by William Alexander
Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 59-62
I devoted my lecture that Tuesday to My Lai and to Stanley Milgram's experiments in obedience to authority. That afternoon students saw INTERVIEWS WITH MY LAI VETERANS. On Wednesday I sat in on one of the student-led small groups. Before we could start any kind of structured discussion, Mike stormed in, flustered and anxious to recount an experience he had just come from. His English professor, returning mid-term exams, had chastised the students for parroting him. Mike, very indignant, had wanted to leap up and confront the professor, to tell him that he had been parroted because for the past six weeks he had consistently put down or ignored any student with a view contrary to his own. After a while I asked Mike the question he begged: why had he held his peace? What followed was an extraordinary full-period session in which the students analyzed their diffidence and in some instances their uncontrollable fear of challenging their teachers. Often the emotions were based on particular negative experiences. Because the discussion was so charged, it was too important to divert. Besides, as I realized after some minutes, they were in fact discussing the willingness of most of the soldiers at My Lai to obey corrupt authority, displacing that willingness to themselves in a distant but comparable situation.
The next term I taught an Introduction to Fiction course. I gave students all sorts of individual learning options on whether they would take exams, on what kinds of exams they would take, and on the sizes and due dates of papers. The spirit was fairly good, and the forty-five of us carried on a decent, passable discussion, but one with little engagement in the provocative texts I had assigned or with one another. In the seventh week I expressed my disappointment over this and suggested that they were wasting the huge amount of money they and their parents were paying for an education they were not committing themselves to. The response, in the vigorous discussion that ensued, was that most of them were afraid to speak up because they might be thought stupid, might be laughed at by fellow students or otherwise insulted. They equated challenging other students' points of view with insulting them. They said, "We're all in this together," not, I learned, together in an eager learning endeavor, but together defending against what they see to be a competitive, judgmental environment in which right and wrong and all the rewards are handed down from above and in which they are given little real acknowledgment and respect.
Two years ago, in my course The Art of the Film: Vietnam and the Artist, a student wrote that she has only two memories of the war in Vietnam. She remembers the fifth grade fad for POW bracelets, which ended before she could get one. And she remembers prowling with a friend through her older brothers room and finding a bumper sticker with bold black letters: "M.I.A. OR GONE FOR GOOD — ONLY HANOI KNOWS. She didn't understand M.I.A. or know where Hanoi is, but was mesmerized:
Until two years ago that was the extent of her experience of and knowledge about the war in Vietnam.
These three representative stories tell us that in our educational institutions today, students are experiencing and learning the acquiescence, the quiescence and obedience, the alienation, hostility, and powerlessness, and the ignorance of crucial events in our history that can permit high authority to carry out murderous and illicit actions with a minimum of resistance. It has been documented, for instance, that students in our schools and homes are now told little about the war in Vietnam and that much of what they are told is distorted and evasive. We stand accused as a nation of having failed to come to grips with that war. In fact, it is clear that we have continued the war in an alternate manner since 1975 - and we have been asked to draw comparisons with the dim knowledge German youth have of the holocaust.
Let me generalize a little more. Increasingly at every level our education is narrowly vocational. Our students learn to fit niches prepared for them and to be indifferent and passive in the face of local and global wrong. Those who parrot the teacher and feel powerless and alienated from each other are eager to join any organization that makes them feel wanted and important. These factors make them both reluctant and unequipped to be critically conscious of the practices of such a parent organization, nor do they wish or know how to unite to challenge it when it is unjust.
Jonathan Kozol argues that basic training begins in kindergarten, and it is clear that acceptance of authority runs deep. Milgram reports:
Milgram places a considerable burden for this obedience on schooling, where "the first twenty years of the young persons life are spent functioning as a subordinate element in an authority system" where s/he learns that "deference is the only appropriate and comfortable response to authority."
Schools teach students that they themselves are not important actors in history, but people who must learn to see both sides of a question, be objective, and get the answers right. They are not taught to be passionate, but neutral. They are not taught how to hold humane values above other values, nor are they taught methods for speaking out and asserting alternative frameworks in situations where injustices are being sold, imposed, or propagated. Classrooms and teachers do not empower them to do their own thinking and acting, and so they do not see themselves as people who can change their worlds.
In courses on Vietnam, at the very least, where murderous and illicit actions by high authority are revealed and studied, there must also be a pedagogical style that abolishes unthinking obedience, quiescence, alienation, hostility, powerlessness, and the propensity not to know and not to know how to know the existence of painful and unjust events. It is not the text and lecture alone, but also the method of a course that forms its content and message. Structure in fact is political: as is much too often the case, it can permit and reinforce passivity, complacency, alienation, and cynicism, or it can undercut them. The appropriate pedagogy for a course on Vietnam is an empowering pedagogy.
