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How to debate BDS on campus? Jonathan Marks says be reasonable

In his new book on liberal education, the conservative professor argues the importance of inculcating the instinct for thought and reexamination
Illustrative: During 'Israel Apartheid Week' at Columbia University, pro-Israel students counter anti-Israel displays with a 12-foot-high Pinocchio doll meant to call attention to “lies about Israel,” March 1, 2016. (Courtesy Students Supporting Israel – Columbia)
Illustrative: During 'Israel Apartheid Week' at Columbia University, pro-Israel students counter anti-Israel displays with a 12-foot-high Pinocchio doll meant to call attention to “lies about Israel,” March 1, 2016. (Courtesy Students Supporting Israel – Columbia)

Jonathan Marks’s Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education shows what higher education can be at its best. But his subtitle has it wrong. Marks may be a conservative, and he may want to sway his fellow conservatives the most, but his argument is universal, and that’s the beauty of it. 

We live in a hyper-partisan world. Trump groupies and traditional conservatives are fighting over the future of the Republican party. Democrats, having sufficiently united around the goal of defeating Trump, are now more likely to retreat to their centrist/reformist vs. progressive/democratic socialist corners. Fox News and MSNBC make money by demonizing political opponents and encouraging their audiences to cheer and feel smug. Social media forces us even further into our own political realities. 

Yet the issue of free speech, and that of its close cousin academic freedom, cut across all these lines, with conservatives and liberals scattered around the rhetorical battlefield. 

On one side of the divide are those who see the campus not primarily as a place of learning where all views should be aired and examined, but rather a venue for political warfare, where, as Marks aptly puts it, “[I]n politics, we have to twist the views of our rivals and appeal to unworthy impulses.” On the other side are those who agree with Marks that “[w]e should ask students to join a community for whose members speech is not a weapon to deploy against the enemy, but the means by which people who pursue the truth and hope to live according to what they capture of it teach and learn from the other.”

Marks shows why academic freedom is worth fighting for – he documents what a liberal education can do, that its purpose is “not a set of skills but a kind of person,” that universities must be “more than career development offices with classrooms attached.” He wrote about Earl Shorris, who, “persuaded that the humanities, not job training, were the road out of poverty, . . .[and who] assembled a class consisting almost wholly of students at or below 150% of the poverty threshold. The class included homeless people. It included people who had been in prison and people who could barely read a tabloid newspaper.

To this unlikely audience, Shorris proposed an education, which came to be called the Clemente Course, in philosophy, poetry, American history, logic and art history.” Not everyone completed the course, but Marks notes that some “earned credit from Bard College” (where I direct the Center for the Study of Hate). A liberal education can be not only inspiring, but uplifting. More than 10,000 people have participated in the Clemente Course worldwide. 

But where does “reasonableness” come in? My initial reaction to Mark’s plea for reasonableness was a slight case of PTSD. It brought me back to law school in the 1970s, where the perspective of the mythical “reasonable man” (who I hope is now called the “reasonable person”) was the test case for how to view many legal controversies. But Marks isn’t arguing for an abstract, sterile, Mr. Spock view of the world. He appreciates that we are all human beings with pushes and pulls and identities and zealotries and interests and firm convictions. He is arguing, rather, for the importance of reason, the quest for knowledge, and perhaps most importantly the inculcation of the instinct for thought and reexamination.

Marks acknowledges the left-leaning bent of many professors while disagreeing with the assertion of some conservatives that “left-wing colleagues run our campuses.” Yet he laments a climate where it’s “easier to sit silently when one’s colleagues are, without evidence, accused of harboring a racial bias so deep that it infects their every argument than it is to object.” The problem, Marks says, quoting Werner Dannhauser, is that “What is unsayable becomes unthinkable for most human beings.” Marks has a warning about trigger warnings and the quest to hunt microaggression, arguing that these efforts may be doing more harm than good, and perhaps they should be paused until we know if that’s the case.

The book also has a chapter on the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Marks presents it as a “case study,” and acknowledges he’s a partisan. He views the arguments for BDS as “propaganda,” ones that are unreasonable and which treat universities “as part of an ‘academic-military-prison-industrial complex,’ against which it is at war.” “When you think you’re in a state of emergency, high-flown talk of becoming reasonable people is a distraction, or perhaps the oppressor’s disguise,” he writes. 

I half expected Marks’s point-by-point delineation of the reasons he detests BDS to be a clearing of this throat before marshaling all campus resources to go to war against it, as some conservatives do. But even though he argues BDS is unreasonable Marks knows that it is still, on campus, an idea. He warns that universities and colleges “should be wary of BDS. . . . But they shouldn’t squash it or its ideals. . . . Communities of inquiry should be distinguished by their reluctance to shut down even obnoxious and radical challengers.”

The rules of campus

And that’s the point. Political partisans sometimes fail to appreciate the campus as a special institution that deserves to run by its own set of rules because of its unique mission – to teach young people how to think, not what to think. Marks is spot on when he writes, “When I have my pro-Israel hat on, outside the college setting, I try to win the argument, even to demoralize my anti-Israel opponents. In a college setting, one should, when confronted with a challenging argument, confront it where it’s strongest.” 

Marks is witty throughout, but he is most passionate about the reason he’s a teacher in the first place. He cautions not to fight fire with fire, bemoaning Canary Mission, a “shameful” project to deny future employment to students who do such things as retweet pro-BDS statements. “If we can’t, without suppressing viewpoints, compete with propagandists, we may as well fold our tents,” he says. After all, “the mission of universities is to educate, not destroy students, and so those who care about universities will do the work of exposing anti-Semitism in such a way as to do as little harm to students as possible. . . I think I speak for most professors, including the pro-Israel ones, when I say that, rare cases aside, when you go after my students, I’m inclined to go after you.” 

But he doesn’t just throw up his hands. He circles back to the assertion that universities are “communities of reasonable people . . . The way one opposes BDS should honor that aspiration.” He chronicles how an anti-Israel resolution was defeated at the American Historical Association, by the hard work of academics who documented, with footnotes, how those promoting the resolution had offered a distorted case, while they argued that historians should recognize the “limits of [their] ability as historians . . . to reach a judgment about the facts in dispute.”

He ends the chapter with a story from his own campus, where he co-taught a course on Zionism, which “included Zionists and those who had serious doubts about Zionism.” Throughout the semester “they were compelled to look at the same evidence together and hold each other’s arguments up to scrutiny.” In other words, they learned because they were “treated as reasonable.”

About the Author
Kenneth S. Stern is the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, and the author most recently of The Conflict over The Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate. For 25 years, he was the American Jewish Committee's expert on antisemitism, and he was also the lead drafter of the “Working Definition of Antisemitism."
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