by Shirley Walton
The other day I was reading a piece in the English language Haaretz newspaper about a protest waged against Harvard University professor Alan Dershowitz a week ago at Tel Aviv University (TAU).
Dershowitz, a well-known lawyer and vocal supporter of Israel, gave a speech as he was given an honorary doctorate by the University. In that speech he deplored the actions of certain Israeli academics whom he felt were misusing their positions to both criticize the government of Israel and to influence students to do the same. For instance, one academic named by Dershowitz had recently been in London (while TAU classes were in recess) to participate in a conference supporting an economic boycott of Israel.
A letter to university president Joseph Klafter, signed by 80 TAU academics, said that Dershowitz’ comments amounted “to incitement.” The letter further demanded that the university “unequivocally defend the freedom of expression of all the members of the academic community.”
The most striking part of the letter, at least to me, was the statement that Dershowitz “has no evidence that anyone on the faculty has forced his views on students.”
This led me to one crucial question: what are a teacher’s “views” doing in the classroom in the first place? Whatever the teacher’s private opinions, politics or basic “slant” on life may be, should they be a part of the curriculum? If academia has decided it’s merely “freedom of expression” to insert one’s own opinions or views into a classroom, then we are in serious trouble.
Just think of the enormous power the words of a college professor can have on eager, open, inquiring minds. When that vulnerable 18-year old brain is introduced to huge amounts of new information and ideas for the first time, and by a genuine PhD-type authority figure, is that brain capable of discerning the difference between an historical fact and that powerful professor’s opinion?
I will never forget my first anthropology class at the University of Michigan, taught by one of the world’s most famous anthropologists, Robert Service. I wanted to become an anthropologist, and I was thrilled to be in this humongous Anthro 101 class -- along with about 499 other 18-year olds. We hung on his every word, breathlessly.
In two hours Service tried to cram the basics of anthropology into our minds, to set up the parameters of the semester course, and about midway through he apparently thought he was losing us (I admit my eyes had started to glaze and the pen in my hand was drifting) and decided to wake us all up.
While describing to us the significance of incest laws in human history, he suddenly said, “Every one of you look at the person sitting next to you.”
We did, grinning at each other slightly and going along with whatever the game was.
“If there were no laws against incest,” said Service portentiously, “None of you would be able to sit next to each other and listen to me speak!”
Five hundred mouths dropped open; five hundred pairs of eyes now nervously glanced at the person in the next seat. And, since there is little on the mind of a 17 or 18-year old but thoughts of sex, the image of a huge pile of depraved savages performing a monstrous orgy flashed through many of those 500 brains, too!
Service, with a few choice words, had turned a concept -- incest -- into a reality that we all instantly understood. By the end of that first two-hour session of Anthro 101, I thought he was some sort of deity.
Had Service then told me that he believed in demonism and I should go draw pentagrams on my mother’s champagne beige carpet and sacrifice my gray cat, Smoky, on a pagan altar, I would have seriously considered it!
I think you all see my point: the enormous power and influence an academic has over young minds is an equally huge responsibility; one that should NEVER be tainted by personal opinions or views.
And if those academics can’t keep their own views out of the kids’ classrooms, then they should resign and become politicians -- which is what they’re doing anyway!