Here’s a not-very-closely-guarded secret: professors love relating current events to the lessons we are teaching – even when we don’t like the circumstances of the events.
Here’s another one: those connections are made all the time during Study Abroad courses.
For example, this summer while I was leading 12 ACU students in a Study Abroad course about the interconnectedness of media, politics and culture in Europe, computer analyst whistleblower Edward Snowden used British and German media to share information about some of the United States’ spying practices.
At the very moment Snowden was hiding in Hong Kong, pondering the appropriate next step for a person who has just publicly condemned his own government, my students and I were discussing the ability of citizens to shine light on abuses of power and incite change.
In particular, we were considering the relationship between mass communication and the political and cultural histories of three European nations: Germany, Czech Republic and Spain.
We lived in the City Center of Leipzig for about a month, and we took short trips in Germany to Berlin, Wittenberg, Weimar and Buchenwald (a Nazi concentration camp), and longer trips to Prague and Barcelona. Each of these locations gave us a reason to learn more about the relationship of the media, the church and the government there and the power of exposing secrets.
Our lessons were based on a timeline that started in the 1400s with Jan Hus and continued through the times of Johannes Gutenberg, Martin Luther, World War II, the GDR, the Peaceful Revolution in Leipzig, the Velvet Revolution in Prague, and the enduring push for independence in Catalonia, Spain.
In the picture above my students are making the “WC” (the ACU Wildcat hand symbol) in front of the John Lennon Wall in Prague. This graffiti-covered wall represents freedom of expression during a time of strict government controls. For these mass communication students – who cut their academic teeth on the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment – it was a destination!
During Communist rule in Prague, people would secretly write anti-war and anti-oppression song lyrics on this wall, including lyrics to the late John Lennon’s then-banned songs. The next day the wall would be clean and white again – silenced by the ruling party. As we walked the medieval cobblestone streets of Prague we saw fresh vandalism, but the expressions on the Lennon Wall seemed different. Even today, amid the American collegiate logos and celebratory greetings, youthful ideals of love and peace dominate the space.
Like Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic existed at the pleasure of the Communist Soviet Union. The borders were heavily guarded, perhaps most iconically by the Berlin Wall. But East Germany was much bigger than East Berlin.
Leipzig was a regional hub in the GDR.
The GDR guarded itself against perceived enemies of the state by knowing and controlling the movements, communications and livelihoods of its own citizens, regardless of age or status.
Fueled by rogue media reports from the West and a hope for the future, the citizens of East Germany peacefully protested the GDR out of existence in 1989. By then one in every seven citizens was spying for the Ministry for State Security – the Stasi.
The Leipzig my students and I experienced this summer is cosmopolitan, full of art and music, and it seems intent on sharing its painful history rather than forgetting it.
Perhaps this is most evident at the Stasi Museum on the Runde Ecke (the round corner). The artifacts of this museum are housed in the former Stasi headquarters, and some older Leipzigers say its rooms “still smell like the Stasi.”
One room had a stockpile of music cassette tapes stolen from the mail and reused to secretly record conversations of GDR citizens.
Another held jars used to store yellow cloths that kept the scent of individual citizens’ until the Stasi dogs needed it to help find enemies of the state, such as the person responsible for printing a flyer promoting an illegal meeting.
Yet another room displayed disguises worn by Stasi officers during surveillance and the camera equipment they used to record the movements and meetings of people in Leipzig.
These artifacts and hundreds more housed at the museum added dimension to the students’ understanding of the extreme measures the GDR took to protect itself from its own citizens and the influences of the West.
Today, 24 years after the GDR collapsed, Der Spiegel is the most read news magazine in Germany. It’s printed in German and published in English online. The last week we were in Germany, photos of Barack Obama and Edward Snowden shared Der Spiegel’s front cover. The story inside made it clear the Germans have a different perspective on surveillance of citizens and allies than people who have not experienced government control. Living in Germany gave us a remarkable perspective while the world began to sort through the allegations Snowden was making about the U.S. government.
After class in Leipzig one day as some students and I rode the Number 9 tram back to our apartment, we discussed the National Security Agency and Snowden’s actions, and tried to make sense of it all in the context of the history surrounding us.
We spoke of freedom and media, history and current events, secrets and sunshine.
I have replayed that conversation countless times in my mind, because between tram stops along the Goerdelerring, I was reminded that participation in learning never gets old.