The parallel theories of the Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino ("Towards a Third Cinema"), the Brazilian theatre activist Augusto Boal (Theater of the Oppressed) and the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) give us some useful access to the nature and significance of such a pegagogy.
According to Solanas and Getino, first (Hollywood) cinema transmits in content, style, and viewing context the values of the dominant neo-colonial powers. It dominates Latin American screens, reinforcing, viewer acquiescence in the values and ways of the oppressor. Second (new wave) cinema is a step forward. Using nonstandard cinematic language, it attempts cultural decolonization. Yet it caters to a select liberal intellectual audience, and while raising societal problems, rarely concerns itself with the politics of change. Third cinema develops radical forms, directly addresses the issues of political change, is often made under adverse circumstances, and is viewed in non-traditional settings, all factors that tend to activate the spectator.
Their film HOUR OF THE FURNACES was made and shown clandestinely in apartments, union halls, and other such settings.
Both by taking the risk of entering this liberated space and through the dynamic use made of this space (which also meant moments in which the film itself called for the projector to be turned off so that debate could begin), the spectator became "an actor, a more important protagonist than those who appeared in the films."
Boal's three kinds of theater, or poetics, correspond to the three cinemas. Aristotle's poetics is the "poetics of oppression":
Brecht's poetics are those of the enlightened vanguard:
The poetics of the oppressed is the poetics of liberation:
Its "main objective" is to "change the people — 'spectators,' passive beings in the theatrical phenomenon — into subjects, into actors, transformers of the dramatic action." Brechtian poetics bring "an awakening of critical consciousness," while in the poetics of the oppressed, the spectator
Freire opposes banking pedagogy, or education for domestication, to a dialogical pedagogy, or empowering education. Banking is
The teacher thinks and the students are thought about, the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply, the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher.
Dialogical teachers, on the other hand, engage with their students in a loving and risk-taking interchange whose purpose is to investigate and analyze the contemporary world and contemporary relations in their local manifestations and to empower the students to transform that world. Instead of passively listening and instead of participating in ways that reinforce the hierarchical structure of learning, students intervene in the structure, content, and goals of learning, because they realize something is at stake and know they have an active role in responding to it.
Banking education, first cinema, and Aristotelian poetics maintain the status quo. Experimental education, second cinema, and Brechtian poetics raise consciousness. Dialogical education, third cinema, and the poetics of the oppressed undermine the status quo, disrupt traditional spaces, raise consciousness, and transform spectators into actors in the world.
Since the winter term (January-April) of 1976, I have taught each year but one an elective, 400-level film course first subtitled "The Holocaust, Hiroshima, Vietnam and the Artist", then "The Holocaust, Vietnam, and the Artist", and now "Vietnam and the Artist." 150 students fill the course each year. In each version of the course, there has been a unit on United States intervention in Latin America. This coming fall (1984) I am substituting a unit on the arms race, while providing extra sessions for discussion around EL SALVADOR: ANOTHER VIETNAM and WHEN THE MOUNTAINS TREMBLE.
My intention each time I have taught the course has been to help my students and myself overcome our distance from such occurrences. I have hoped the course might help us find values and models which, could we integrate them deeply enough, would permit us at least some moderate resistance in the face of comparable events. More bluntly, I have attempted to reveal to my students things normally hidden from them, and I have attempted to start in them a process of politicization on their own terms. [open notes in new window] Over these years also, I have increasingly attempted to develop an appropriate pedagogy, that is, I have attempted, in a very different context, to achieve some semblance of the empowering strategies of Solanas and Getino, Boal, and Freire. I have done this so that my students might become more than passive receptors of my teaching and of the new concepts and knowledge I provide them, so that they may know personally their ability to take over a space that is normally hierarchical and oppressive.
Before I describe the course in detail, I should say a few words about the context in which I work. My circumstances are common to many other four-year residential colleges and universities, but absent from most two-year college and other four-year college and university settings. In such institutions, teachers must work out variations on the pedagogy I advocate under more restrictive and trying conditions. The University of Michigan is a public university with 22,000 undergraduates. Nearly one-third the students are from out-of-state, 51% of them come from the upper tenth of their high school classes, and 83% from the upper fifth; the overall high school CPA is 3.58. In the past two years the parental median income for entering students has gone from $37,600 to $46,300 (1983), and the percentage of students with parents making over $30,000 has risen from 65% to 76%. Minority enrollment is at 10.5%, but black student enrollment has declined from a high of 6.9% in 1977 to 4.9% in 1983-1984. This elite public university has decided to solve its economic problems, caused by Michigan's industrial decline and high unemployment rate, by constantly raising tuition and seeking Defense Department dollars. While the student body is increasingly affluent and professionally oriented, however, the University also has a long liberal student tradition and was in the sixties and continues to be a site of radical student action, attracting enrollment on that reputation. As I write, ten students, and one recent graduate, members of the Progressive Student Network, await trial on trespassing charges for blockading the lab of a professor engaged in military research.
