“SOME WERE CURIOUS and were attracted by the novelty,” wrote one Rutgers University journalist in April of 1965. “Some wanted a chance to be with their girls all night. Some came to learn.” But, for whatever the reason, they came. The overflow crowd “left the ‘Teach-in on Vietnam’ feeling that they had, in the words of one jubilant, just witnessed the greatest event presented this campus in memory.”
The question in 1965 was this: What was the United States doing in Vietnam? As people futilely searched for answers from corporate media and the government, many found clarification through teach-ins. Teach-ins were a new concept in the mid ‘60s, but quickly became popular across college campuses. The anti-war movement was shaped by teach-ins, which helped create an informed citizenry that ultimately transformed the political landscape of the U.S.
Can they do the same thing now? The desire for information is once again heightened by war—this time, the Iraq invasion and the war on terror. And paired with the Internet, teach-ins may now be an even more useful tool. On the Internet, you’ll find a spike in the number of teach-ins in recent years, covering everything from the World Trade Organization to issues around 9-11, from the war in Iraq to the government crackdown on privacy and dissent.
Forums like teach-ins have become increasingly important as the corporate media intensify their relationship to the military. For instance, General Electric, one of the largest manufacturers of missiles and other military weapons, owns NBC and its affiliate networks. How often have we heard serious questioning of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq on NBC? The conflict of interest in corporate media makes the need for independent sources of infor-mation even greater today.
Teach-ins are informal gatherings designed to help individuals better understand broad issues of public interest. But unlike conversation cafes or talking circles, where people gather in small groups to share opinions, teach-ins host experts who have in-depth knowledge they can communicate to a large group. And unlike a single presentation or lecture, a teach-in can illuminate several issues around a topic. The Corvallis (Oregon) Action on Globalization, for instance, designed a teach-in on the WTO with different sessions on labor, the environment, agriculture, human rights, and democracy so that attendees would get the whole picture on globalization and trade.
Teach-ins come in all shapes and sizes but are meant to educate and mobilize a large number of people. Georgetown University hosted a teach-in on Islam after 9-11, drawing more than 130 people for a one-day event. The Internet now makes it even easier to create a teach-in and draw in large numbers of people. Sojourners magazine used e-mail to send out their how-to guide on organizing a teach-in, inspiring 25 other groups to host their own teach-ins on Iraq. Corvallis Action on Globalization made its teach-in available to anyone with Internet access by webcasting their sessions live.
In 1968, more than half of the 7 million Vietnam War protesters were college youth, many of whom had been inspired to action by teach-ins. Teach-ins didn’t directly end the Vietnam War, nor will they alone solve our current societal problems, but, as one strategy within a larger organizing approach, they can plant the seeds of change.