Teach-in to build bridges, promote dialogue about difficult subjects

From March 18-22, the Faculty Senate will lead the Penn Teach-In, which will address the production, dissemination, and use of knowledge. Events, including panels and talks, exhibitions, and film screenings, will be free and open to the public, with many family friendly programs.

teach in

On March 4, 1969, more than 1,200 Penn students participated in the University’s first teach-in. Ira Harkavy, founding director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, was one of them. 

A junior in the College of Arts and Sciences at the time, Harkavy says it was a period of “significant concern and unrest,” with teach-ins taking place at educational institutions throughout the country. He recalls the ongoing Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, as well as growing criticism of whether universities were positively contributing to the greater community.

“We called the teach-in the ‘Day of Conscience,’” says Harkavy, “which focused around the role of the University in society.”

Now, nearly 50 years later, Penn is planning its second teach-in, set to take place March 18-22. Led by the University’s Faculty Senate, in partnership with staff and students spanning the entire campus, the Penn Teach-In will address “the production, dissemination, and use of knowledge.” Events, including panels and talks, exhibitions, and film screenings, will be free and open to the public, and many programs are family friendly.

“As an American research university dealing with the current context, it’s not only a good thing but it is an appropriate thing to do, just like it was in the 1960s as we faced other difficulties,” says Harkavy.

Santosh Venkatesh, chair of the Faculty Senate, says the idea for the Penn Teach-In came about early last year.

“There is distrust outside the walls of the university; and the distrust seems to be deepening in the era of ‘fake news,’” says Venkatesh, a professor of electrical and systems engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Expertise is derided in some quarters, experts are mocked, and it struck us that this is a dangerous time, not just for the universities, but for the country at large.”

The hope for the teach-in, he adds, isn’t to “provide immediate solutions to our problems of today, but to create the conditions for a dialogue and begin the process of creating bridges between opposed parties and apparently intractable views.” 

The Penn Teach-In will kick off on Sunday, March 18, with gallery talks and tactile activities for all ages at the Penn Museum, which will be offering free admission. 

An opening ceremony on Monday, March 19, at 5 p.m., will feature three Penn Integrates Knowledge Professors, John Jackson Jr., Dorothy Roberts, and Sarah Tishkoff, who will discuss—in an open conversation—the role of the university in the 21st century. Tracey Matisak of WHYY will moderate.

Throughout the week, planned discussions will touch on teaching race, vaccine denial, immigration, evolution, the future of technology, lessons from history, and firearm violence. Events will include a “walk through time” down Locust Walk, an augmented reality scavenger hunt, a visually gripping presentation on fake news and fake imagery, and a screening and discussion of “American Creed,” to name a few. Each day is jam-packed, with happenings planned from morning through evening. 

C. Neill Epperson, who led the Faculty Senate subcommittee that was tasked with planning the teach-in, says she hopes the variety of events “get people thinking more broadly about the issues at hand—to try to be able to understand other points of view.”

Epperson, a professor of psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Penn Center for Women’s Behavioral Wellness, says she hopes to see members of the University community at the events, as well as alumni, folks from the community, and local policymakers. 

“We are also hoping this is going to help all generations,” she says. “It’s all about the process of getting together and speaking respectfully to each other about these sometimes-difficult subjects.”

On Thursday, a special session led by the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education will provide students the opportunity to discuss their ideas and perspectives on “Purposes of a Penn Education,” with faculty members, undergraduate deans, and the provost.

The idea going forward, says Venkatesh, is to continue adding information to the Penn Teach-In website, “treating it as an organic, living entity,” with archived content and recorded presentations from throughout the week. 

“We didn’t have a template or blueprint for doing this,” says Venkatesh, adding that he hopes Penn can now provide one for other schools wanting to do something similar. 

“Remembering Benjamin Franklin, Penn’s founder, he was motivated by the idea of the advancement of knowledge for the betterment of the human condition,” says Venkatesh. “That compact has been held between the academies of higher education and society through the centuries. It is time perhaps to revisit the compact between the university, the society, and the community. Why do we do what we do? Why is it important and relevant, and how does it improve the human condition? And it is not just enough for us to know it; we have to be able to reach out to the broader public.”

For more information on the teach-in and for a comprehensive list of events, visit the Penn Teach-In website.