Peace Project sparks talks about politics in classrooms

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An antiwar art display installed near CSUN ROTC’s main office as part of four Art Department classes has raised the question of politically themed instruction following an informal inquiry by ROTC leadership and a short review by administrators.

A central point of contention is whether students involved in the Sept. 27 Peace Project, which installed small “de-militarized” war toys and peace-orientated toy-size dwellings outside the ROTC bungalow near Sagebrush Hall, had a choice not to participate in the project.

Four art classes were involved, and according to professors who teach those classes, the students were assigned to complete the project for a grade.

Lt. Col. Shawn Buck, who heads the CSUN detachment of the UCLA Army Reserve Officer Training Corps battalion, contacted Provost Harold Hellenbrand the day after the project’s installation. He asked Hellenbrand to find out whether students were forced to work on the project.

“When I heard (students might have been forced), it didn’t seem right to me,” Buck said, adding that students being forced into such a project could be potentially inappropriate.

Hellenbrand asked William Toutant, dean of the College of Arts, Media, and Communication, to look into the matter. Toutant then asked Edie Pistolesi, an art professor who acted as senior professor in charge of the project, whether students had a choice to opt-out of the project if they felt uncomfortable. Pistolesi said she asked all of her students that very question several times, and there were no such concerns.

Pistolesi expressed concern over the Peace Project being challenged.

“Now if this is wrong, if this has to be defended, I think we’re in a terrible predicament,” she said. “Wishing for peace, and having that be a threat – there’s something wrong there.”

Pistolesi referenced the university’s mission statement, specifically the portion that states the university is meant to help students learn the “ethical values of learned persons who live in a democratic society,” noting that current and future teachers play an important role in educating students about peace.

Hellenbrand said three things were important to keep in mind when judging a class project such as the Peace Project: the balancing of professors’ and students’ freedom of expression, ensuring that people behave in a civil manner, and making sure students are not compelled to speak one way or another.

Hellenbrand said that with projects involving issues of war and peace, a person is likely to be given thousands of different opinions, and that this incident was nothing out of the ordinary.

“On that level, it makes a certain level of sense to me as an assignment,” he said, adding that a lot of art teachers were doing political or issue-based assignments across the country, a sentiment that Pistolesi reinforced.

“When you do that, however, you need to make sure there are avenues for other viewpoints,” he said.

According to Pistolesi, some students spoke about having members of the military in their family, but because the project was about peace and was not anti-soldier, she said their parts of the project could fit under the greater “umbrella of peace” that was the center of the project. She said some of her students were more excited about the project than she was.

Many students in Pistolesi’s 400-level art class said they were concerned with the content of the Peace Project when Pistolesi first introduced it. The students said once the class discussed the project, ROTC’s presence on the CSUN campus, and military recruiting practices in general, students jumped on board.

“A few people were iffy at first, but everybody in (the class) wants there to be peace,” said Stefanie Thomas, one of Pistolesi’s students, and a graduate student in art education. Thomas said when students realized the intention of the project was antiwar, and not anti-soldier, everyone was a lot more willing and excited to participate.

“I think it took a while for people to get used to it,” said Patricia Nadigoo, senior liberal studies major, adding that she did her peace display right away because she was so excited.

At least one student who preferred to remain anonymous, however, expressed concern about her involvement in the project, and said she felt too intimidated to bring up her concerns in class.

She said that while she was absent on one of the days when she was told the professor opened up the class for concerns, she did not feel she had enough information to do a project that dealt so directly and so critically with the military and American troops.

“It felt like we were protesting against the wrong people (the troops),” she said.

Pistolesi said several students from the ROTC program approached her and the art students during the project’s installation, and the rapport between them was good. She said the project was not meant to go against the soldiers themselves, but rather the war in Iraq, in search of a peaceful end to conflict.

“If I don’t want my son or daughter to go to war, then I don’t want anybody’s children to go to war,” Pistolesi said.

Buck said as a professor of military science, and as a member of the academic world, his main concern was whether students were being forced to do something they did not believe in.

“I wouldn’t tie their grade to their participation in something like that,” he said regarding his own classes and the inclusion of political beliefs in curriculum development. He also said students who may have wanted to object might not have had a chance for fear of being an outcast.

CSUN ROTC Cadet Austin Liu said his feelings toward the project was mainly neutral, adding that while he might not agree with the project organizers, it is good to see the different opinions from people on issues such as war, a sentiment shared by Buck.

“In fact, I appreciate the fact that people are demonstrating, because that is a sign of freedom,” Liu wrote in an e-mail. He said one of his questions about the project had to do with its role in the classroom, and whether students were forced into the project.

Pistolesi was clear on one of the project’s possible end results.

“If one cadet looks at the Peace Project and rethinks that choice, then all of this has been worth it,” said Pistolesi, who organized the project for four art classes with professors Pam Huth and Violetta Blunt, and graduate assistant Cory Pohlnan. They said the recent campaign by Cindy Sheehan, a mother who lost her son in the war in Iraq and has since become a figurehead for the antiwar movement, inspired their project.

Ryan Denham can be reached at editor@csun.edu.