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Commentary Last Updated: Jun 8th, 2007 - 00:29:27

Librescu Day
By Salah Obeid
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jun 8, 2007, 00:27

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There isn't room enough on the calendar to honor every American hero, but Aug. 16, the birthday of one such hero, is a day teachers and others who cherish education should make a point of celebrating.

No one knows what drove Liviu Librescu, four months short of his 77th birthday, to martyr himself to the cause of education. But that is what Librescu, a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor and mechanical engineering professor, did when he blocked a gunman from entering his Virginia Tech University classroom on April 16 -- earning him five bullets, one of them to the head -- so that most of his students could escape through the windows.

Because he was slain in a public learning institution, public schools are where he should be celebrated. And because Librescu (the root of whose name, "libre," is Latin for "free") came to America searching for freedom, those who teach subjects like U.S. history and government should make honoring him a lesson on where his adopted country truly stands on freedom.

By the time they enter college, many students in this country can't think critically about history and politics, having rarely been encouraged in school to think creatively outside of art and music class. Yet wolfing down hot dogs and soaking up sun on a field trip to celebrate Librescu Day could amount to more than just indigestion and sunburn, if the day were also an occasion for students to reflect on how their country, a magnet for immigrants seeking freedom, too often deprives people in other countries of the very freedoms Americans enjoy.

Throughout its history, the United States has -- in places like Latin America, Haiti, the Philippines and elsewhere -- picked fights at the drop of a dime whenever dollars were to be made, a fact that is largely ignored in classrooms around the country. The result is that, as the country gets bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, many students don't know any better than to think thousands of their fellow citizens, most only slightly older than them, are killing and being killed in those countries in the name of spreading freedom.

But freedom can mean many things. Librescu, born on Aug. 16, 1930, on the outskirts of Bucharest, was barely nine when World War II broke out and could only watch as his government, also in the name of freedom, helped the Nazis annihilate hundreds of thousands of Romania's Jewish citizens. Luckily he survived, became an accomplished scientist and, in 1986, after living several years in Israel, left for Virginia on a sabbatical and never looked back. Little did he know that years later a frustrated, mentally-ill college student would alone succeed where the focused efforts of the entire Nazi Party had failed.

Still, Librescu's death will have been partly in vain if teachers ignore the dedication symbolized by a colleague's choosing to die so that his students might live to see another classroom. Ignorance that isn't necessarily willful but rather the result of intimidation.

How else to explain that so many U.S. history and government teachers go out of their way to avoid discussing the context in which President Bush, in his second inaugural address, for example, used words like "freedom" and "liberty" some dozen odd times? Or in which Vice President Dick Cheney, during remarks to Westminster College in Missouri a few years ago, paraphrased Winston Churchill's assessment of the struggle against Soviet communism, in order to paint a picture of the chaos in U.S.-occupied Iraq as a contest between "those who served an aggressive, power-hungry ideology and those who believed in human liberty, freedom of conscience and the dignity of every life"?

Words like "liberty" and expressions like "freedom of conscience" are easily said; the challenge is living up to the ideals they represent. But often politicians aren't so challenged to begin with, and worse, sometimes rely on such words, as George Orwell wrote, "in a consciously dishonest way."

Dignity of life, after all, means little coming from someone like Cheney, whose central pursuit over the past few years has been to enrich his friends at Enron and Halliburton over the dead bodies of an estimated million or so Iraqi civilians -- people who might have lived in fear under Saddam Hussein, but who at least could've expected to live with far more certainty than can Iraqis today.

Propaganda and censorship is something that, growing up in communist Romania, Librescu knew all too well. The same can be said of another Jewish hero to whom he is often compared.

On Aug. 5, 1942, German soldiers stormed an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw, instructing the man who ran it, Janusz Korczak, that he was free to go, but that his 200 or so orphans and several staff members were slated for extermination. Unlike Librescu, Korczak couldn't save his charges from death. Instead, he followed them to the gas chamber, his final gesture to children who'd had so little and died so young.