In "Vietnam and the Artist" I lecture for one hour on Tuesday and the film is shown that night. I lecture in order to provide information, to raise issues and stimulate thought, and to confirm in the students some sense of my experience, so that my relinquishing of power in other aspects of the course (students often take over the lecture too) is recognized as purposeful, not lazy or irresponsible.
On Wednesday and Thursday morning student-led, ungraded small group meetings give students opportunity to deal together with the provocative and isolating, sometimes frightening experiences they first have had to deal with alone. Student facilitators, people who have taken the course or a similar one before, meet with the groups, help them deal with group problems, and help keep the discussion at a high level. For this, and for a weekly journal, weekly meetings together, and for reading Freire, Jonathan Kozol (The Night is Dark and I am Far from Home), Beth Reed ("Gender Issues in Training Group Leaders"), Carl Rogers (Freedom to Learn) Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis (Schooling in Capitalist America) and several essays, the facilitators receive three hours credit.
Then on Thursday comes a two-hour full-class discussion, which sometimes takes on the agony of our individual feelings, often a probing investigative analysis of the material and issues, sometimes the gentleness and intimacy of the best small groups, and sometimes the aggressive anger which is another common response to the material. In these discussions, with careful pressure from me, we try to speak honestly and not rhetorically, and we try to understand those matters that the films, readings, and students' own interests provoke — matters like violence, guilt and responsibility, power, obedience, resistance, hatred, racism, sexism, classism, education, geopolitics and the U.S. standard of living, the control of information, risk-taking, the use of creative talent, and love. In addition, and most importantly, I urge students to form special interest groups at any time, to take over the lecture and two-hour discussion individually or in numbers, and to create their own works of art or other alternatives to a term paper. I ask them to enter into dialogue, if necessary to debate, with me and their other readers in weekly journals and in class, and I encourage and reward risk-taking.
The films and readings have varied over the years. In the fall of 1983 we saw WHY VIETNAM?, IN THE YEAR OF THE PIG, HEARTS AND MINDS, four films made by the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese film studios (A DAY OF PLANE HUNTING, WOMEN OF TELECOMMUNICATIONS STATION #6, YOUNG PUPPETEERS OF VIETNAM, STRUGGLE FOR LIFE), COMING HOME, BREAKER MORANT, BURN, a video tape titled BODY COUNT, INTERVIEWS WITH MY LAI VETERANS, ASHES AND EMBERS, SOLDIER GIRLS, THE PASSION OF ANNA, THE DEERHUNTER, APOCALYPSE NOW, FAR FROM VIETNAM, THE WAR AT HOME, JONAH WHO WILL BE 25 IN THE YEAR 2000, BLOOD OF THE CONDOR, CONTROLING INTEREST, and EL SALVADOR ANOTHER VIETNAM. (1982 films included THE 17th PARALLEL, ROLLING THUNDER, NO VIETNAMESE EVER CALLED ME NIGGER, YEAR ZERO, THE SILENT DEATH OF CAMBODIA, and part one of HOUR OF THE FURNACES.) The readings were Hugh Higgins' VIETNAM, Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War, poems from Denise Levertov's The Freeing of the Dust, the Vietnam pages in Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will, David Rabe's Streamers, Jonathan Kozol's The Night is Dark and I am Far from Home, and Susan George's How the Other Half Dies. This fall I am dropping IN THE YEAR OF THE PIG and BLOOD OF THE CONDOR, Rabe and George, and am adding COUNTDOWN FOR AMERICA, DARK CIRCLE, and WAR WAGES, as well as Albert Camus' The Plague and a course pack of readings on nuclear war.
Because the issues are so strong, students become impatient with what they consider over-attention to cinematic style, and so in discussing the films, we focus mostly on the issues. But we also see those issues in terms of their filmic presentation. As in any film course, we review a shot, scene, or sequence in class and attempt to understand its values, politics, and purposes according to how it is shot. We also debate, with WHY VIETNAM? and HEARTS AND MINDS for instance, the nature of documentary film and of propaganda. And we discuss Hollywood's inevitable distortion of the Vietnam experience and consider alternative forms of political art, using ASHES AND EMBERS, NO VIETNAMESE EVER CALLED ME NIGGER, FAR FROM VIETNAM, BLOOD OF THE CONDOR, and so on.
