Published in the Winter 2011 issue of the Saint John's Magazine
For more than 1,000 gathered in the Coaches Pavilion on a November night, the story of New York Times reporter David Rohde’s escape from Taliban captivity was a thrilling and ethically instructive tale; viewed from the outside, another successful Abdella Center for Ethics lecture.
For the approximately 1,000 students at Saint John’s High School, however, Mr. Rohde’s story was something more. It was a classroom text, a discussion prompt, a bridge between disciplines; viewed from inside the school walls, perhaps the truest example yet of Judge Charles Abdella’s vision for ethical studies at Saint John’s.
“It allows us to literally have a curriculum element come to life,” said Dr. Jacob Conca, principal of Saint John’s.
Before Mr. Rohde stepped foot on campus, students read the six-part newspaper account of his capture and daring escape from terrorists in Afghanistan. In their English, religious studies and social studies classrooms, they discussed the autobiographical series and its implications.
Mr. Stephen Linde ’67, chairman of the English Department, taught the newspaper series as a work of literature. Students were asked to analyze the motivations and context of the articles’ writer, audience and subject.
Mr. Rohde’s articles were not in the curriculum that teachers planned at the start of the year, but they weren’t hard to incorporate, according to Mr. Linde. After all, they are works of English composition — specifically, a combination of journalism and memoir.
They were a little less topical when inserted into the middle of his sophomore Old Testament scripture class, said Mr. Michael Hughes, but understanding the mindset of tribal Afghanistan helps students come to grips with the thought patterns of Biblical Israelites — and vice versa. The concept of holy war is essential to understanding that worldview, and books like Joshua and Judges that come out of it.
“What does it mean to fight justly in a war?” Mr. Hughes asked. “Next year’s junior class can make reference to [Mr. Rohde] when they study the Fifth Commandment. Is all killing murder?”
Mr. Hughes also teaches a senior class on bioethics, where Mr. Rohde’s articles integrated almost seamlessly.
“I basically asked them to put on their morality detectors,” he said, and discussed the consequences of politics in the same way that the class usually discusses the consequences of science.
As in religion class, in English every grade level had its own, slightly different curriculum. Seniors took a more analytical approach, said Mr. Linde, examining the ethical and political questions raised by the war in Afghanistan, the presence of terrorism, the connection between violence and religion. Freshmen looked at the more basic implications of Mr. Rohde’s captivity: what was he allowed to eat? When did he sleep? Was he able to wash?
Mr. Linde said students in all grades had questions about the Taliban and its motivations. Older students went farther: How are they funded? Who joins the Taliban? What would they do if we simply stopped fighting them?
These students were in elementary school when terrorists attacked the Pentagon and destroyed the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, noted Mr. David Wentzell, who coordinates the annual Abdella Center lecture. In a few years, these students will be voters and taxpayers.
“We are a nation at war,” Mr. Wentzell told the student body a week before the lecture. “At times we can tend to forget the fact that we are at war … but there are people making tremendous sacrifices in fighting this war. … And make no mistake about it, events happening around the globe in this day and age have a direct impact on the quality of our own lives.”
The implications of Mr. Rohde’s ordeal for social studies class are obvious. Benjamin Gowaski ’11 said his comparative government class used Mr. Rohde’s story as an introduction to Middle East politics, and examined how Muslim countries have treated the Taliban.
Spreading the newspaper series across three disciplines allowed students to approach the same topics multiple times, from multiple angles, Mr. Linde and Mr. Hughes said.
“It allows kids to make connections, decompartmentalize,” said Mr. Linde.
“You’re beginning to let the students see there is an inner logic that crosses the disciplines,” added Mr. Hughes.
Historical facts aren’t confined to one section of life called “social studies”; their effects spill over into literature and religion. Religious movements don’t operate independently from history and language. Journalism is a product of its time and its culture. And shot through all of it, Mr. Hughes said, is ethics.
“Ethics is a central part of what we are trying to teach here,” said Mr. Hughes.
Mr. Hughes added that students weren’t the only ones to benefit from all this interdepartmental communication. English, religion and history teachers suddenly had a shared experience, and it highlighted what else they share.
“It forces us to talk about what we have in common,” said Mr. Hughes, referring to the school’s shared mission and Xaverian heritage: “What is our common work here?”
