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Though the family friend was seeking my advice as a Jew, it is as a teacher that I feel compelled to respond. For it is not Judaism but education that is under attack here. After all, no one positioned to extricate Israelis and Palestinians from the fate they seem locked into will care about what a handful of professors in Upstate New York — or elsewhere — have to say on the matter. But such statements do affect how learning is structured on college campuses.
“As feminist teachers,” the Syracuse statement continues, “we are committed to creating classroom environments that foster critical and antiracist thinking, and that actively promote careful and deep engagement with issues and situations that are deemed too complex and too difficult to study and understand.” That might sound like encouraging students to think. But as the rest of the statement makes clear, only thought that yields preordained conclusions counts as “careful and deep engagement.” The professors are so certain of their ability to treat complex and difficult issues that, once the issues have been analyzed, no room remains for disagreement or doubt. Complexity dissolves into simplicity.
For several years now, activists on the left have been insisting that the situation in Israel-Palestine is simple. To complicate, we are told, is to be complicit. After the October 7 massacre, memes began to circulate with the hashtag #still-not-complicated. The self-proclaimed “feminist teachers” at Syracuse University who ignore the rape and degradation of Israeli women presumably agree.
One might have supposed that professors would want to complicate issues that people — even people with whom they are in sympathy politically — assume are simple. Socrates, after all, regularly irritated his interlocutors by compelling them to rethink notions, like friendship and justice, whose meanings they had taken for granted. The Syracuse professors aim at the opposite: to take issues that the uninitiated consider complicated and show how they are actually simple.
One might have supposed that professors would want to complicate issues that people — even people with whom they are in sympathy politically — assume are simple.
Students today are too often being trained to apply a simplistic liberatory paradigm to all problems, whether suitable or not. If the facts resist the paradigm, facts can be ignored. Certainty is all. Skepticism is shunned.
A former colleague likes to recount an episode with a perplexed student who visited her during office hours. “When we were reading Adam Smith,” the student told her, “I thought his arguments were convincing. Then we read Marx, whose arguments were also convincing. And now I’m finding Max Weber persuasive — but they can’t all be right, since they disagree.” My colleague smiled and took the student’s exasperation as a sign that she was doing something right in the classroom. Serious minds grappling with serious problems don’t comfortably converge on a simple solution. Becoming intellectually serious requires accepting that discomfort.
What my colleague considered success, far too many other professors today would deem failure. “Our classrooms have always been — and will continue to be — spaces where challenging, dissenting, and necessary conversations take place in the service of justice, liberation, and radical social transformation,” the Syracuse statement concludes. But what about the challenging, dissenting, and necessary conversations that don’t serve those ends? Or ones that call those ends into question? Should we really believe that only ideas advocating “radical social transformation” are worth considering?
We’ve produced a generation unequipped to deal with the reality of politics.
Imagine being a student at Syracuse, returning to class after receiving that statement in your inbox. You’ve just been told the party line. Will you pose prodding questions? Will you try out counterarguments? Will you allow yourself to doubt? A classroom designed to enforce an orthodoxy — any orthodoxy — rather than respect students’ autonomy to think corrupts the teaching vocation.
We don’t need campus presidents to fire professors or silence student protests. Such actions, whatever their legal and ethical merits, don’t get at the root of the problem. Removing a handful of academics for egregious behavior leaves the reigning paradigm untouched. Banning student groups and condemning slogans distract from why students have adopted their views in the first place.
Students today are too often being trained to apply a simplistic liberatory paradigm to all problems, whether suitable or not.
Rather, we need to help our students become better thinkers. This can and should take many forms. Studying political and diplomatic history, for instance, allows students to see how interests are always pursued in the face of constraints and leadership requires choosing between imperfect options. And given the contentiousness of war, learning military history would help them appreciate its complexities. When engaging with theory, evaluation should predominate over endorsement. Students should be exposed to conflicting ideas and encouraged to take each seriously — regardless of a professor’s personal commitments. Finally, anyone who reads world literature with care couldn’t possibly reduce human experience to the kind of moralistic binary put forward by the authors of solidarity statements. How different might campus discussions on Middle East politics be if students spent more time studying writers from the region like S. Yizhar, Samira Azzam, Dahlia Ravikovitch, and Sayed Kashua?
What teachers can’t do is allow students to leave our classrooms thinking the world is a simpler place than they did when they entered. Colleges should cultivate a mix of curiosity and humility. It’s OK for students to leave perplexed rather than energized. A syllabus is not a manifesto.
This all presupposes professors who value such pedagogy. They exist. I’ve encountered them, as teachers and colleagues. Some of my students are now growing into the role. But it’s hard to know how many we are. There’s little professional incentive to buck academic trends and plenty of pressure to go along. This needs to change. Those who oppose the deformation of our classrooms must find the courage to speak up. We now know the price of appeasement.
If we want students to be better thinkers, we need to become more serious as teachers.