The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"We are responsible for actions performed in response to circumstances for which we are not responsible."....  ...Allan Massie.

Commentary of the Day - May 24, 2002:  Uncivil Discourse.

In recent weeks there have been a number of reports of less than civil behavior by groups of students and others protesting the current situation in the Middle East.

As an example, officials at San Francisco State University are considering suspending some students and perhaps filing criminal charges against other individuals following a demonstration on May 7th.  According to news reports, a group of about 300 students were conducting a peaceful demonstration in support of Israel on the San Francisco State campus that day.  A group of about 75 pro-Palestinian counter-demonstrators also were present at this rally.  At the end of the pro-Israel rally several of the pro-Palestinian demonstrators (some of whom were not students) began to intimidate the pro-Israel demonstrators both verbally and physically, according to San Francisco State president Robert Corrigan.  The fracas escalated to the point that campus police felt it necessary to escort the pro-Israel demonstrators to off-campus Hillel Center for their own protection.

A month earlier 79 pro-Palestinian demonstrators were arrested at the Berkeley campus of the University of California following the occupation of Wheeler Hall by "Students for Justice in Palestine", who were demanding that the university divest itself of investments in companies that conduct business in Israel.  Forty-two of those arrested were Berkeley students.  They since have received notices from the university that they may be suspended for up to a year for "obstructing teaching, disturbing the peace, and failing to obey the orders of a police officer", according to a news report in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

One of the leaders of the Berkeley demonstration, Snehal A. Shingavi -- a graduate student in English from India, has been the subject of a related controversy.  Shingavi is scheduled to teach a section of English 1A (freshman English) at Berkeley this coming fall semester.  According to the General Catalog the official course description for English 1A-1B is:

Training in writing expository prose.
A. Instruction in expository writing in conjunction with reading literature. Satisfies the first half of the Reading and Composition requirement.
B. Further instruction in expository writing in conjunction with reading literature. Satisfies the second half of the Reading and Composition requirement.
(This is nearly identical to the description for the course that was in the catalog when the IP was an undergraduate at Berkeley some forty odd years ago.)  However, Shingavi published a description for his section of the course on the web that indicated that it would cover the "politics and poetics of Palestinian resistance" and that "conservative thinkers" were encouraged to choose another section of the course.  Following a rather serious admonition from U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berhdal, Shingavi has removed the offending phrase about "conservative thinkers" from his course description.  However, he still plans to present only "pro-Palestinian" perspectives in his course.  According to Shingavi, the course will not debate Israeli and Palestinian positions.

To his credit, Chancellor Berhdal has said that "it is imperative that our classrooms be free of indoctrination -- indoctrination is not education. Classrooms must be places in which an open environment prevails and where students are free to express their views."  On the other hand, Janet Adelman, chair of the English department, said "It (the course) has a wonderful reading list. ....The question of what the poetics of oppression is seems a perfectly legitimate thing to consider. instructor's political views should not be a decisive factor in deciding whether or not he should be allowed to teach."

The Irascible Professor would agree that university instructors should not have to pass a political litmus test.  However, instructors, in the IP's opinion, don't have the right to impose their political views on their students.  Berhdal is correct when he says that the classroom should be free of indoctrination.  Shingavi has a right to his opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he has a right to express those views peacefully.  In the IP's view he does not have the right to impose those views unilaterally on a freshman English composition class.

Instructors also have an obligation to what the IP likes to refer to as "truth in advertising".  Namely, the course content should be consistent with the course description.  The emphasis in English 1A should be on the reading and analysis of literature and, most importantly, on composition.  While the inclusion of some literary pieces that are controversial might be acceptable, using the course as a platform to pitch a particular political view seems highly inappropriate to this observer.

Students (and other members of a campus community) certainly have the right, in the IP's opinion, to express their views on controversial issues.  This should include the right to demonstrate peacefully on campus within reasonable rules established by the campus.  It does not include the right to intimidate others who may hold different views, and it certainly does not include the right to threaten or to engage in physical confrontations.  Neither does it include the right to interfere with the fundamental teaching and research functions of the university.

University officials have an obligation to provide opportunities for the peaceful expression of views on controversial issues, an obligation to delineate clearly the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and an obligation to spell out the penalties for transgressing those boundaries.
See Sanford Pinsker's January 12, 2002 article "Disagreeing Disagreeably at Cal State Sacramento" for additional perspective on this issue.


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© 2002 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.