Posted December 2, 2009

Weekly teach-ins go beyond the headlines

Judge who decided landmark evolution case speaks at final event of the semester

Teach-ins, a signature of university life in the 1960s, are alive and well at Temple through popular weekly discussions led by history professor Ralph Young, himself a child of that era.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the promise of a highly charged debate over intelligent design vs. evolution brought more than 275 students and faculty to a discussion with the Honorable Judge John Jones, the federal judge who ruled that teaching intelligent design in public high school went against the First Amendment separation of church and state in the 2005 case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.

The topic was especially timely as the world marks the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his “Origin of the Species.” Almost a century ago, in 1925, many believed that the famous Scopes Trial would settle the issue about teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution but, as Jones explained, controversy has raged ever since.

Looking at a contemporary issue through the historical prism as Jones did is exactly what Young seeks to do through his Friday Teach-Ins, now in their eighth year. Another key element is that students are part of running the show.

“Teach-ins work best when the students get engaged in the discussion, not so much in the form of a Q&A where the presenter is the authority, but rather in the form of a dialogue,” said Young. “I try not to put too much of myself into the discussion because I want them to feel that they have ownership. It needs to be their thing.” 

The first teach-in, which drew 2,000 at the University of Michigan in March, 1965, was followed two months later by the largest ever teach-in, which drew 30,000 at Berkeley. With fury and frustration over the Vietnam War uniting vast numbers of young people, teach-ins grew out of a collective need to disagree with the establishment.

“At the first teach-in students and faculty discussed and argued the different aspects of why the U.S. should and shouldn’t be in Vietnam for 11 hours straight,” said Young. “President Johnson’s Operation Rolling Thunder, an aerial bombing campaign, was underway and students were alarmed at the prospect of the draft.”

Created in 2001 when Young noticed that students were lingering after class to continue discussions, Temple’s teach-ins allow students to look beneath the headlines. And they have proved extremely valuable in educating students about the art of listening and the value of expressing oneself.

“The forums stimulate their thinking and get them to participate in intellectual life,” said Young, who has repeatedly witnessed students develop and hone their critical thinking and public speaking skills as they participate.

He’s also impressed by the passion he’s continued to see in Temple students, a quality that was evident to Judge Jones, who visited Young’s “Dissent in America” and “Trials in America” classes while at Temple for his teach-in.

“It’s sort of an intellectual renewal for me when I get to be around bright students,” said Jones. “It’s instructive for me to hear what’s on their minds. I love the opportunity to have dialogue with students.”

One of the most popular and most moving teach-ins at Temple featured a former student who had served as a marine in Iraq. Young also recalls powerful teach-ins on Katrina and racism and with Michael Berg, the father of Nick Berg, a U.S. contractor who was beheaded in Iraq.

Young says he’s encouraging students to be involved in their own time, which is exactly what freshman Honors student Kate Kendall did.

“I always thought intelligent design was simply evolution as directed by an intelligent designer,” she said. “Either I was taught it wrong or got the wrong impression. Today, I heard a different way of looking at it.”

Young will spend the holiday break scheduling next semester’s teach-ins. Topics under consideration range from the graphic novel, “Persepolis” to U.S. Army marketing to life as a Palestinian American.