Monday, March 27, 2006

Melancholy Monday: What it Means to Educate

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset, speak on my campus. While his talk was entitled "Struggling Toward Peace: the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," the insights he shared with the audience were far more universal in their scope. What really struck me in his talk was how much more impressive and inspiring a speaker and human being he was than Stanley Fish, who gave the plenary address at the free speech conference.

Stanley Fish essentially argued that there is no such thing as "academic free speech," if we mean some metaphysical entity enshrined in laws. Rather, academic free speech is a necessary prerequiste for any academic to be able to do her job. What an academic needs to do her job is the widest latitude possible to pose, test, and teach various hypotheses or methods for seeking answers. For Fish, being an academic is a rather clinical, disembodied endeavor. He stressed that professors have no business trying to make their students "better people." And, he was clear that professors should absolutely not endorse any political positions in the classroom. I had the opportunity to ask him what he thought should happen to a faculty member--tenured or not--who did endorse a political position in the classroom. He responded that either the faculty member should be fired or suspended without pay. I wasn't at all surprised by this answer, although I wondered why he hadn't just signed on with Horowitz' mission, since his own understanding of what it means to educate is as short-sighted, narrow, and soulless as Horowitz' position is. (I should also note, to my surprise, that the President of FIRE argued that facutly members absolutely should be able to endorse a political position in the classroom).

I am baffled that any educator would actually think it is possible or preferable to make such a total and artificial distinction between endorsing an academic position and endorsing a political position. It is simply untenable. While certainly you can give many examples where the distinction is clear and where a professor who decides to endorse partisan positions in class is rather tasteless, you can also summon a great many blurred examples, where it's not at all clear if a faculty member is endorsing an academic or political position. My colleague brought up one good blurred example: taking Defense money for your academic research. How about taking Big Pharma money for your research? What about teaching a Service-Learning course?

Anyway, I don't want to talk about Fish anymore. He was such a disappointment and I am much more inspired by Avraham Burg. Speaker Burg clearly sees the value of education--unfettered critical inquiry that is curiousity driven, that breaks with conventions, and that is willing to take risks. More importantly, Burg understands that an ethics of responsibility to the Other underlies all intellectual pursuits. Part of being educated means listening to, paying attention to, and dialoguing with those who are radically different from you and your own experience. Being an educator and and at truth-seeker requires you to break with provincialism and chauvinism. You can't just shut the world and others out if you want to understand what humanity is.

This is what we should do in the classroom. It is not our job to simply tell people what they want to hear, to tell them a history that they are more comfortable with, or to endorse political and religious positions that don't call into question their own views. What we should be doing, in part, is teaching our students how to be fully engaged as democratic citizens. And, part of being in a democracy is learning how to speak to, understand, compromise with those who are completely different from you. Democracy is the absolute antithesis of Theocracy or Unilateralism. Democracy is a political system that requires dissent, debate, discussion and the will to empathize and understand other viewpoints.

Burg pointed out that we can go the way of war, bombs, and security measures, which is in the short-run effective and powerful. But, the outcome of war is always more trauma, death, violence, destabilization, and a destruction. The slow run is RESPECT for the other. What I hope that I am teaching my students is this important democratic value.

Now, before some of you dismiss this post or Burg's talk as pollyannish, let me clarify that neither I nor Burg think that you can talk, discuss, or dialogue with irrational extremists or fundamentalists (whether they be here in the US, Darfur, the Middle East or Israel). Sure, we need to acknowledge our need to protect ourselves. But, Burg's point is to emphasize the long view here. If you do not work toward a society of respect for the other, of dialogue, compromise, openness, cultural and spiritual exchange, but rather further build walls to keep the Other out, then the immediate future looks bad, violent, horrific.

I had tears in my eyes by the end of Burg's speech. He reminded me why I get up and bother to educate every day, why I am willing to work myself to the bones and endure a lot of the bullshit: I care about the future. I want a humane, peaceful and spiritually rich future for my students. I have zero interest in participating in allowing my students to avoid any encounter with difference, to ignore the world, and to ignore the humanity of those they take to be their bitterest enemies. I am not in the business of indoctrination, which is what these supporters of Horowitz and ABOR are interested in. I am in the business of education.