October 2014 - Peace in the World
Philip Sherzer was that teacher, the one who changes the way you had always thought about the world, the teacher who challenges you to critically question everything for the rest of your life. He sat on his desk the first day of class with our American history textbooks piled at his side, handing one to each of us as we made our way to our desks. “Gentlemen, open the books to the inside cover and tell me what you learn,” he demanded. It was blank except for a stamped signature plate that bore the names of its previous readers. I would be number three of ten to use the book. From this I observed that the book was relatively new. (For example, I was number eighteen of ten to use my English grammar book!) “Now turn to the publication page and tell me what you learn from it,” Sherzer continued. I noted that it was two years older than the first signature on the book stamp. “Now turn to the index and together recite the page numbers listed under ‘Vietnam War.’” With our silence – for there were no citations – Sherzer declared the textbook to have been obsolete even before it rolled off the press. “The world is on fire, boys, and you may well be called by our government to extinguish the fire it has set in Vietnam. The book you hold in your hands will be of no use to you in deciding whether or not the cause will be worth your life, or the life of the fellow sitting in the desk next to you. So store the book in your lockers for the year.”
In place of the textbook, Sherzer assigned The New York Times as our required reading. He secured us free Monday to Friday student subscriptions, though it fell to us to pick up Sunday’s Times on our own. Monday always began with a quiz based on the previous day’s “Week in Review” (now ambiguously titled “Sunday Review,” which would have made Sherzer shutter). Within in a month, we were all addicted, I most especially. Having been educated in an Orthodox Jewish day school where all texts were held to be sacred, it did not take long for me to accept the Times as Torah, too. So you can imagine my ‘crises of faith’ two months into the semester when Sherzer replaced the Times with The Wall Street Journal claiming that we had been duped by him to believe that the Times was worth more than a wrapping for fish. At mid-semester, we were given both papers to read synoptically in order to determine their respective biases. We had come to realize that neither paper was the repository of truth, no more than was our locked-away textbooks. We learned that history is no more than the interpretation of events, which is of little prospective value given the accelerating dynamic of our world.
What was true fifty years ago, is certainly true today. Although the absence of a universal draft does not impose the same personal sense of urgency about the Administration’s decision regarding ISIS, I believe that its commitment to address the present situation in the Middle East will have consequences equal to, or even greater than our country’s involvement in Vietnam. There is no textbook or group of pundits that can point the way with certainty, nor is past experience of significant help given the sui generis nature and entanglements regarding the present conflict. I only hope that those in our government who are vested with the responsibility of our military actions will act without hubris and look beyond domestic considerations to make the best decisions for us as a nation in the world.
May 5775 be a year for good and for peace in our homes, in our country, and in the world.