They Couldn't Stop Me from Worrying about Steve Guttenberg

School is a great place to expose children to difficult concepts.

My biggest fear through my middle and high school years was winding up like Steve Guttenberg. 

I’m not talking about Steve Guttenberg, major film star of Police Academy and Three Men and a Baby, but Steve Guttenberg, University of Kansas student staggering across a desolate Kansas plain in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union being slowly poisoned by radioactive fallout.

I’m betting the Gen Xers in the house just perked up in recognition.

There’s a lot of talk these days about what kinds of discussions about history and current events students can handle without their sensibilities being permanently warped. I don’t want to get into those specific discussions at this moment, but I want to suggest that it is impossible to wall children off from the world around them and that, in general, being forthright and clear about difficult and challenging topics is an opportunity to empower young people.

This is why I wish that we talked more about nuclear war while I was in school.

For those born outside of Gen X, I’m talking about The Day After, a TV movie aired by ABC in November 1983, which was viewed by more than 100 million people, including highly- impressionable-just-old-enough-to-grasp-the-full-meaning-of-the-movie-but-not-being-mature-enough-to-process-it, me. 

The Day After formed a one-two punch with WarGames — in which a teenage computer hacker played by Matthew Broderick nearly starts a global thermonuclear war by accident — to create the chief existential terror of my early teen years.

It is fair to say that I worried about nuclear annihilation on a daily basis; though in truth, I was more worried about nuclear non-annihilation: the chance that following an exchange of warheads between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., I would survive and be left behind like Steve Guttenberg in The Day After, alone, not clear what has happened, almost certainly going to die.

Unfortunately, there was almost nothing in my educational experiences that helped me process or contextualize these fears. American History class barely made it to World War II, which we learned ended with a dropping of atomic bombs that flattened two cities yet left behind many survivors, making a Guttenberg scenario seem entirely plausible. 

Despite living in the midst of the Cold War, I never encountered a curriculum that explained the Cold War’s origins or its connections to present-day conflicts. 

It was not until a particular college class I took freshman year gave me some  perspective that my fears were eased at least a little, though they would not dissipate entirely until the fall of the Berlin Wall signaling the end of the Cold War.

The course that eased my mind was An STS Approach to Nuclear War. It checked a box for my gen eds  without requiring I do a lab science like biology or chemistry, which I feared had the potential to end my college career. As an interdisciplinary course (STS stands for Science, Technology & Society), the course had us learning the physics of a nuclear chain reaction alongside the military strategy behind different nuclear attack scenarios. We saw how history and political science informed Richard Nixon’s SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation) treaties. We even learned a little climate science and meteorology as we were tasked with shading in maps of the U.S. to represent the dispersal of fallout under different scenarios.

The moment that most assuaged my fear was preparing one of these maps and realizing that when it came right down to it, if two superpowers were going to get into a nuclear war, we were all, like, super doomed. Maybe there was a small slice of northern Alaska that wouldn’t be hit by the initial dispersal of fallout, but the rest of us would be toast.

Seeing the evidence right there on my map drove home the meaning of M.A.D. (mutually assured destruction) we’d been discussing in class. 

I was at the time, and now still very much am, a “no nukes” guy, but I knew that if a college student in central Illinois could figure out that there was no scenario under which the human race survives an exchange of nuclear weapons, there were lots of people who knew the same in the Soviet Union. This provided a certain amount of reassurance that anyone on the other side of the world who was considering starting a war knew they were also likely sealing their own fate.

(Though, if you want a good retroactive fright about how many times we’ve come close to a nuclear accident, I recommend Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, The Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.)

For sure, studying nuclear war and geopolitical gamesmanship would’ve been challenging and potentially upsetting when I was in middle school, but not nearly so upsetting as what I was able to conjure with my imagination stoked by a couple of movies made to draw audience eyeballs, not educate.

Kids will seek out information about the world around them whether it’s in school or not. We can’t shy away from addressing difficult subjects in our curricula, just because they’re messy and uncomfortable. We have to do the work of facing tough topics for our sakes as well as theirs. 

Saying something is off limits only makes it more tempting. Add in the fact that children have a world of information at their thumbs these days and the notion that they can be shielded from difficulties or controversies is unrealistic. 

Help students develop their own minds; have the difficult conversations. It’s the only way forward.

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