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SEP. 13, 2013

Syria and World History

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Last week I asked my World History students to write a paragraph on their suggestions on a U.S. response to the use of nerve gas in Syria. I had been reading that a majority of Americans surveyed believed we should stay out of the fray, so I was surprised to see that all seven thought we should respond and probably militarily.

It was an ethical conundrum for them, not a political or ideological opportunity for nation-building or a economic land grab or simple revenge. None of them argued that force is the basis for a lasting peaceful solution. They understood that this is complicated; so much so that sometimes one must even choose to set aside one’s moral tenets to “do the right thing.” That most difficult decision – to respond to violence with violence. They all recognize that our country’s global leadership brings great responsibility and sometimes requires moral courage, even disagreeing with most of their fellow citizens.

Of course they would like to live in that relativistic middle ground in which we all take refuge regularly, where all responses start with “It depends…,” but there is more here than political correctness, there is critical thinking and intellectual courage. We would all like for everyone to just get along, but since this is apparently next to impossible, we are going to spend our semester in World History talking about conflict and historical solutions – Hegel’s thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Does human nature keep us locked into predictable cycles?

Putting dialectical philosophy aside, one student saw clearly and went directly to the point. His paragraph began with “Does death have meaning?” Another echoed that with “Every person is obligated to preserve the universal principle of a right to life.” I must say it gives me great hope to see that these students start this deeply disturbing discussion on such a solid moral and philosophical truth, and more importantly, I can’t get that profound question out of my head.

Ted Wesemann