The course structure I have described, with is various discussion settings, its stress on dialogue, its openness about projects and format, and its encouragement of the student to take over the class, complements these films and readings and my efforts to spur students towards decision about their own politics. It gives students many different methods and contexts for approaching Vietnam and encourages independent creative response. I mean this structure — especially the opportunity it gives students to take some of their professor's normally sacrosanct power from him — to give them a sense of their own power and their individual and collective responsibility to themselves and the course material. I hope those who take advantage of the opportunities serve as models for their peers. I wish all of them to see that although institutions habitually narrow in their human options, and thus dehumanize them, they can also be opened up. By creating a course no less demanding but much less dogmatic than the large majority of their courses in our major research university, I wish them to learn to seek more respect, responsibility, and equality in other classes and later, in situations and institutions where power is shared much less freely than I have been sharing it.
Here I may have had some success. One group the first year — two veterans (one a Green Beret who learned to kill well but finished the war on a hill with opium, calling in false ambush reports; the other an army intelligence officer who interrogated during torture sessions), an anti-war activist, and a younger man who spent the late war years at Culver Military Academy — formed the first week an alternative small group to focus on Vietnam. Four-hundred person hours and they produced a forty-five minute videotape consisting of four troubling personal narratives, with which they confronted us in the final two hour sessions. The next year three of them came back to show BODY COUNT and lead the class in discussion for two sessions, and I continue to use the videotape each year. A second group formed that first year to probe a question they felt I neglected, one vital to their experience of the material and painfully at issue with them in the seventies, and they led an excruciatingly charged two hour debate on sexual roles and conflict. A third group produced as class project a booklet describing nearly all progressive organizations on campus — a "political act", they wrote in the introduction, an assertion "that the individual in our society is not powerless."
In subsequent years, groups have formed to focus on Latin America and on women's issues. Veterans, in one case a man who had until then hid his veteran status from friends, have taken over the class and led excruciatingly honest discussions. Descendants of high-ranking Nazis, of German resistance families, and of survivors of the holocaust have joined in a panel to share their feelings. Students have created theater within the class (including Boalian invisible theater, where the spectators do not recognize the provocateurs as actors, and thus easily become participants). Other small groups have taken the class over to provoke it into a more engaged, sharing discussion. And a student, challenged especially by Kozol's book, asked assistance from the class in her struggle to decide whether or not to refuse her degree because of the university's investments in South Africa.
In the first six weeks of the fall 1982 term, a women's group, a men's group, a theater group, a working class group to discuss class issues, and a group composed of two combat veterans and four students with close relatives who served in Vietnam formed. In the third week, two 1960s draft evaders, another person who nearly had to face the lottery, a member of SDS (a woman), and a student who has refused to register for the draft this time around collaborated to open up the class. And the week of NO VIETNAMESE EVER CALLED ME NIGGER a black student transformed the class by painfully describing her own invisibility, and she went on to form a group to study invisibility, language, and power. A year later she returned to the class for a two hour session to "confront you all with your racism", a session people were struggling with still in their journals and groups eight weeks later. Every year students have created dances, paintings, films, slide shows, videotapes, songs, and stories, drawing on real or imagined experiences to articulate their individual awareness or analysis of the holocaust, the bomb, My Lai, and sterilization of peasant women in Bolivia. Not all students have undertaken such activities, but those who have have become important to the sense of possibility in those who observed them.
Beyond these results, the course has also led outward into effective organization, a sign of some success in encouraging students to feel a responsibility and right to assert themselves as critical citizens. A March 1976 guest lecture by political scientist Ken Langton on concentration camps in Chile and a film made by Chile's exiled MIR Party, THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE, fermented a while, then led, in August, to the formation of the Ann Arbor Committee for Human Rights in Latin America. With one exception the founders had taken the course. By November we had planned and carried out a massive Teach-In on Terror in Latin America, with four nights of speakers (including Isabel Allende, Isabel Letelier, Laurence Birns, Abe Feinglass, and Enrique Kirberg) and four days of workshops, to a total audience of 3,000. In subsequent years the committee organized letter writing campaigns, invited speakers and groups (Robert Bly, Isabel Letelier again, Susan Borenstein, Gwen Lopez, Gino Lo Fredo, Hugo Blanco, Hector Marroquin, James Cockcroft, Sofia Chamorro, the Chilapayun) for educational and fund-raising purposes, held a teach-in on Mexico, demonstrated at the GM stockholders' meeting in Detroit about GM investments in Chile, and raised over $1,000 for the Nicaraguan literacy campaign. Members of my course have continued to organize and staff that committee and its successor, the Latin American Solidarity Committee.