A renowned children's author and pediatrician, Korczak was also a teacher, and instructed hundreds at his Dom Sierot (Polish for "house for orphans") with little regard for convention. Those who survived the war recount being allowed to form a "kind of a republic for children, with its own small parliament, court and newspaper," according to an entry on By contrast, a half-century later, American public schools appear intent on turning students into automatons.

And even that they're getting wrong.

Students in the United States, in subjects like math and science, which require learning mostly by mind-numbing rote, lag behind their counterparts in miserably poor countries like Bangladesh, Burundi, El Salvador and Nepal. Generally, though, American students also read less for pleasure, visit fewer museums and attend schools with mediocre teachers, all easily gleaned from comparing how flippant and addicted to pop culture many young Americans are next to kids in less fortunate parts of the world.

Maybe that is because, as one credit card company likes to say, there are some things money can't buy. China, where teachers get paid a pittance by a government that looks with scorn at individual rights and free speech, generally has a more well-read, independent-minded, smarter population than ours. Which is what outright censorship does: breed rebellion.

Censorship, though, shouldn't be allowed any wiggle room in a country billing itself as the "land of the free." Yet the United States has become fertile ground for it, an indication of which is that mainstream media, not satisfied with just obscuring the "who," "what" and "where" in its news coverage, goes to great lengths to avoid the "why" altogether. It may be just as well, then, that many kids come home from school in the afternoon only to get super glued to MTV, video games or websites like, since much of what's in the news would sooner confuse than educate them.

Were that not sad enough, the education that does manage to seep into the minds of these would-be torchbearers of democracy is watered down to the point of irrelevancy. Not because teachers are stupid, evil or lazy but because most are simply too afraid to rock the boat.

Many teachers understand they swim in murky water. Water that has swallowed teachers like Deb Mayer at Clear Creek Elementary in Monroe County, Indiana, near Bloomington (home, ironically, to liberal arts-dominated Indiana University). Mayer was fired in 2003 after she dared discuss the subject of peace movements during a general class discussion about the build-up to the war in Iraq.

Similarly, a school in Wilton, Conn., recently banned a play about the conflict in that country.

�In Wilton, most kids only care about Britney Spears shaving her head or Tyra Banks gaining weight,� 16-year-old Devon Fontaine, a cast member, told The New York Times. �What we wanted was to show kids what was going on overseas.�

The school administration's reply: "You can't always get what you want."

Censorship is well documented in schools throughout the country. Schools like Columbine High School in Colorado, where Alfred Wilder was fired in 1996 for showing Bernardo Bertolucci's film, "1900," which explores fascism, to a senior class studying logic and debate. That instance of censorship may even have cost 13 students and a teacher their lives.

A video depicting students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold rehearsing for the massacre they'd go on to carry out at the school three years later wasn't allowed to be shown on school grounds because of the controversy surrounding the Bertolucci film.

"If the video had indeed been shown," Al Hidell wrote in "The New Conspiracy Reader," "perhaps somebody would have realized the serious threat it represented, which may have prevented the tragedy from occurring."

Rarely, of course, is censorship so dramatic in its outcome that it becomes a matter of life and death. But there is such a thing as a slow death. Appalled by the stifling of his film, Bertolucci wrote that it was no less than a prelude to totalitarianism when classrooms become a place "in which the voice of established authority denounced criticism or debate, and used the high school classroom to silence other voices."

Voices that hold that "children are the future. Teach them well and let them lead the way."

Before letting cocaine lead the way for her instead, Whitney Huston knew what she was singing about. The minute students are fit to broach subjects like history, government and political affairs is the minute they should be challenged to imagine their future roles as informed, voting citizens. Citizens like Librescu, who wore many hats but probably would have been happy to be remembered as one more in a long line of educators who eschewed empty slogans, who knew that leaving no child behind meant arming students with curiosity, compassion and courage.

Courage, though, shouldn't mean that 3,500 young Americans, and counting, have to take their final breath in a country that never meant the United States any harm. Courage should mean educating the nation's youth so that they can spot a charlatan when they see one, even if he worms his way up to the presidency itself. Those who will inherit this nation need that kind of courage from those who've been here a while, so that they too can develop the courage to die if need be.

But to die in the spirit of someone like Librescu, who took one bullet after another yet refused to let go, so that others might live and learn.

And be free.

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