Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Edina vs. Saffy at Columbia

Molly is blogging again (yay!) and has a good response up to the whole Columbia University mess. There are just a couple things I'd like to add. What I find most upsetting about what's going on at Columbia, though, is that the professors don't think much of their undergraduate students, and complain that their college students are parochial, inexperienced fools. Rashid Khalidi expressed this view in New York Magazine, when holding forth on those Jewish kids from Long Island City, and the NYT reports that several Columbia professors share the sentiment.

Some pro-Mealac professors say the anti-Mealac students are, in effect, hicks, products of sheltered environments where pro-Palestinian views are absent. One faculty member suggested that there is "no underestimating how ignorant college students are."

The term "ignorant" can mean two different things--either someone lacks knowledge but is open to being informed, or a person willfully remains opposed to learning about alternate opinions. Students by definition are supposed to be ignorant in the former sense of the word. So it's useless for professors to complain that their students didn't come to college with a nuanced, detailed, and balanced understanding of world events. The job of a professor is to inform, to give facts, and to challenge (not necessarily disprove, and certainly not just angrily shout down) students' preconceived notions. While it seems lame and obnoxious even to fellow undergrads when "that guy" (it's almost always a guy--ask Summers for the biological explanation behind that one--though I'll admit I've been "that girl"...) goes on and on in a freshman seminar about how he alone knows what Plato meant by whatever, but how much humility is to be expected? Must students preface everything they say in class with, "I am but a lowly undergrad from the sticks/suburbs/Upper East Side and what I'm about to say is surely way off, and no more than a pathetic parrotting of things my parents told me, but..."?

Even those who have conquered ignorance (i.e. professors) still tend to stick with their originally-held views, and frequently have no more nuanced political stances than do their students. It is easy to move in academic circles and never encounter conservative views, though intelligent conservatives do, in fact, exist. This is why a group of liberal professors created Left2Right, precisely because liberal academics are notoriously incapable of comprehending where their intelligent, reasonable (i.e. not Ann Coulter) political adversaries are coming from. But "learning where their adversaries are coming from" often just means learning more clever ways to bring the opposition down.

And this idea that the "bad" type of ignorance, among college students or others, is correlated with whether one is pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, or somewhere in between, is just ridiculous.

What this really comes down to, though, is that professors and college students are engaged in the Absolutely Fabulous, Edina versus Saffy conflict. The older generation can't believe how uncool the younger one is, how not with-it they seem to be, while the younger generation can't believe the idiocy and trendiness its elders. While the Middle East conflict is complex, with both sides having legitimate grievances and having made serious errors, on college campuses, being pro-Palestinian is chic and being pro-Israeli is not. Is this because Jews are supposed to be dorky, so whoever opposes Jews is by definition cool? Is it because keffiyehs are thought to be more glam than yarmulkes? Who can say. It's just that, in the campus debate between the hip and square, between the left-leaning in-crowd and the mysterious Red Americans who are to be studied from a careful distance, the pro-Israelis (a group that was once considered a subset of the left) are lumped in with the folks who don't want evolution in their textbooks.

The Times piece acknowledges the role that trendiness plays in all of this:

Pro-Israel professors on campus, who have been conspicuously quiet, say they feel cowed and nervously out of fashion. "Many Jewish faculty members feel uncomfortable with this whole issue and wish it would go away," said Stephanie G. Neuman, a senior research scholar and the director of the university's comparative defense studies program, who has taught at Columbia since the 1970's. "Most of them come out of the same leftist, assimilationist background as I do. We're uncomfortable with the idea that the left has abandoned Israel and maybe abandoned Jews. We're in cognitive dissonance."

It might just be that I've been studying the Dreyfus Affair...but the parallels are uncanny. Assimilated, free-thinking Jews are afraid to protest anti-Semitism (or even to investigate whether it is, in fact a problem and then do something about it if it is) because they're afraid to seem whiny and annoying and thus provoke further anti-Jewish sentiment. Rather than argue forcefully for their own role in determining what direction the left is to take, Jewish leftists worry about overstepping their bounds. And it's understandable why they worry, since people like Rashid Khalidi seem to think that pro-Israeli Jews are pretty much running the show as it is. But there's nothing intrinsically conservative about being pro-Israel (being pro-Sharon, perhaps, but that's something else), and leftist or socialist Zionist views were and are hardly inconceivable. Allegience to the left is allegience to principles, not to the supposedly left-wing side of some conflict currently being waged at Columbia.

No comments: