Issues in liberation: Central America

May 26, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

“Issues in Liberation: Central America” is a course every Stanford student should take. But next year, due to a budget shortage, it’s in danger of being dropped.

Most of you have probably never heard of it, and that’s unsurprising. I only heard about it from someone who recommended it to me. Since the course includes immersion travel to either El Salvador or Nicaragua over spring break, it is limited to about fifteen students each year, so it isn’t widely known. It also resides in religious studies, one of the smallest departments by major on campus, which limits its visibility. At Stanford, where computer science courses – and STEM courses in general – dominate students’ schedules, there simply isn’t as much value (or money) given to courses like this one.

On a more structural level, the course also faces the institutional reality that Stanford administrators do not adequately care about funding the humanities, and, particularly, learning that centers people of color from third world countries. The dilemma facing this course is not an isolated incident of institutional apathy towards learning centered on the experiences of people of color. Take for example, Stanford’s treatment of community centers. This year, the Who’s Teaching Us (WTU) campaign showcased the ongoing need to support students of color through its demands for increased faculty diversity, among many changes it recommends.

These historical and current examples illustrate that the threat to cut “Issues in Liberation” isn’t a coincidence; it’s a consequence of the administration in charge. In addition to implementing the WTU demands, the Stanford administration needs to ensure this course’s survival. Here’s why.

First, the course is led by a brilliant teaching team: religious studies professor Tom Sheehan and Pastor Geoff Browning. Sheehan spent years reporting on El Salvador for The New York Times during the height of the country’s civil war in the 1980s, while Browning brings a liberation theology perspective to the course. Both have been to El Salvador many times. My year, the class was lucky to also have anthropology professor Kathy Coll (now at the University of San Francisco) as an instructor.

Second, students get exposure to classic Latin American texts such as Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins.” There aren’t that many classes on Latin American history and culture at Stanford to begin with, and this one features an outstanding and diverse syllabus: Galeano, Testimony from Salvadorans, Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Readings on postcolonial feminist theology. Connections to liberation movements in Palestine, Latin America and beyond.

Third, and most importantly, there is the trip to El Salvador (in recent years, due to security concerns, the course has gone to Nicaragua instead). This is the kind of opportunity Stanford prides itself on providing for its students. Stanford students taking the things they learn in the classroom outside the walls of the academy.

My year, our class was led through El Salvador by Voices on the Border, a nonprofit grassroots organization dedicated to just development in the lower Lempa region of El Salvador. Voices has been working for more than two decades directly with Salvadorans to fight the corporate development of El Salvador.

The experiences I had in El Salvador were indelible. I will long remember our visits to the Christian base communities in the north of the country, where we got to see liberation theology in practice. There’s an amazing cognitive dissonance you get when you enter a Salvadoran Catholic church with Jesus on the altar and a picture of Marx next to it! I will similarly remember our trip to the memorial for the 1981 El Mozote massacre, when U.S.-funded and trained death squads killed hundreds of people, including many children. We spoke with a tour guide at the memorial who vividly recounted what happened. Almost everyone in the class broke down in tears from her stories of our country’s involvement in the massacre.

Pedagogically, the teaching team led group reflections each night we were in El Salvador. These discussions forced students to grapple with difficult questions: What was our responsibility to El Salvador as visitors to the country and as citizens of the United States, the nation responsible for much of El Salvador’s bloody history? Meeting people from El Salvador made me realize the inadequacy of learning from written sources when one can actually speak with and listen to the people the books are written about. Those histories we had read about? Those were these people’s lives.

Returning from El Salvador after spring break, I knew everyone in my class was deeply affected by the trip. Not everyone had the same reaction I did to the readings and to the El Mozote massacre. There was genuine disagreement over U.S. foreign policy in El Salvador and Central America. This is as it should be in any class. But I know that despite our political disagreements, everyone in the class sincerely valued our time in El Salvador.

It is my deep hope that this course will continue for many years to come. I am not exaggerating when I say this course helped make me who I am today. So this is my plea to Stanford, to anyone reading this who may be able to or want to help: Don’t let this course fall through the cracks. Restore the funding. Please let me know if you want to work with me and others to try and help.

– Cole Manley


Contact Cole Manley at csmanley ‘at’

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