10/11/2012 02:06 pm ET Updated Dec 11, 2012

Class Recess

Complaints about "cooking the books" took on a whole different meaning in Madison, Wisconsin, last week, and it had nothing to do with the latest unemployment and job growth numbers. Rather, it centered around cries of political partisanship leveled against University of Wisconsin-Madison instructors like myself who cancelled classes last Thursday so that our students could hear President Obama's speech on campus.

I can't speak for my fellow UW-Madison teachers, but for the students in my class, an interdisciplinary one that focuses on the Vietnam War, the experiences of Vietnam veterans, and the music of the Vietnam era, the President's visit was an unprecedented "teachable moment." Beyond the fact that presidential visits to one's college campus are exceedingly rare (i.e., President Obama's visit, his second to UW-Madison, made this just the third by a sitting president to the Wisconsin campus ever!), there was more, much more, to be learned.

That's because our students understand that presidents are also commanders-in-chief and that they have the ultimate responsibility for the wars the United States declares and wages. They have come to appreciate, I believe, how five U.S. presidents -- from Truman to Eisenhower to JFK, LBJ and Nixon -- did not want to be accused of being "soft on Communism," especially for the "domino nations" of Southeast Asia. For that reason, and others, the U.S "stayed the course in Vietnam," even as we'd watched the French, whom we were aiding, go down to defeat in 1954.

And they realize the heavy burden of conscience all presidents share for sending young American men (and now women) to their deaths and the physical and emotional toll it places upon the soldiers' families and communities. We even exhorted our students to protest the president's visit if they preferred and to acquaint themselves with his and Mitt Romney's positions on war, the military, and veterans. And we mentioned we would do the same things if Mr. Romney were coming to the UW-Madison campus.

Last, but not least, we think the opportunity allowed our students to better appreciate the commitment we're making in our class to the African American tradition of "call and response." The call of democracy is a call to action, which necessitates that we get out of our comfort zones. A healthy democracy requires citizens who think critically and clearly, balance perspectives, and make decisions; citizens who argue passionately, but treat one another with seriousness and respect.

It's a journey that's easier to make if we undertake it together. Last Thursday in Madison, the 100 students in ILS 275, I firmly believe, took a major step in that direction.