The Gaza protests should be about teachable moments, not shutdowns

There is ample opportunity to educate students about the nuances of history, ethics and economics. Why aren’t universities doing so, asks Harvey Graff 

May 27, 2024
Informal teaching outside
Source: iStock/Drazen Zigic

The furore around the war in Gaza confronts US higher education with perhaps the greatest challenge in its modern history. Many of the foundational and aspirational myths espoused by historical figureheads ranging from Cardinal Newman to Clark Kerr and Derek Bok are forgotten under today’s administrative race to suppress almost entirely peaceful student protests in support of innocent Palestinian lives.

Under enormous external pressure, the pursuit of truth, wisdom and understanding via the open exchange of differing views has been abandoned. So has the idea – still reiterated in university marketing – that universities are special, more or less separate spaces in which young people are taught to evaluate sources, ideas and interpretations individually and collectively. Instead, students are being taught that some views are worthy not so much of debate as of suppression by physical force, arrest and/or forced confession.

There are, admittedly, a handful of counter cases of universities that have made at least temporary compromises over campus space and begun constructive discussions about their investments; examples include Brown, Northwestern and Minnesota, as well as Trinity College Dublin and various Australian institutions.

But few universities are capitalising on the numerous opportunities for “teachable moments” presented by the controversies. For instance, economists point out that university investments in Israel are small parts of portfolios and of little consequences to Israel’s economy and armed forces. That does not reduce the power of Boycott-Divestment-Sanction as a powerful rallying cry, of course, but all sides do need to understand much better the political economy of higher education regarding institutional investments and possibilities for divestment. It is an opportunity for reflection and learning.

The same is true of claims that the protests are antisemitic. No one who has studied freshman English, basic logic or history can interpret criticism of armed attacks and large-scale indiscriminate killing by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), under the direction of the Netanyahu government, as “antisemitic” or “anti-Jewish”. Similarly, a simplistic interpretation of “anti-Zionism” and the rhetorical saying “from the river to the sea” as calls for the abolition of either all Jews or of Israel as an independent nation betrays an inability to understand symbolic language and linguistic expression. The protesters – approximately half of whom are reputedly Jewish – know this far better than administrators or outside influencers.

Of course, some genuine antisemitism exists, but what of the almost complete silence about the equally serious problem of Islamophobia? Both alleged and confirmed instances of antisemitism and Islamaphobia, considered in cultural and historical context, also represent opportunities for teaching and learning – as do issues around free speech rights.

There is no one “solution” to the ignorance and hostility currently on display. My long experience, dating back to the 1960s, suggests that it can best be addressed by a combination of efforts to promoting exchange and enhancing knowledge: in other words, higher education. Specific examples include both informal and organised “teach-ins” among undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and knowledgeable community members: both one-off efforts and continuing programmes. The involvement of regional, religious and national historians of Judaism and Islam, Israel and Palestine would be central. In the more medium term, this could be parlayed into expanded and new formal courses in religion, history and reading symbolic language and rhetoric.

Striking balances can be tricky, of course. All parties do need occasional outlets for ideologically-tinged emotions – but respectful, constructive exchange must always be a goal. Some informal activities must be student-activated and led, but with agreed-upon boundaries. Most require the involvement of and moderation by faculty, senior graduate students, certain administrators and others.

Campuses have always been battlegrounds, but I often think of my experiences in May 1970 at Northwestern University, hardly a hotbed of student radicalism. The day after the National Guard massacre at Kent State University, a large group of us literally tore up Sheridan Road, a major route north. Yet no one called the local police, highway patrol or National Guard. With the active involvement of many faculty, students, professors and administrators, a one-week “strike” was quickly agreed, during which all classes were cancelled and almost all faculty stayed away (I recall one young historian who had to work on his “tenure book” posting a large sign of explanation on his office door).

Some students reasonably worried about the impact on their grades but administrators, faculty and students came to an arrangement that any of us could take a “T” for “taken” for any or all courses that quarter: full credit without formal letter-grade evaluation. And I vividly recall serving on the Department of History’s faculty-student reforms committee, discussing possible revisions in the curriculum, new courses and changes in requirements. Some of these were institutionalised.

During the preceding academic year, two young experts on Indian and Latin American history had launched a for-credit, upper-division history course on US participation in the then raging, highly protested Vietnam War from a historical perspective. It was among the most extraordinary educational experiences of my life. Many of the participants were among the university’s most brilliant and active students, some of them future academics. The course informed both protesters and protests well beyond the classroom walls.

It frightens me that, 50 years on, leading campus and off-campus constituencies no longer recognise such educational opportunities.

Harvey J. Graff is professor emeritus of English and history, inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies, and academy professor at Ohio State University. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian is in press.

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