Thursday, April 07, 2005

Oh Columbia

I hope (but doubt) that I will be forgiven for not being too sympathetic with Jewish students at Columbia who have complained about verbal abuse by Arabists in the Department of Middle East and Asian Language and Cultures. It's not that their claims are unfounded or that the department is free of bias in the teaching of Middle East history and events. Although the Columbia committee examining the complaints essentially downplayed them, there is plenty of evidence that Jewish students were subjected to verbal abuse by pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel faculty. As happens often in academia and elsewhere, ideology displaced scholarship.

Yet, the students are misguided, as are their allies who brought in video equipment, but not because of the much-traveled principle of academic freedom which is a vital consideration even when professors cross a line and say things that they should not say. Like the rest of us, academics have opinions, especially about the subjects they teach and specialize in. Where there is controversy, it is inevitable that bias - perhaps masquerading as scholarship - will intrude into the classroom. I imagine that strongly pro-Israel faculty (admittedly they aren't as many as the antis) also color what they teach.

What is troubling about the student complaints is that inadvertently they trivialize the problem at Columbia by focusing on what this or that professor said to this or that student, ignoring thereby the more legitimate issue of a great university allowing a key department to shortchange students and scholarship by promoting a monolithic outlook in a field where there is a great deal of diversity.

By focusing on what were verbal exchanges between faculty and students, the complainants exhibit much naivete about what transpires in academia and, for that matter, in nearly all social relationships. People communicate through written and spoken words. Whether the relationship is spousal, between parents and children, among friends, in a classroom or office or other settings, angry and even nasty language is utilized from time to time and while this is not a circumstance to be celebrated, it is important to maintain perspective. When the relationship is hierarchical, as in families, classrooms and between employers and employees, there is apt to be on occasion the added element of intimidation. Faculty handbooks, as the one in force at Columbia, may require tolerance and civility, yet it is inevitable that even without ideological or sharp differences of opinion, nasty words will be used on occasion by faculty. That's life. Interestingly, the Talmud contains numerous extremely sharp exchanges between teachers and students and between colleagues.

It is not that insulting or intimidating language is justified. It is inevitable. Unless there is a constant pattern of abuse and/or the student or employee is treated unfairly in grades or salary or other working conditions, this is not something worth making a federal case over. Whether in a university or yeshiva, those who teach should be given some slack and this must include the recognition that incautious language may be utilized. To insist on any other standard is to turn education into a war zone.

An additional reason for discomfort about the Columbia situation is that there was the unauthorized filming of what went on in classrooms and the collateral role played by outsiders. Snooping, including for righteous causes, is rarely proper. As television and movie programs that filmed family experiences have demonstrated, such exercises tend to distort.

There are exceptions to the civil libertarian notion that the best way to combat bad speech is more speech. What transpires on campus is not an exception to this principle. The antidote to Columbia allowing its Middle East Department to become a center of scholarly bias is to insist that the university include faculty who are representative of the diversity of scholarship in the field. Columbia's primary sin is that it has tolerated the near stranglehold on Middle East teaching that is the legacy of Edward Said, the pro-Palestinian, rock-throwing prevaricator. Yes, he was also quite charming.

Columbia is not the only university that has for too long tolerated one-sidedness in teaching and research about the Middle East. It may have a greater obligation to be fair because it has a great many Jewish students, most of whom I believe would be turned off if the faculty were one-sided in support of Israel. This is what we should be kvetching about. In fairness, the mandate of the "Ad Hoc Grievance Committee" that reported last week did not include investigating any departments or curricula.

There is an additional flaw in the approach taken by Columbia students. Wherever Jews turn, there are irksome issues. The world is a complicated place, more so because we now live in a global community. We Jews have, so to speak, many issues on our plate. Prudence, if not also wisdom, suggests that we pick our issues, our fights. This is true also in families and in all other relationships where prudent people ignore much of what they might rightfully complain about. The alternative is to be in a state of permanent agitation, a world in which without respite we do battle against real and imagined enemies.

For too many good reasons we have developed sensitive antennae that detect even slight slights and wrongs against Jews. We see enemies nearly everywhere and we constantly perceive danger. We do have enemies and there are dangers, which is all the more reason why we should distinguish between what is consequential and what is trivial, between the wrongs that do not merit bringing in the full artillery and those that do.

A year ago we crusaded against Mel Gibson's "Passion," surely an exercise in anti-Semitism. But was the battle worth fighting? Is the Columbia crusade worth the effort, a question that gains in urgency because our primary concern on campus is to convince Jews to remain Jewish. Unless I am deaf and blind to what is happening among Jews on college campuses, I sense that the Columbia battle is alienating Jewish students and faculty.