Last week at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., 700 students attended an impromptu forum discussing Islam and Pakistan. At the University of California at Santa Barbara, 550 students crammed into a 220-seat lecture hall, hoping to extract words of wisdom from a course entitled "Global Conflict."
Since the events of Sept. 11, students at colleges and universities across the nation have struggled to understand what seems utterly beyond comprehension. At panel discussions held at UB in the weeks subsequent to that now infamous Tuesday, students were brimming with questions, searching for clues among the rubble and desperately seeking to salvage some meaning from the senseless wreckage.
Hundreds of UB students attended forums organized by the Muslim Student Association, the Organization of Arab Students and the university's Office of Student Affairs, armed with questions about the current world situation: "Why does Osama bin Laden hate the United States?," "How is Islam perverted to promote militancy?" and "Why were Palestinians rejoicing in the streets in the aftermath of the attacks?"
The questions demonstrated two things: 1) that our generation's knowledge of non-European history, culture and current events is painfully sub-par, and 2) that we are determined to change that fact and become informed.
Prior to the attacks, most of us had never heard of countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan or Tajikistan - now of strategic importance in determining enemy airspace and military operations. While fellow students seemed comfortable with the idea of obliterating Afghanistan from the globe, very few could locate the country on a map, with many mistakenly referring to the region as the "Middle East" and others pinpointing its location adjacent to Africa or even in Latin America (no, that's Argentina).
Most of us knew very little about the tenets of Islam or the history of Afghanistan or even the existence of bin Laden, now on every American's "Most Wanted" list. Our only knowledge base consisted of the skeletal information we may have gleaned from obscure headlines in USA Today or The Buffalo News as we made our way to the sports page or the comics or perhaps the classifieds.
But all that changed on Sept. 11. Even UB students steeped in apathy and relative indifference realized that the United States does not exist in isolation and that conflicts even in countries with names we cannot pronounce can have a profound impact on our daily lives - that the events of countries beyond what we ethnocentrically refer to as the "West" are also relevant.
While some analysts blame our generation's ignorance on the lasting vestiges of the "Me" Generation and our stubborn disinterest in current events, much of the responsibility lies with the educational system which is pitifully lacking in its coverage of international affairs.
In recent weeks, students from UCLA to Harvard and every institution in between have flocked toward Arabic-language courses, Islamic religion classes and Middle Eastern and terrorism studies with titles like "Islamic Traditions," "Thought and Change in the Contemporary Middle East," and "the Historical Roots of Terrorism." The quest for any information pertaining to the recent terrorist attacks and their underlying causes illustrates that students do want to become informed - but the sources for information are often nonexistent.
Only about 50 U.S. education institutions boast comprehensive Middle Eastern studies program, including history, culture, language and literature, according to the Oct. 1 issue of the Christian Science Monitor. While other colleges offer a smattering of seminars involving Islamic and Arab nations, the region is chronically absent from the average student's education.
A quick glance through UB's course catalog confirms our own deficiency in that area. UB offers Arabic 101 and 201, which accommodate a combined total of about 40 students. In the history department, the only courses which seem remotely relevant are "Israel and the Ancient Near East" and "War in the Ancient Mediterranean World" - both of which concentrate on ancient civilizations, rather than modern implications.
The political science department offers a general course entitled "War and International Security," which could possibly be pertinent to the current international situation, but is not directed at the region in question. UB's religious studies department, aside from an intro course entitled "World Religions," centers mainly around Judaism and Christianity. Islam, the third major world religion, is noticeably absent from the course list.
Thus a student searching for the intellectual, historical or cultural foundations of the current crisis in terrorism would certainly not find the answers within the lecture halls of UB.
Academia, which should be leading the way in educating and informing our future citizens, has faltered.
As Yonah Alexander of the Arlington-based Inter University Center for Terrorism studies said in the Monitor, "People were blind. They treated terrorism like a nuisance that will go away. Now, after all these years, we needed this terrible tragedy to wake us up. While we in academia slept, the terrorists were planning their next attack. We didn't study this according to our intellectual traditions."
Perhaps "studying" the issue would not have prevented terrorists from crashing hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Perhaps "academic" discussions could not have saved the 6,000 individuals killed by the collapsing towers, plummeting debris or scalding fires.
But only by understanding the complexity of international relations, by comprehending the impact of foreign policy on countries throughout the globe and by analyzing the motives behind terrorist actions, can we possibly hope to attain peace and stability in our world. While the immediate situation may be "solved" with bombs and gunpowder, threats and retaliation, only diplomacy and international cooperation can forge a lasting peace.
As Santayana said, "those who forget the past are condemned to relive it." Let us hope that we can learn from the tragic events of Sept. 11. If we all go on with our lives, oblivious of our surroundings and ignorant of the world outside our borders, then the lives lost are beyond redemption.