The Bomb in College Classrooms

We're not teaching students enough about weapons of mass destruction -- and it shows, warns Sarah Bidgood.

October 14, 2019
 
 
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Millions of high school graduates recently packed their bags and headed off to their first year on college campuses across the country. To mark the occasion, everyone, from The New York Times to world-weary upperclassmen, offered tips for making the most out of the next four years. Their suggestions revealed less for their insights than for what they tell us about each person’s own undergraduate experience. It’s clear that, for many, college was the place where they found their passion and that this discovery enabled them to make a difference in the world once they left.

As someone who works as a nonproliferation researcher, I have some specific hopes for how this might play out for the Class of 2023. I spend my days looking for ways to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction and devising recommendations for how we can do this more effectively. It’s certainly one of the most difficult moments for this work in recent memory. Between the crisis in U.S.-Russia relations, the unraveling of arms control and the growing potential for nuclear conflict around the world, most of us have been working overtime to keep up. And there’s no end in sight.

In fact, so much work must be done, and the stakes for failure are so high, that it simply won’t be possible to do it all alone. We need more creative ideas, more questioning minds and more outspoken voices to help prevent a global catastrophe. Instead, my field is facing a personnel crisis that is making us less effective at grappling with these and other international security challenges.

By 2023, for example, nearly 40 percent of the employees at the National Nuclear Security Administration will be eligible to retire. In 2029, the same will be true for 80 percent of the U.S. State Department’s senior civil servants. The number of people taking the foreign service exam is at its lowest point in years.

Against this backdrop, we should be concerned that most current college students will graduate without any formal introduction to weapons of mass destruction and their means of control.

That was the central takeaway from a recent study I authored on how nonproliferation and disarmament of weapons of mass destruction are taught to undergraduates in the United States. To understand this landscape, I combed through hundreds of course catalogs and surveyed faculty members from 75 of the top-ranked public, private and military institutions in the country. I looked for classes that were offered sometime between 2016 and 2018 and that touched upon nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. After countless hours of searching, I found only 524 courses that met these criteria.

That number may sound like a lot to some people. What it means, however, is that each of those 75 institutions offered an average of just seven such courses during the two-year period in question. For comparison, the nation’s three leading public, private and liberal arts institutions each offered as many as 19 to 30 courses that covered climate change during just the 2017-18 academic year alone. Given that climate change and weapons of mass destruction both threaten humanity’s survivability, why are they taught at such discrepant levels to the generation whose responsibility they will become?

Much more can be done to empower students to address the challenges posed by weapons of mass destruction, and a first step should be ensuring that they have access to courses that focus on these topics -- regardless of institution they attend. Colleges and universities have significant room for improvement, considering that public universities offered fewer WMD-related courses than private ones during the period of my study. Because first-generation college students and students of color disproportionately attend public institutions, they had even fewer opportunities to discover these topics than their counterparts at private institutions.

This disparity is problematic, considering that our field already has very little diversity. What’s more, since we know that homogeneous groups generate worse outcomes than those with more diverse members, this imbalance also makes us less effective in our jobs. From this vantage, ensuring that a broader population of students has the chance to pursue careers in the field is not only fair but also, quite literally, a matter of international security.

Fortunately, American colleges and universities are well positioned to be agents of change in this process. With buy-in from both faculty members and administrators, institutions could take a number of steps to substantially improve the situation. Those include offering interdisciplinary first-year seminars that encourage incoming students to explore issues related to weapons of mass destruction from different perspectives. They could also entail inviting nonproliferation experts to address faculty members and students at campuses that convene regular common hours or convocations. Another option would be to develop cross-disciplinary nonproliferation-focused courses that bring in expertise from the hard sciences, humanities and social science. Such efforts, while certainly not without cost, would go a long way toward helping all students engage substantively with these critical issues in ways that they can’t today.

Individual faculty members can also take small steps that could have an immediate impact without requiring broader institutional support. The most obvious would be to introduce units on weapons of mass destruction into undergraduate classes that already exist. In a course on Stalinist history, that might mean a week on the Soviet atomic bomb program. In an introductory biology class, it could mean a debate over the possible proliferation implications of gene-editing technologies. For students who are learning skills that fall under the digital humanities, this may entail looking at satellite imagery for evidence of a failed missile launch. These small encounters won’t be enough to enact major change, but they may be the only chance such students have to engage with such issues during their four-year college career.

Think tanks, research institutions and nongovernmental organizations can do more to support these efforts, too. Compiling a database of diverse experts who are available to guest lecture in undergraduate classrooms could be especially useful in this endeavor. Another would be offering development workshops for faculty members who want to introduce specific nonproliferation topics into their courses. A third could be providing reading lists, class materials and handouts for faculty members to use in developing a nonproliferation-related syllabus. Those activities would help to ensure that any college or university can introduce their students to these topics, even if they don’t have the in-house expertise to do it all themselves.

These recommendations on their own won’t be enough to create greater sustainability in my field or to solve the big problems that are keeping me and my colleagues up at night. They will, however, lead to more discussions about these issues within higher education -- and that could pave the way for more substantial and far-reaching efforts to get students thinking about careers in this domain.

I hope at least some of the members of the Class of 2023 discover that WMD nonproliferation, disarmament and arms control are their passions. These are areas where we’re still going to need a lot of their help four years from now.

Bio

Sarah Bidgood is the director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. She also directs the center’s Young Women in Nonproliferation Initiative.

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