Cornellians at Bailey Hall in 1966 during a Vietnam War teach-in.

Courtesy of Cornell University

A photograph of Bailey Hall during Cornell’s Vietnam War teach-in (1966) is a testament to the power of organized protest and education as forces for good.

March 7, 2022

We Need to Talk: A Call for a Comprehensive Cornellian “Teach-In” as War against Ukraine Escalates

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On Thursday, Feb. 22 between 1 p.m. and 1:15 p.m., I discovered what NATO is and why it was formed. I had made it pretty far without understanding NATO — until I was confronted by a five-minute pop quiz in my religious studies class. 

At the beginning of class, we answered five simple questions about 20th and 21st century politics on a piece of paper, one of which was: “What is NATO, when was it established, and what is its main objective?” I only knew the answer to one of the five questions. When going over the questions as a class, I could tell, based on the words stumbling out of my classmates’ mouths and our professor’s swift rejections, that nobody knew the correct answers. 

Later that day, I learned that she had given her other class the same quiz; in total, only one out of 52 students was able to answer all five questions correctly. The remainder of the class period was a rude awakening to a major geopolitical conflict in Eastern Europe unfolding by the hour, followed by a (righteous) scolding from our professor.

As I have always been familiar with my ignorance regarding politics, I assumed that most of my peers — especially at an institution like Cornell — would know far more than I do. This illusion is the ironic comfort of imposter syndrome; while I may not know what I am doing, I am sure everyone around me does. And as prevalent as imposter syndrome is at Cornell, is it possible that we have all been thinking this way? While the threat of nuclear war looms over us, how many of us are asleep at the wheel? 

We cannot afford to overestimate the amount of background knowledge Cornell students have regarding President Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. In communities across the country and across the world, the opinions of Cornell students and alumni are exalted by mere name recognition. While we are expected to continue with our full course loads (as I have been for the past two weeks) with little time to understand the basic facts of an escalating global crisis, the University administration should make time in our schedules so that we may develop an rudimentary understanding of it. We cannot be effective citizens of the world and stay properly engaged with the crisis at hand if we do not give this issue the attention that it is due. Fortunately, global citizens can make much progress in two-days time, a fact demonstrated by the teach-ins of the 1960s. 

The “teach-in” may be the most effective strategy to get many Cornellians up to speed with the current crisis in Ukraine. The first teach-in was held at the University of Michigan to over 3000 students on March 24, 1965 to protest the War in Vietnam, and in May of 1966, close to 2000 people attended Cornell’s very own Vietnam War teach-in within Bailey Hall. The format served as a means through which faculty answered questions directly from the general public and the student community about an especially pressing political issue. As a form of protest, teach-ins gave educators a platform to teach while occupying university buildings after hours. They allowed massive audiences of community members to engage in public discourse and garnered extensive media attention, leading to the adoption of this practice at more universities nationwide.

In terms of programming, Cornell’s response to the ongoing crisis has not been enough to contextualize the war on Ukraine and impress its significance onto the general student body. On Friday, March 4, the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy and College of Arts and Sciences jointly hosted a panel of experts to express their current insights into Putin’s war against Ukraine. While the hour-long panel was informative, the event’s format left barely enough room for any of the six panelists to elaborate on complex issues they presented. Furthermore, only 10 minutes were left to answer questions from the virtual audience. In this short format, an expert panel “discussion” leaves much to be desired; within the context of a comprehensive teach-in, this same subject matter could be engaged with and internalized by students far more effectively. 

To establish a fundamental level of understanding of the Ukraine crisis community-wide, the University must give faculty the license to address the most basic questions from the student body along with the time necessary to establish a truly constructive dialogue. Consider a potential teach-in: two full days during which regularly scheduled classes are canceled and are instead devoted to faculty-led lectures, discussion groups and workshops to bring the Cornell community up to speed on the war against Ukraine. 

The first day would be dedicated to addressing basic questions of the community through lectures. Based on the Einaudi Center’s event on Friday, I would benefit from “crash course” faculty presentations covering the geography of Ukraine, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and refugee/asylum policy among countless other topics severely intertwined with this crisis. The second day of the teach-in would serve to integrate this background knowledge with the ongoing state of affairs and empower attendees towards action through public discourse. Hosting the Einaudi Center’s expert panel discussion on the second day of this teach-in would give the expert panel both a larger and more informed audience with which to extend a true dialogue. 

As an earth and atmospheric sciences major, I do not depend on understanding what international sanctions are for my career to the degree that an international relations student does for theirs. However, as a student attending Cornell University in 2022, I am not excused from my responsibility to leverage my privilege to reduce suffering in the world; none of us are. While we continue to wrangle our own unrelenting schedules and grapple with ever impending doom, we call upon the University’s administration to lighten our load; organize a teach-in so that we can help each other make sense of everything as soon as possible.

Guillermo Alvarez is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].