Two course and Committee members have interned with Latin American Human Rights groups in Washington. Another ex-member of the class is a co-leader of the movement to combat draft registration. Others are working as community and labor organizers, and another was until last year a key staff member at Pacific News Service. In 1977 when the Executive Committee of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts rejected my Department's recommendation that I receive tenure, members of the course with others formed the Educational Defense Committee and organized a campaign that led to reversal of the decision. Many members of that Committee did intensive reading over the summer, and some of them were among a group who raised educational issues around the firing of a Marxist political scientist two falls later.
Four years ago class members were instrumental in forming People United for Human Freedom, a group that held an Inauguration Day Teach-In and pressed the university administration on the implications of its decisions to create a "smaller but better" institution and to turn to defense contracts as a primary way of solving its economic problems. Class members have also been prominent in the formation of the local branch of the Progressive Student Network, which last year several times blockaded military research labs and nudged the university president, a conservative student, and an Engineering professor into a revealing forum attended by more than three hundred faculty and students. Two other outshoots of the course have been a yearly alternative career fair, with guest panelists from around the country providing inspiration and resources for students looking for jobs in organizing, cooperative businesses, left journalism, and so on, and a follow-up course I do each winter with twelve of the students, in which we make videotapes with (not about) working and unemployed people in Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Toledo (so far).
There should be no mistake about such a course. It does not take place in clandestine and dangerous settings, nor does it bring together a group of people who meet with a commitment to change their world and relations through dialogue, drama, and a Freirean process of conscientizacao. At the University of Michigan few of us want very much to change the world. At the moment as a faculty we are rather comfortable, and our students are preparing for high-paying managerial and professional positions. And the obedience, alienation, and evasion of painful and career-disrupting knowledge I described at the outset run deep in many cases; more positive and cooperative stances are not easily achieved. And so no course here can easily, if at all, become in every way an equivalent of third cinema or theater of the oppressed at their best, nor can it be liberatory education in its full sense.
Nonetheless, a course on Vietnam can strive toward Freirean pedagogy. It can stimulate students to create events that transform or begin to transform consciousness and lead to praxis. And it can be linked to follow-up courses for those who wish to continue. At the very least, such a course can confront students with the painful issues of the war in Vietnam and provide them with behavioral models from the past and from among their own peers. And, again at the very least, it can initiate in students the responsibility and habit of being actors rather than spectators and teach them their own power to prevent the equivalent of such a war in their own communities, families, and places of work.
1. This might need some clarification. I hope that I start some of my students on their way to taking lasting political stances against the large and small-scale injustices they are learning to perceive, and I expect them to go that direction in their own way. I show them through films, books, and lectures some very painful events. What they see and feel provokes in most of them pressing questions about individual responsibility. Where the result is not a sense of hopelessness, it is a desire to find a way to act effectively for a more just environment. Unless the class itself decides to veto the possibility, students may make announcements of political events, demonstrations, boycotts, etc., at the beginning of a session and may circulate petitions.
I do neither of these things myself and only announce films and speakers that are relevant to the material we are studying, as any teacher would. I do not advocate joining a specific movement or group, nor do I advocate specific actions. I encourage students to make action an issue in discussion, and I lecture a little on the linguistic dead end of common expressions such as "stopping it from happening again" or "being active" or "protesting." I also do what I can to make it clear that each one of us inevitably makes their own decision about how they will relate, if at all, to injustice. It is my hope that these discussions, the advocacy by some students of specific causes, the passion that sometimes flares over the issues, and the class structure will create an impetus for students to become what we might call active, concerned citizens, to become politicized.
But this must happen on each student's own terms, if it is to happen at all, and the expression of every point of view is encouraged — in fact we struggle to ensure this — in an atmosphere which supports open discussion. Students who reject a consideration of the more personal issues and restrict themselves to close analysis of the films and students who remain cynical are respected and have as good a chance of a high grade as any others.
2. In the case of HEARTS AND MINDS I have, from an interview done by two students in 1983, Lieutenant Coker's angry refutation of Davis' editing of him for that film, and of the entire film as a big lie. The use of this tape in class is stimulating; it also, unfortunately, enables some students to retreat from the implications of what has shocked them in HEARTS AND MINDS: it becomes "propaganda," "a lie," "biased," "just another opinion."