Middle East studies in the News
Defending Despite Disagreement
by Stephan Schwartz
As a student in Professor Massad's Major Cultures class last semester, I sat through lecture after lecture and was stunned by the reactions of other Jewish students in the class. After any lecture in which Israel was discussed, I heard students complaining of Professor Massad's biased presentation of Israel and his "outright lies" about the actions of the Israeli government. Instead of considering the possibility that Professor Massad's views were valid, these students refused to question what their parents told them as children. They dismissed Professor Massad as a liar rather than reconsidering the validity of their preconceived notions. I'm not saying that I agree with everything that Professor Massad teaches—in fact, I disagree with much of it. My personal opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are too complex to be grouped with either of the two main camps. However, I believe it's part of my education to hear differing perspectives with which I disagree.
One goal of a college education is to gain new perspectives on a variety of issues. As students, our job is to rethink our assumptions and examine them to find their underlying factual support, to try to determine if they are, in fact, accurate. When a student enters a class in which his or her preconceived opinions on an issue are fundamentally different from those of the professor, the student has a difficult but necessary responsibility to recognize different perspectives.
Professor Massad has chosen to teach a course that is in line with his beliefs and scholarship. Could we reasonably expect Galileo to teach a geocentrically-biased course simply because some of his students complained that it was challenging and even "intimidating" to be presented with views so different from those to which they were accustomed?
President Bollinger passionately champions First Amendment rights. It would be fitting to see these principles govern his treatment of issues of academic freedom. The investigation into Professor Massad will be fruitless. How can one investigate something based solely on hearsay? The vast majority of students have had no problems with Professor Massad and would likely support granting him tenure. An extremely vocal minority of students with strong biases, a Zionist group based in Boston, and the New York Daily News should not be influencing the University's tenure decisions. The reviews submitted by students at the end of the semester are a much more valid basis upon which to make tenure decisions. Bollinger has an obligation to stand up for Columbia professors and should never have opened a public investigation based on weak hearsay.
As Bollinger teaches, the marketplace of ideas is one of the underlying principles governing free speech. It holds that the best way to reach truth is to permit everyone to voice his or her opinion. Professor Massad, as a scholar, should be permitted to state his views in the classroom, as should pro-Israeli professors. He should not be silenced based upon the viewpoints he teaches, nor should he be forced to present the "other side." It's the professor's prerogative to create a syllabus and teach a course how he or she sees fit. Since students choose the classes they take, they choose to learn about the subject from the professors' point of view.
As an advocate of academic freedom, I wouldn't want to silence any pro-Israeli or Zionist professors simply because I disagree with them, which is more than I can say for those who want Columbia to fire MEALAC professors such as Massad and Saliba. We should not look to hire more Zionist professors just to achieve an artificial balance. Such a balance would exclude professors who are neither pro-Palestinian nor pro-Israeli. What about the professor who has a non-mainstream but perhaps more valid viewpoint that will not be considered mainstream until 30 years from now? How can Columbia pave the way in any field if it only takes professors who represent only two mainstream viewpoints?Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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