our involvement in the Vietnam war was just getting started when I was in high school. The anti-war movement got very hot my senior year of college, when I saw hundreds of students prevent the U.S. Secretary of Defense from leaving a building where he had been speaking ((I was watching as a reporter for the campus paper).

Within six months of my college graduation I was in basic training in Ft. Lewis, Wash., having asked my draft board to take me. A year later I was in Vietnam. A year after that I was in graduate school in Asian studies, where that war was a leading topic.

I don't recall any effort to present the views of the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong in high school, but I am certain my teachers and classmates could have handled it. There was LOTS of that kind of debate in college and grad school, and in the army too. It is part of being an American to try to see other points of view.

From my ill-informed perspective, the Taliban seem to me to have fewer arguments in their favor (how do they defend their abuse of women?) than the Viet Cong did, but that is just one more reason why I would like to hear from some U.S. high school tenth-grader who has looked into this and come up with the best he or she can find in their favor.

I understand why this upsets some people, but consider this: The Vietnamese Communists killed many more Americans than the Taliban ever will, yet we spent a lot of time talking about their viewpoint, and I don't think were harmed by that debate. Arlington has some of the best schools, and smartest eighth graders, in the nation. I wonder if the school district cannot be persuaded to let a few of them make the Taliban case, and our case, on public TV. I would watch that even if it conflicted with "American Idol."

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By Jay Mathews  | December 15, 2009; 12:18 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Arlington County, Vietnam debate, banning Taliban debate, good teachers, well-meaning but short-sighted parents  
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It was certainly correct to stop the debate.

There was no debate in Congress regarding widening the war in Afghanistan. Why should there be debate in middle schools?

Let these students start thinking about their careers in jobs where insulation and caulking is sexy.

Caulking guns should be provided to children as part of their education for the American jobs of the 21st century.

Obama promotes home energy efficiency programBy JULIE PACE
The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 15, 2009; 11:38 AM
WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama said Tuesday that home insulation "is sexy,"

Posted by: bsallamack | December 15, 2009 2:08 PM | Report abuse

A free and appropriate education---how free and who decides appropriate. Censorship has reigned supreme, especially in the lower grades, for a long time. Who is the person who can decide what is best for both my child and yours? Why not hold forums but require "opt in" slips. We can act just like the Federal government when we want :).

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | December 15, 2009 5:38 PM | Report abuse

Jay, I agree with you in principle. Some place along the line, students need to learn to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions. They need to learn to recognize ideologs and zealots for what they are. Admins, like parents, can be too protective, too permissive, and just right and of course they should be adjusting things as kids mature. The big question is when to do that in a case such as trying to understand the Taliban. Applying logic here may be quite frustrating.

Posted by: igneous1 | December 15, 2009 8:22 PM | Report abuse

You forgot to mention that we attacked Vietnam, they did not attack us, just like we attacked Iraq.

People forget that Vietnam had been fighting against colonial powers for 100 years when we stepped in after the French. They finally got free when we got soundly beaten by them. We definitely lost that war but we sure didn't learn. We were wearing the black hat in Vietnam. I want to wear the white hat that goes with being the good guys.

Posted by: deejoshy | December 15, 2009 9:14 PM | Report abuse

I'm startled to see how few comments there are to this. My chronology mirrors Jay's (HS and college in the 1960s, in uniform, too), and Vietnam was THE BIGGEST thing for years and years. Now he cites our experiences then by way of example for something to do today, and gets very little feedback.
For what it's worth, I think he is absolutely correct here. I can think of almost nothing that HS students are unable to discuss and profit from, even sexual subjects. To those who disagree, should we not discuss "sex-ting" with them? HS students are forming their views of the world. A disinterested teacher who simply puts things on the table and then facilitates discussion could help them in so many ways.
Arlington was wrong to curtail this assignment.

Posted by: LoveIB | December 16, 2009 8:06 AM | Report abuse

Ignoring the immediate controversy, this debate spotlights one of the primary purposes of the public education system which is indoctrination. It's not like that's really much of a secret although quite a few people seem loath to acknowledge the fact. Once that fact's accepted though the only real question is who does the indoctrinating?

Whether it's people who believe in global warming or don't believe in evolution, the structure of the public education system makes it a prime candidate for their machinations and, I would add, not to the benefit of readin', writin' and 'rithmatic, the politically palatable purpose of the public education system. Pardon the alliteration. It's my dream to be a headline writer for "Variety".

If you accept the premise that the urge to "catch 'em young and train 'em right" is to too tempting to avoid then the indoctrinational aspect of public education is largely inevitable. If your views are the ones being pounded into young and uncritical heads then indoctrination's obviously a good idea. If you haven't managed to insert your views into the curriculum, well, hope springs eternal.

One of the questions that hangs in the air once you acknowledge that public education exists to some degree as in instrument of indoctrination is "what's the cost?" How damaging is indoctrination to education?

If you ask one of those ideologues who hopes to promote their great truths by enlisting at tax payer expense a cadre of uncritical apostles, there's no damage. What they want to teach kids is so obviously true and valuable that objections come only from the ignorant or the stupid and who cares what they think?

So you can't trust the people whose only agenda item is to improve the human condition. They're too worried about all children, about the entire human race, to concern themselves with each, individual child.

Of course that doesn't answer the question of who you can trust to concern themselves with each, individual child but the answer to that question's self-evident.

Posted by: allenm1 | December 16, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

I was 21 or so when the war in Vietnam got started. Between a pretty good education, conversations with vets and reading CATCH 22 I knew that the military was no place for me.
Facts about the war that I learned at
teach-ins and the like and my own independent reading convinced me that I had to do my best to not support it in any way.

The Afghanis, like the Vietnamese, have been fighting off different empires for centuries. When they're invaded, they unite to kick out the invaders so they can go back to fighting each other. As long as the Taliban seems (to the Afghanis) as a credible force for getting rid of the invaders, they'll receive support from them.

The Taliban didn't start this war. They had nothing to do with the events of September '01. The people who were alleged to were Saudis who were guests of theirs. whom they were willing to turn over to the Americans if their guilt were proven. The Americans refused to turn over any evidence and instead began bombing.

A thirteen year old who did the research to try to discover the motivations of the Taliban would be forced to speculate about the motivations of their own government. They would be getting the tools they're going to need in a few short years when they're eligible to vote.

I don't remember the other possible debates, but I remember that none of them involved overt action by the US. In other words, they were invited to have spirited debate about topics that had no direct relevance to their lives, and not allowed to debate the topic that is likely to have a profound effect on their lives.

Posted by: Clarence4 | December 16, 2009 11:21 PM | Report abuse

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