Rabbi Arthur Waskow 3/23/2005
Forty years ago, in March 1965, the students and faculty of the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) held the first Teach-in against the Vietnam War — an all-night study session involving thousands of students and dozens of faculty that began about 6 p.m. and lasted till 6 a.m.
I was one of the speakers.
Within weeks, the idea had spread to hundreds of college campuses across the country, and then to a National Teach-in held in Washiongton and broadcast by radio throughout the country, with major intellectuals and scholars addressing the Vietnam War.
The all-night Teach-in at Michigan was a compromise worked out by several faculty to avert and substitute for an antiwar one-day student strike that a number of student antiwar activists had begun to plan. The substitute turned out to be far more trans-formative than a strike would have been.
I remember looking up at a sea of students at about 3 am, and being overwhelmed by an eerie sense of living in a different world — who could ever have imagined teaching thousands of students at such an hour? and with such utterly UNacademic material?
My speech was interrupted by a bomb threat (a fake, as it turned out), and I finished outside insnow that was two feet deep. Frat boys marched past with signs: "Nuke Hanoi."
After several speeches to the assembled multitudes, they broke up into small groups to explore particular aspects of US policyn in Southeast Asia.
How did I get there?
From 1963 to 1977, I was a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, an independent center for progressive and radical thought and action in Wasahongton, DC.
Two of our founders, Marc Raskin & Dick Barnet (may his memory be for a blessing), had worked deep within the foreign-policy sections of the Kennedy Administration and left it partly because of its emerging war in Vietnam.
So we were clued in very early about the insanity and futility of the war, before it became a public issue.
My first speech on it was earlier in '65 at a Model UN in Chapel Hill, when I was supposed to play the role of the UN Secretary-General speaking on nuclear arms control. I stayed in that definition of the role for half my speech. Then I said the US was in a real war against Vietnam and the UN Secretary-General must ask the General Assembly to deal with it. I called for a UN peacekeeping force on the North-South border and immediate withdrawal of all US troops.
And then I broke role altogether and spoke as an American. I quoted Jefferson: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just." I spoke of the "new American arrogance" and the dangers it posed to the American people as well as other peoples.
One-third the students booed — really booed! One-third gave me a standing ovation.And the rest sat shell-shocked in their seats.
I think someone who had been at that Chapel Hill Model UN recommended me to the student-faculty teach-in committee at AnnArbor. Or the invitation could have come from Michigan SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) leaders Todd Gitlin or Al Haber or Tom Hayden. I had gotten to know them all in 1962, during a student demonstration at the White House about the Berlin Crisis, the nuclear arms race, and the cold war.
I debated inwardly whether to accept the invitation to Ann Arbor or go instead to Selma, Alabama, where hosts of liberals were gatheirng for the "big" Selma march — the one that brought on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — the one where Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel walked side by side. It was happening simultaneously with the Michigan Teach-in. I decided that very broad liberal energy was going to Selma, that they didn't need me, and that the growing edge of change would be in Ann Arbor.
The Teach-in was an extraordinary event even beyond its challenge to official US foreign policy, because it broke the barrier betwen academic intellectual research — "cold facts" — and passionate activism. The Teach-in created "hot facts." Facts that made a difference to life and death.
When the Teach-ins began, hardly anyone in America knew anything at all about Vietnam (and as it turned out, what the "official" scholars on the government's payroll thought or claimed they knew was almost entirely wrong).
After two months of teach-ins, hundreds of thousands of students had a basic working knowledge from an independent non-governmental perspective. That was crucial to the creation of a broader antiwar movement, off-campus as well as on.
The Teach-ins were also crucial because they created a new sense of student empowerment. Students had broken through the "conventional" definition of what "knowledge" was, and how a university was supposed to run — just as they had broken through the conventional assumption that learning happened only between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. And only in carefully tailored courses with "number" labels in rigidly defined departments.
That basic break-through had implications and effects far beyond the specific content of Vietnam.
Nowadays I would identify the new kind of knowledge as "yodea" knowledge, from the Hebrew word for "knowing" that also means making love and experiencing God. "Yodea" is about intimate experiencing in an intertwined way.
The nearest English word is "grok" — which isn't English at all, it's from the High Martian in Robert Heinlein's novel *Stranger in a Strange Land.* Our paucity of such words reflects the narrowness that afflicts our ways of "knowing."
Imagine a university in which "learning" was as intimate and intwertwined as making love! — For a few months, that is what happened in American universities. And it has never gone entirely away, despite the "career" focus of much of university life today.
The teach-ins also energized students because they had an impact outside the campuses. They showed that students could have political power.
In 1965, most hostility to the war was on campus and in the Black community. There was only weak opposition elsewhere, and very little information about Vietnam.
But among opponents of the war, there was a sense — perhaps born in the growing success of the civil-rights movement — that government would have to listen and respond as it had about civil rights and voting rights.
Did the Teach-ins in fact make a difference? Yes. They gave information & clarity to the opponents of the war and also gave them a sense of their own power in challenging convention on the campuses. The Teach-ins taught that intellect, emotion, and spirituality could be joined to ACTION. (Nobody used the word "spirituality," but the sense of Spirit was high. The nearest words were "the beloved community," which Dr. King, SNCC — the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Community — and SDS certainly used.)
Today, criticism of the Iraq War is much broader than criticism oif the Vietnam War was then; but the sense of possible success is much weaker.
Creating something like the Teach-ins would be valuable today, with two important differences from the Teach-in movement of 1965:
First, the education would have to go beyond "Iraq" to raise questions about oil, the structure of internal control in the US, the role of various different kinds of religion, the history of the relationship between the US and Arab and Muslim worlds.
Secondly, it might be more important to draw on faculty knowledge and commitment to oppose the war in order to do Teach-ins in town meetings, religious congregations, high-school PTA's, union gatherings — rather than on college campuses alone.
For us all, it would be important to recreate a kind of education that is suffused with community and Spirit, and intrinsically challenges both the status quo of what "learning" is and the status quo of what "activism" is — as the Teach-ins did.