Mr. Wentzell has an answer: “Saint John’s is, among other things, a serious place that takes on serious issues; a place with a sense of real purpose to its daily routine; a place where ethics is at the heart of what we do; effective teaching and learning involves multiple layers of inquiry and exploration.”
CLASS ADDED INSIGHT
Mr. Rohde’s was a compelling story that made students want to read, and want to discuss their reading.
“They jumped into it,” said Mr. Linde. “It’s an adventure story. ‘And now, kids, you get a chance to see a real author.’ It was a win-win situation. You almost want to do one each semester.”
Daniel Harvey ’11 said the lecture made a larger impact on him because of the reading, writing and classroom discussions he’d participated in.
“It was weird going into a speech and knowing what it was on,” Daniel said. “I was more interested in it.”
He said because he was familiar with the facts of Mr. Rohde’s story, he could focus on the emotional and human elements of Mr. Rohde’s speech. One of the things that struck him about Mr. Rohde’s ordeal was his loyalty to his friends — his Afghan translator and driver were captured along with him — and the trust he had to place in his captors, who could have killed him at any time.
“Seeing him in person really had a bigger impact,” agreed Benjamin Gowaski.
Benjamin was one of two students who delivered peace prayers in English and Arabic, moments before Mr. Rohde’s talk. Learning the Arabic prayer gave him an appreciation for the language barrier between Mr. Rohde and his captors.
“This was really something new and different,” Benjamin said.
Mr. Rohde may have been new and different, but ethical inquiry is a familiar part of Xaverian education, said school Principal Jacob Conca.
“At the end of the day, we’re preparing our students for college life and beyond, in the spirit of the Brothers,” he said. He added that the Abdella lecture series affords the school an opportunity to hold “discussion that reflects our value system, helps our students think and act in an ethical, moral manner.”
Students also completed a writing prompt shortly before the lecture, answering the question: “Is it more important to stand on principle, or do we face some situations that allow us to violate those principles?” The prompt noted that the United States government and The New York Times had policies against negotiating with terrorists, but Mr. Rohde lied to his captors and promised a ransom in order to stay alive.
The writing prompt served another purpose, Dr. Conca added. It was based on similar prompts in the SAT, and thus provided students with practice for college admission tests.
Mr. Wentzell likes to say that the writing prompt and classroom work “primes the pump” for students to attend the Abdella Center lecture, even though it is held on a school night. Mr. Linde agrees, and said this year’s newspaper series was the best primer yet.
“I have no doubt in my mind [that] because we did this, we had more kids show up,” he said.
EXAMPLE FOR FUTURE
“The Abdella Center for Ethics takes an actual person who has thoughtful experiences, and brings that person into our community,” said Benjamin Gowaski. “It’s taking the Saint John’s community into the global spotlight.”
The school shines in that spotlight, Mr. Wentzell said. Mr. Rohde was impressed.
“I know that he was taken aback — in the most positive sense — by the reception he received at Saint John’s,” Mr. Wentzell said. “He made specific note of the level of awareness, insight and sophistication in the questions posed to him — both those embedded within the program and in interviews with a couple of students beforehand.”
Count Mr. Linde, too, among those impressed by the Abdella Center for Ethics. He said Saint John’s must be unique for supporting such a program at the high school level.
It does so because of the vision of Judge Charles Abdella ’60, who founded the Abdella Center in honor of his father, George F. Abdella, in 2003. Judge Abdella wanted the lecture series to create a dialogue connecting Saint John’s students to the ethical, religious and social justice implications of real-world trends and events.
In the past eight years, Saint John’s has hosted seven speakers, including Dr. Paul Farmer — founder of Partners in Health, which provides health care, social services and training in some of the poorest regions of the planet — and Prof. Elie Wiesel, the famed Holocaust survivor and peace activist. Dr. Farmer, Prof. Wiesel and Mr. Rohde all drew more than 1,000 attendees to their lectures, which examined how ethics interacts with journalism, health care, poverty, intolerance and war.
In previous years, students responded to a writing prompt and were asked to read the lecturers’ books, but this year’s lecture broke ground with the three-part in-class curriculum, a “very, very important” addition to the Abdella Center for Ethics, Dr. Conca said. He hopes to bring it back, in some way, with future lecturers. Mr. Wentzell agreed; he said the classroom component is essential to Judge Abdella’s conception of the series.
“These are complicated issues, to say the least, and I cannot imagine simply throwing students into a one-hour lecture and expect[ing] them to have a meaningful learning experience,” Mr. Wentzell said.