Stand­ing up to a boy­cott of ideas

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY JILL S. SCH­NEI­DER­MAN The writer is a pro­fes­sor of earth science at Vas­sar Col­lege.

In­March 2014, I andmy co-teacher stood with 27 Vas­sar Col­lege stu­dents at the sparkling Auja Spring in the parched West Bank of the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries. We lis­tened at­ten­tively as en­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tors from the Auja Eco Cen­ter and a Pales­tinian grad­u­ate stu­dent from Al-Quds Univer­sity ex­plained the Auja vil­lage’s de­pen­dency on this sole wa­ter source. Sadly, this learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence al­most didn’t hap­pen. My col­league and I were nearly pre­vented from em­bark­ing on the trip by op­po­si­tion from a sur­pris­ing source: the fac­ulty and stu­dents of our own aca­demic in­sti­tu­tion.

I am a tenured ge­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Vas­sar, an elite lib­eral-arts school. I re­search, teach and write about the com­plex and in­ti­mate con­nec­tions be­tween land and wa­ter re­sources and so­cial jus­tice. For the study trip I led to Is­rael and the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries, I cre­ated a syl­labus de­signed to ex­plore dif­fi­cult is­sues and en­gage di­verse per­spec­tives that was vet­ted by Vas­sar’s fac­ulty and ad­min­is­tra­tion. I have suc­cess­fully led nu­mer­ous sim­i­lar trips to lo­ca­tions such as the Ap­palachian Moun­tains and the Mo­jave Desert. My mod­est goals for such trips are to im­part knowl­edge and share ex­pe­ri­ences with my stu­dents that can be re­al­ized only by trav­el­ing to the re­gions we are ex­am­in­ing. In study­ing arid re­gions with­out see­ing the sit­u­a­tion with their own eyes, it is dif­fi­cult for stu­dents from places where wa­ter is rel­a­tively abun­dant to think about so­lu­tions to the prob­lems that oc­cur when lo­cal res­i­dents must share a mea­ger sup­ply.

Sev­eral months be­fore my trip, the Amer­i­can Stud­ies As­so­ci­a­tion voted to sup­port an aca­demic boy­cott of Is­rael, a po­si­tion that sev­eral fac­ulty mem­bers at my col­lege also held. Ap­par­ently, my course and the study trip as­so­ci­ated with it were sub­ject to the boy­cott, and the trip be­came a flash point for the boy­cott, di­vest­ment and sanc­tions — BDS, for short— de­bate on cam­pus. Protesters bear­ing anti-Is­rael signs stood chant­ing out­side my class­room; stu­dents were pres­sured by their peers to drop the course. My in­tegrity was at­tacked in a stand­ing-room-only fo­rum at Vas­sar’s cam­pus cen­ter led by pro-BDS fac­ulty mem­bers. The stress af­fected my health, and my faith in long­time col­leagues and the col­lege ad­min­is­tra­tion was shaken. If not for the sup­port of my fam­ily and re­luc­tance to yield to such tac­tics, I very well might have backed out of the trip. And I and my stu­dents would have missed out on an ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­nity of a life­time.

What are the im­pli­ca­tions for ed­u­ca­tion when stu­dents are pres­sured to avoid unique and dif­fi­cult ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties? Is it re­spon­si­ble for ed­u­ca­tors to sup­port an aca­demic boy­cott— es­sen­tially, a boy­cott of ideas? Isn’t our mis­sion to teach stu­dents to en­gage with ideas that are dif­fer­ent from their own? Vas­sar’s mis­sion state­ment as­serts that the col­lege “nur­tures in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity” and “re­spect­ful de­bate.” Is it con­sis­tent with this mis­sion to re­strict study trips to re­gions of the world where the po­lit­i­cal land­scape is sim­i­lar to our own (which many would ar­gue has its own share of over­looked in­jus­tices)? We are in dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory if our abil­ity to even travel for study’s sake to a po­lit­i­cally charged re­gion can be blocked by po­lit­i­cal agen­das.

This is not to say that protest does not have its place; of course stu­dents should protest and ar­gue about po­si­tions with which they dis­agree. I would have liked for the stu­dents hold­ing plac­ards and chant­ing slo­gans out­side my class­room to come in­side and de­bate in full sen­tences with a fuller com­mand of the is­sues at hand. Had they done so, I am­sure we would have had some chal­leng­ing and un­com­fort­able dis­cus­sions. But we would have all grown from the ex­change, and we would have come closer to ful­fill­ing the mis­sion of my col­lege and ed­u­ca­tors ev­ery­where. By fos­ter­ing nar­row per­spec­tives, bul­ly­ing stymies learn­ing and is anti-in­tel­lec­tual.

I un­der­stand from na­tional re­ports that what hap­pened at Vas­sar is hap­pen­ing in some form or another at aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions across the coun­try. In­stead of work­ing to en­gage de­bate and re­fute con­tentious ideas, stu­dents and fac­ulty are shut­ting down av­enues of in­quiry and block­ing the at­tempts of oth­ers to ex­am­ine dif­fi­cult is­sues. Though it came at great per­sonal cost, I de­cided to stick to my ed­u­ca­tional prin­ci­ples, and I’m glad I did. By learn­ing on the ground from Pales­tini­ans, Is­raelis and Jor­da­ni­ans in­stead of just from texts, my stu­dents and I came to ap­pre­ci­ate why wa­ter is­sues are cen­tral to the con­flict in the re­gion. We also learned lessons about prin­ci­pled stances and forms of protest that I never would have thought to put on my syl­labus. This is some­thing I would teach again — field trip in­cluded — in a heart­beat.

A class trip with my stu­dents to Is­rael and the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries be­came a flash point for the boy­cott, di­vest­ment and sanc­tions — BDS, for short — de­bate on our col­lege cam­pus.

BIGSTOCK PHOTO

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