For the 32nd consecutive year, the Auburn University College of Education hosted the World Affairs Youth Seminar (WAYS). The seminar is the oldest educational outreach camp at Auburn University, and one of Auburn’s very few non-STEM related academic camps. The camp receives financial support from the Sunrise Rotary Club, which has been part of the program from the beginning.
WAYS attracts high school students from across the country, who come to Auburn in early July to live on campus, enjoy the town and its surroundings, and engage in an intensive examination of critical, controversial issues challenging our world today. This year the campers examined the environmental crisis of plastics in our oceans, sustainability, humanitarian aid, and a searing, difficult exploration of arms trafficking and its far-reaching, amoral consequences.
In addition to classroom lectures and researching the issues, each student is assigned to represent a country, and the seminar concludes with a multi-day UN-style session where the issues are debated. Regardless of students’ personal views of the issues, they must learn their country’s position, and represent these positions in what often become passionate encounters.
The mid-week lesson in arms trafficking was especially difficult, as the students viewed the compelling but disturbing documentary Shadow World, which explores “how governments, their militaries and intelligence agencies, defense contractors, arms dealers, and agents are inextricably intertwined with the international trade in weapons, and how that trade fosters corruption, determines economic and foreign policies, undermines democracies, and creates human suffering.” The “human suffering” was heartbreakingly portrayed at the film’s conclusion, as the students witnessed real but wrenching scenes of starving children victimized by the civil wars and unrest in Syria and Yemen.
“The fact that there are no ‘good guys’ here, and that everyone has blood on their hands, including the U.S., is a difficult thing for high school students to come to grips with, especially when they see up close the suffering that results from arms trafficking,” said Nick Phillips, a doctoral student in Social Science Education who directed the program this year. “They learned that ‘permanent war’ is in many ways just another growth industry, and saw the irony of Osama Bin Laden hiding in a mountain bomb shelter that was originally built by our own CIA. They see the stock prices of American weapons manufacturers rise as the bloody conflicts rage on.”
In spite of the bleakness of the documentary and its subject, the students nevertheless sustained passionate and well-informed discussions on the topic. The daughter of a soldier remarked that the documentary lacked a soldier’s perspective. The niece of a CIA agent said it was good to show the gore and the greed since we are all complicit in it. Several students pointed out various “slants” contained within the documentary. Kyle Munroe, this semester’s COE graduation marshal and a senior in Social Science Education, took that opportunity to discuss the importance of media literacy and how to discern a solid source from a slanted one.
Three outstanding preservice teachers from the department – Branson Davis, Hannah Smith, and Neat Tinsley – went on to engage the students in innovative lessons that further clarified the issue. Through group exercises, it became abundantly clear that once the genie is out of the bottle – once arms are sold into the world market – there is no controlling where those arms end up, who uses them, and who suffers as a result.
“We want these students to grapple with the hard questions we as Americans must face,” Phillips concluded. “The reality is that the situations we learn about in this seminar are rarely simple or clean, and the ambiguities and ambivalence can be disturbing. But these are great students, very mature and passionate young people, and we love that we are able to spend time with them and help them grow as scholars and as citizens. Knowledge is necessary for democracy to thrive. We hope to see some of them again as Auburn students. That is always our goal.”