Bring the War Home — to Our Classrooms

By Bob Peterson

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

Illustration: Michael Duffy

A slick, full-color print ad that has appeared in numerous publications features a child writing on a chalk board: “A histery of Irak” with a caption punch line: “Debating Iraq is tough. Spelling it shouldn’t be.”

The ad is part of a massive $60 million public relations campaign financed by the Gates and Broad foundations, called Ed in ’08. The ad is disingenuous — as is the entire campaign (see editorial).

As a classroom teacher, I have no problem with the notion that kids should be able to spell the words “history” and “Iraq.” But I am even more interested that they understand something about the history of the Iraq War.

There is no indication that even a penny of the Gates money or any of the policies of Ed in ’08 encourage teachers or schools to debate the war in our nation’s classrooms. In fact, since September 2001, a nearly McCarthy-like “anti-terrorism” atmosphere in schools and society, combined with an obscene obsession with standardized testing and factual minutia, have left most substantive classroom conversations behind.

There is another campaign however — running on a shoestring budget — that is encouraging people to not only talk about and discuss the war, but to act on their beliefs.

While educators should take care not to conflate study of the war in Iraq with protest against the war, a key component of any study should be the arguments for and against the war, and an examination of the antiwar and pro-war movements.

The current campaign, called Iraq Moratorium (, patterned after similar moratoriums in the 1960s against the Vietnam War, is sponsored by progressive academics, artists, and activists. They are calling on people to mount protests the third Friday of every month until the war ends. Suggested activities include:

  • Wearing black ribbons and armbands
  • Not buying gas on Moratorium days
  • Pressuring politicians and the media
  • Holding vigils, pickets, rallies and teach-ins
  • Organizing student actions

I think this is a great idea.

It is one route for teachers and students to discuss and debate the Iraq War and the antiwar movement. Even in the current repressive climate, current events is a legitimate subject in every school district. The war’s origin, its human, financial, and ecological cost, and military recruitment are all high-interest topics for most students. And for those students who wish to act on their beliefs, the Iraq Moratorium offers multiple ways to get involved in the antiwar movement. The regular, monthly dates allow for thoughtful crescendos of activities to involve ever-greater circles of people.

Illustration: Michael Duffy

And the Iraq Moratorium ties into the long tradition of antiwar protests stretching back to opposition to the U.S. War on Mexico — which produced Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay, “On Civil Disobedience” — up through the massive antiwar Vietnam moratoriums.

As a high school student in the late 1960s, I participated in those moratoriums — through wearing black armbands, distributing antiwar lapel buttons, organizing schoolwide teach-ins and participating in demonstrations. One poignant memory I have of my high school organizing against the war was on February 24, 1969, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in its Tinker v. Des Moines decision that students had the constitutional right to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Five students in Des Moines had refused to remove their black armbands to protest the war and the killing of people on both sides of the conflict. The school suspended them. But they and their parents fought back and appealed their suspensions to the Supreme Court. Justice Abe Fortas wrote in the Court’s decision, “Students or teachers do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” and “state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism.”

News of that decision spread through my high school like wildfire. We had maintained all along that we had these rights, but once the Supreme Court confirmed them, our high school antiwar organizing got a shot in the arm.

This fall in my 5th-grade class I am going to make sure that my students know how to spell “history” and “Iraq.” More importantly, I’ll make sure that the Iraq Moratorium is one of the topics in current events, and we’ll debate the war, even though, according to Gates, it is “tough.” I will also point out that 40 years ago students in Des Moines, Iowa, stood up against a different war, got suspended, sued the school district, and ultimately won — a victory that still benefits all public school students.

I recognize that my role has changed — from a high school student protesting the Vietnam War, to a teacher encouraging a critical look at the Iraq War. But my responsibility to encourage people — whether my students or my peers — to think critically about issues of war and peace has not changed.

Whether my students will exercise their rights to participate in the Iraq Moratorium is a decision each of them will make. Just as it is a decision that every teacher and parent has to make. Come to think of it, Bill Gates has to make that decision as well.

Bob Peterson is a 5th-grade teacher at La Escuela Fratney and a co-founder of Rethinking Schools.