Two Sentences from Rashid Khalidi
Most advocates of intellectual diversity (myself included) support the concept because we believe that a pattern of ideological bias in hiring has adversely affected the quality of college curricula. Making the link between hard evidence suggesting bias, however, and precisely what or how students are taught isn’t easy.
The easiest to obtain, and most concrete, evidence is professors’ voter registration patterns. But no direct link exists between such figures and what goes on in the classroom; at most, figures such as those of Duke’s History Department (32/0 Democrats) or recent hires at Cal and Stanford (96% Democratic of those who identified by party) suggest that ideological screening is occurring in recent hires or in designing recent lines.
The next level of evidence comes from examining hiring patterns within departments, as I have done regarding larger departments and US history. This approach, too, is at best imperfect. Certainly something’s wrong in a department like Michigan’s, which has balanced its 11 specialists in race in America and eight women’s historians with no U.S. diplomatic historians and only two active Americanists who research in political history. But answering abstract questions about how many political historians and how many social historians a department should have is difficult.
The next level centers on course websites or syllabi. Individuals (such as Vinay Lal’s American Democracy class) or entire institutions (Evergreen State) that offer transparently biased offerings frequently do so in the open, since they operate in such a one-dimensional ideological environment that they assume no challenge. Still, however, it’s hard to get a sense of exactly what goes in the classroom unless you’re actually there.
The search for concrete evidence of in-class bias is what makes Rashid Khalidi’s two sentences so interesting. From all accounts, Khalidi, whose endowed chair was partially funded by a grant from the government of the United Arab Emirates, is extraordinarily intelligent. His public face is also rather unlike some of his MEALAC colleagues, who Martin Kramer has tartly described as “garden-variety extremists.” Commenting on allegations of bias in Columbia’s MEALAC courses, Khalidi ruminated, “Most kids who come to Columbia come from environments where almost everything they’ve ever thought [about the Middle East] was shared by everybody around them. And this is not true, incidentally, of Arab-Americans, who know that the ideas spouted by the major newspapers, television stations, and politicians are completely at odds with everything they know to be true.”
What, exactly, are the assumptions behind this breathtaking statement?
--1.) The perspectives in the mainstream media and by politicians about the Middle East are untrue.
--2.) Arab-American students know the “truth” about the Middle East.
--3.) All Arab-American students essentially have common beliefs about the Middle East.
--4.) Most students who come to Columbia have never seen their beliefs about the Middle East challenged. This probably exists for Arab-American students as well, but since they know the “truth” about the Middle East, it’s OK.
Operating from these assumptions, it’s easy to see how MEALAC professors could teach a wholly biased course. Indeed, they would view it as their responsibility to expose the “truth” about the Middle East to all of Columbia’s non-Arab students, who have been brainwashed by “the ideas spouted by the major newspapers, television stations, and politicians.”
Here’s an alternative scenario for Khalidi:
--1.) The comments in the mainstream media and by politicians about the Middle East are sometimes true and sometimes untrue.
--2.) Arab-American students are no more likely than any of their colleagues to know the “truth” about the Middle East, and the small percentage that get their version of events from the Arab media are probably less likely to know the “truth.”
--3.) All Arab-American students do not have common beliefs about the Middle East.
--4.) Most students who come to Columbia probably don’t know very much about the history of the Middle East, or about any area outside of the United States (or even, arguably, about the history of the United States). They don’t need to be de-brainwashed: they need to be taught.
All four of the above statements are assumptions on my part. But I think they’re more intellectually defensible than Khalidi’s two sentences.
Khalidi’s interview revealed one other interesting assumption: that this controversy has been caused by an “idiot wind” blown by people determined “to shut down Middle East studies.” Claims by Jewish students about unfair treatment need to be examined closely, since there is, he claims, “no reason for a person who’s Jewish at Columbia to feel persecuted.”
I can think of a few reasons why Jewish students might feel uncomfortable:
--More than 100 professors signing a petition demanding that Columbia divest from Israel, a move the institution’s own president termed “grotesque”;
--A department chairman, Hamid Dabashi, describing all Jewish citizens of Israel in crude anti-Semitic stereotypes;
--A professor, Joseph Massad, defended by dozens of colleagues, publicly labeling Zionism a racist ideology.
Why does Khalidi disagree? Columbia has a campus Hillel—and its Hillel has “ten, twelve paid employees.” He ascertained this fact by looking, in the presence of a reporter, at Hillel’s website, which, he reports, “blew my mind.” CU’s Hillel (which, like all branches of Hillel, is affiliated with Columbia but is a private organization with no say in how the university is run) actually only has seven employees. But what’s an incorrect fact among those who know the “truth” about the Middle East?
Robert KC Johnson - 1/11/2005
I agree on the Massad angle: one of the most striking things to me has been the consistent refusal of Massad and Dabashi to speak to the press (Massad's webpage rant doesn't count). Tactically, I'm not sure that this is a bad strategy for them: their public statements haven't served them well in the past. But their refusal to speak to any reporters can't be considered a plus for them.
I also agree with what Khalidi said about placing the events of 2002-2003 in context. But if that's to occur, it has to be done on both sides--i.e., some sort of statement from Dabashi that when he spoke of a "massacre" at Jenin, he was wrong, and therefore the protest really wasn't the equivalent of the quality of education that he would provide in the classroom.
Your comments confirm what I had heard about Khalidi's approach in the classroom to those who disagree with him. But to claim that Arab-American students--and only Arab-American students--know the "truth" about the Middle East is not a position with which I'm at all comfortable.
Rob D. Priest - 1/11/2005
"at most, figures such as those of Duke’s History Department (32/0 Democrats) or recent hires at Cal and Stanford (96% Democratic of those who identified by party) suggest that ideological screening is occurring in recent hires or in designing recent lines."
And that Michael Bérubé admits to it.
Manan Ahmed - 1/11/2005
I don't know how much fodder for controversy can be gleamed from two sentences. I think his statement later in the article is fair enough:
"I’m not saying that professors should necessarily ever do certain things. I’m just saying that in a polarized environment, and in a situation where overall there’s no reason for a person who’s Jewish at Columbia to feel persecuted, well, whatever might have happened in the classroom in the hothouse atmosphere of 2002–2003 has to be put in that context.”
No fault either in your 4 statements. I'd rather professors keep the politicking out of the classrooms. Because, if they deem it to be a "corrective", it gets a lot more problematic. Intellectually honest discussion in a class room should be exactly that; not polemical positioning. I have taken classes with Rashid and he can be fairly critical but I respect him because he is an immaculate historian who gives the students space to engage directly with the history. Cannot say anything about Massad etc. because, even with your vigorous coverage of the "controversy", I keep feeling that there is something missing.
Robert KC Johnson - 1/11/2005
I agree completely, yes.
Jonathan Dresner - 1/11/2005
...support the concept because we believe in the power of multiple approaches and vigorous discourse to creating a more complete and truthful understanding of the world. Curriculum is a side-effect.