Earlier this month a conference was held at the venerable University of Pennsylvania. The purpose of the conference was to promote boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel -- BDS. Not to put too fine a point on it, it was a Hate Israel conclave. (Cf. the report by Guy Herschmann)
This being a free country, people have a right to organize hatred of Israel; that is as American as apple pie, or at least as American as Ku Klux Klan. No complaint there.
But the conference was not just an expression of free speech. What was planned there, what was advocated in at least one of the sessions, was the subversion of the independence of scholarship and university teaching.
Of course we know that in Soviet times the universities were told to preach the state doctrines, and we know that the Nazi universities were there to advance the truth according to Adolf Hitler. And there is also an older notion, in some quarters, of religious faith as the supreme arbiter of what is to be taught. Against all these threats from various quarters, we want an independent profession of scholarship, one of free inquiry and free discussion, with a clear line separating it from propaganda and indoctrination.
Yet here, in the halls of one of the most prestigious universities of the world, one of its full professors of English, Amy Kaplan, gave a seminar on how to press an hate-Israel message in the academic curriculum:
AUDIENCE MEMBER (PROFESSOR) ASKS QUESTION:
My question falls on Professor Norton's statement that Boycott may not be the most important part of BDS, and is kind of the closest to where we live as academics and also with Professor Kaplan's call to think about a positive program on BDS, a positive aspect of the Boycott [of Israel]....And that's um about teaching in the classroom about BDS and how, not just in our life as professional producers of knowledge, and scholars, but as teachers, how can that be formed in this pedagogy, especially I guess when the course is not dealing directly with material that has to do with Palestine"
AMY KAPLAN RESPONDS:This exchange was widely reported on the internet. I myself wrote to the University president, Amy Guttmann, that "it would seem that Professor Kaplan may need to be reminded that there is a line between propaganda and teaching, and that we really should try not to cross it , at least not in this deliberate, blatant, and gross way. What do you think ?" And no, I did not receive a reply from the good President. On the other hand the Chair of the English department at Penn, Nancy Bentley, has issued the following statement in response to a blog by Elder of Ziyon:
Well I don't know how you can, how you can address the issue if you're not dealing with a course that has no content or relationship to it.... But I know that, I mean, you can make courses that have content. I mean, for example, I happen to know that you're interested in prisons, and the literature and culture about, you know, prisons, so you can teach a course on which you included prison as a really, really big thing, not only in the political life of Palestinians, but also in their literature and in their poetry, so that will be kind of an ideal way -- you take a thematic course, and you bring in themes from this issue, and literature is really a great way to teach students about what's going on -- students they think, they know they have an ideological line, a political line, and then they read, you know, they read darwish, they read, you know, The Pennoptimist and it opens up a whole new world -- so that's my answer to that.
I can say I didn't agree with the way the blog characterized Professor Kaplan's comments on the recording. The blog stated the following:
"At the Q&A session, another teacher asked Kaplan how to incorporate the BDS memes of demonizing Israel into college courses, even when the course has nothing to do with "Palestine." And Professor Kaplan answered him. Here we have a professor at an Ivy League university explicitly calling on like-minded educators to shoehorn hate of Israel into every one of their classes."
This characterization is not accurate. Contrary to the claim that Professor Kaplan believes that political views on Israel-Palestine should be forced into college courses that have nothing to do with that subject, Kaplan explicitly said she didn't think that was feasible: "I don't know how you can address the issue if you're not dealing with a course that has no content or relationship to it."
She took the position instead that certain kinds of thematic courses, such as prison literature or prison history, would have an inherent relation to the topic of Israel-Palestine (as one case among others). Prison writing is a well established area in literary studies, as is the history of prisons. Any search of data bases will reveal this neutral fact of academic history. And I fail to see how the case of the Israeli-Palistinian [sic] conflict would be inherently inappropriate as a case study for a thematic course of that sort, just as with courses like war literature or the literature of mourning and violence. If you can explain how this is not the case, I'd be happy to comment.
"For these academics, college is not about teaching but it is merely a platform for them to spout their political views at their captive audience." This assertion on the blog does not seem accurate to me either, since Professor Kaplan expressed the idea that only courses in which Israel and Palestine were relevant to the advertised course theme would be logical candidates for discussing these questions. Such courses (prison writing, war and literature, etc.) are not required of English majors or SAS students, so discussions of the politics of the Israeli-Palestine conflict would never be forced on a "captive audience."So here, according the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania, the problem is solved. We will not indoctrinate our English majors -- that would be bad -- but we will indoctrinate more specialized students, only those.
What the U. of Penn. should have said, but what is has failed to say so far, is simply that it will not indoctrinate. That it will present controversial topics in a way to allow students to appreciate and to learn about various points of view. Present the student with various points of view. Let him judge.
But education in this sense -- in a sense that is clearly distinct from indoctrination -- is absent from the mental world of the zealot. We can hardly blame Professor Kaplan for this problem. A look at her resume confirms the primacy of her zealotry over scholarship, and zealotry, like thrall, is probably not something that can be abandoned by will power alone. That is one of the reasons that we look to universities for institutional safeguards. And, so far at least, the great University of Pennsylvania is clearly failing us.
So here is my challenge to the University of Pennsylvania: when the Israel-Palestine conflict comes up in any course, for whatever reason, make sure that students will be informed, in an even-handed manner, that there is an Israeli point of view in addition to that of its detractors. Can you commit to that, U. of Penn ?