Political Correctness, Academic Relevance and Israel

There have been a steady stream of articles coming out lately, which can broadly be grouped in two streams: Left and Right.

On the Right, we hear repeatedly that “Political Correctness” is killing dialog on college campuses. To this line of thought, American colleges have become extraordinarily fragile and delicate zones of political indoctrination. If you listen to this conversation, you would not know that a great deal of our work on campus involves teaching math, poetry and physics. A huge amount of what we do is not really political at all.

On the other side, thinkers on the Left have been arguing that market forces are killing a commitment to learning. These authors see a weakening of academia’s commitment to thinking for its own sake, or even thinking that takes two or three steps before effecting change or profit in the “real world.” If you listen to this conversation, you might think that there was an idyllic past when the best and brightest learned to think perfectly in glorious Liberal Arts universities. Suffice it to say, there are problems with that story.

Both points of view have merit, and both are talking to their own side.

For the first, it is certainly true that college campuses do not welcome a truly free exchange of ideas. We have become increasingly comfortable, as academics, avoiding controversy rather than coping with it. In doing so, we have lost a good measure of our relevance, and, ironically enough, a good measure of our ability to persuade our students of anything. We have made college campuses more inclusive, and we have more work to do, but there are indeed signs that in some ways we have gone too far in restricting thought.

For the second, it is also true that the market should have a role in the college experience, but it should not be the determining factor. Students should be encouraged to explore ideas and commit to majors that do not immediately deliver them into jobs. This is true for all kinds of reasons, but one of them is that the best way to produce good doctors and entrepreneurs is to value music and French. We cannot raise a creative generation by holding a stopwatch impatiently while they have any abstract thought.

On one side is the market vs. thought paradigm, on the other is the Political Correctness versus thought paradigm. And neither intersect.

The widening chasm between these two paths of thought is apparent in the dialog on Israel and Palestine, and it has been for some time. On many college campuses, the platform of both the Democrat and Republican parties is avowed by most of our students and administrations, while in the classroom and cafeteria, it is essentially treated as blasphemy. Both parties support Israel and advocate a Palestinian State that would peacefully coexist with that country. The movement to reject and divest from Israel remains loud, but it has stalled silently. As a result of this silence, all of the subtleties of the debate, such as the Iran deal, cannot be discussed, except in the shrill tones of diatribe, the comfortable platitudes of consensus, or the condescending mockery of irony (such as the anti-Semitic humor of John Oliver).
This silence on Israel is a problem in itself, and it is also the symptom of a much larger problem.

The irony of all this is that as academics, we are actually trained to facilitate difficult conversations, and to understand and mediate divergent points of view. We study their origins and function. Though we may not always be perfect at doing so, our fundamental responsibility is to see a variety of possible viewpoints and to identify only the truly obscene or offensive ones, and then protect and encourage a dialogue between those that remain.

We as academics bemoan our irrelevance when, in reality, we could easily make ourselves more relevant, and more marketable, than we ever have been. We could do so by deliberately hosting contentious conversations rather than squelching them. We have been complicit in our own drift toward obsolescence, and the solution can only happen when we identify the most divergent legitimate views we can find and enable a productive, civil and intelligent conversation between them.

About the Author
Michael Saenger is an Associate Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America.