Teachers Prepare to Bring Nuclear Issues to Schools

Times Staff Writer

Edward Teller, the “father of the hydrogen bomb,” hoisted himself onto the lab table at the front of the USC lecture room, laid down his walking stick and made a pronouncement:

“I think we can live with nuclear reactors. I’m not quite sure we can live without nuclear reactors.”

It was not what everyone in his audience--about 150 Los Angeles Unified School District teachers--wanted to hear. Several were openly hostile to Teller’s message about the necessity for nuclear power plants as well as the merits of “Star Wars,” the Reagan Administration’s proposal for defending the United States against nuclear attacks.

But the stated purpose of this workshop, held on two Saturdays, was to present opposing viewpoints on nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Other speakers would bring different perspectives--among them Pat Allen of Educators for Social Responsibility with her message that “the major fear in the Soviet Union is fear of nuclear war . . . every school in the Soviet Union has a peace lecture on the first day of school. The entire emphasis is on prevention.”

Nuclear Issues in Schools

The workshop introduced the district’s nuclear-education curriculum, one of the first formal multidisciplinary programs of its kind in the nation, and was the preliminary distribution point for “Nuclear Age Issues.” The 211-page guidebook is designed to help teachers--on a voluntary basis--to incorporate teaching of nuclear issues into kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms.

The book stresses the responsibility of the teacher “to provide learning experiences that represent all sides of these critical issues” and to help students understand propaganda and euphemisms, clarify values, develop solutions, become political.

Whether students need nuclear education is still being debated.

Some critics have said schools should stick to teaching the three Rs; Phyllis Schlafly, spokeswoman for conservative causes, has said it will only “produce fear, guilt and despair” in students. Proponents of nuclear education include the National PTA.

In 1985, Los Angeles school board member Jackie Goldberg introduced a proposal, later approved by the board on a 6-to-1 vote, to develop an optional nuclear curriculum for use by the district’s 26,000 teachers.

Goldberg, who was at both Saturday sessions, is on record as opposing nuclear power plants and has called “Star Wars,” the Strategic Defense Initiative, “the biggest hoax in America.” But her message to these teachers was that their job is to present “with equal force” both sides of nuclear issues and rely on students’ intelligence to “separate the wheat from the chaff.”

Lorna Round, associate superintendent, told teachers at the workshop that publication of “Nuclear Age Issues,” which is designed to supplement textbooks that provide little information on issues such as nuclear waste and radiation, is a major step forward in bringing the district’s teachers “into the 20th Century.”

“The Psychological Impact of Nuclear Age Issues” was the topic of a workshop led by Dr. Andrew Wang, a child psychiatrist and consultant to the school district.

For teachers, he said, “the bottom line is there is no right answer. It is really easy to get trapped into the simplistic view--tell me what’s right and tell me what to do.” The teacher’s obligation, Wang said, is to teach children to gather facts and assimilate them.

No Single Answer

When children are overanxious, he said, and overwhelmed by conflict, they may become very challenging, and it is only human that “you don’t want to look like a fool” without the answers. But, he said, “it is OK that you don’t have answers” because there is no single answer.

It is important, he said, not to “foster a kind of doom expectation for the child. . . . Whatever we fear, we communicate to the children.” Discussions should include causes for hope, he said, citing studies showing that better-informed youngsters are less pessimistic.

E. Leroy Zimmerman of Litton Industries, who’d been scheduled to present a workshop, popped into an afternoon presentation of the Thursday Night Group, a nonprofit nuclear-education organization, and announced: “I’m a nuclear physicist and my billing wasn’t terribly attractive, I guess. No one came.”

In this session, psychologist Diane Poliak was speaking with magnet school students on a videotape produced by the Thursday Night Group in cooperation with the school district, asking them what things “make you glad to be alive.” The answers included the mountains and animals. (In a regular school, she said later, kids probably would have answered, “skateboarding.”) The object of the exercise was to lead into a discussion of how to make sure they could continue to enjoy these things.

After the film, the small group of teachers talked about ways of leading students into discussions of frightening issues. A first-grade teacher told how the death of her father had led to a very natural discussion of death and the children’s personal experiences with death.

Young Children Know of Threat

It is not realistic, Poliak suggested, to think that even very young children are not aware of the nuclear threat.

Lynn Greenberg, a psychotherapist who is executive director of the Thursday Night Group, concurred that as young as age 3 there is “just an awareness that something can end it all.”

The importance of the new nuclear-age curriculum, Greenberg said, is that it gives teachers the tools “for dealing with the affective. Most teachers only deal with the cognitive, unfortunately.”

Sid Sitkoff, a district instructional specialist in science, who is project co-coordinator with Allan Scholl, a social science specialist, added: “What this guide does is to take the whole area of technology and make it more meaningful for the teacher by placing some of the scientific concepts in a societal setting.”

Sitkoff said teacher reaction to the material had been overwhelmingly favorable and that the district had received many inquiries from other districts and from colleges and universities. (It is available at $15).

Although negative reaction has been small, Sitkoff said “there is some disagreement” among teachers and parents as to the need for such a curriculum.

“What we don’t need in our classrooms,” said Steven Lamy, assistant professor, USC School of International Relations, “is more polemical discourse, (people) trying to push what they call the truth on the rest of us.”

Today’s students are being prepared “for the year 2010, not 1950,” and the teachers’ challenge is to make them aware and responsible citizens in a global age and a nuclear age, Lamy said.

“Our students really don’t know that there are other world views,” Lamy said.

‘War Will Be Terrible’

In a general session, Edward Teller spoke of the unspeakable: “Nuclear war will be terrible, if it ever comes.” He gave a projection of 100 million killed, millions more exposed to fallout.

As a scientist, he said, “My job is to stop ignorance,” to give people information and let them make decisions.

One decision Teller has made is that a defense against nuclear weapons “has a chance” and “Star Wars” must be developed. When one teacher asked whether Teller could guarantee that a complete defense is possible, he snapped: “Of course not. . . . I also don’t expect to live forever, though soon I will be 80.”

Knowing the virtual impossibility of a fail-proof defense, Teller said, people “will remain, and should remain, scared. . . . To my mind there is one simple conclusion: We must prevent war.”

Every elementary and secondary school in the district will receive copies of “Nuclear Age Issues,” with additional copies available for purchase at cost.

Goldberg hopes that, beginning in the fall, the district will conduct region-by-region workshops for teachers similar to the two-day pilot workshop.

“I’m going to push for that,” she said. “People will feel more comfortable about using new material if someone takes them through it.”