Concordia professors must take responsibility for intellectual atmosphere on campus
By GIL TROY
Montreal Gazette- Tuesday, March 26, 2002, B3
|Last week, anti-Israel activists
at Concordia University established mock
"checkpoints" on campus. This protest
caricatured Israel's policies as arbitrary acts
oppressing a peaceful people. Tragically, the three
bloody suicide bombings last week in Israel revealed the
protests to be misleading shams. As long as Palestinians
continue to blow up Arabs and Jews alike on commuter
buses, to murder innocent strollers in Jerusalem's
shopping district, and as long as the Palestinian
Authority facilitates such crimes, Israel will feel
compelled to institute all kinds of protective measures,
Of course, sophomoric student protests rarely reflect complexity - and are often best ignored. Yet once again, Concordia became crisis central. "How can the administration allow such a thing to take place?" Jews and non-Jews alike asked. And once again, the desperate calls to the administration missed the essential point - and the real scandal at Concordia.
As long as the "checkpoints" were silent protests and did not harass passersby, they constituted symbolic free speech. The true test of one's commitment to free speech comes from tolerating tasteless and wrongheaded demonstrations such as this one. But not for the first time in the last two years, and not, I fear, for the last time, no clear voices of reason emerged from the din. As many asked "Where was the administration," the better questions were "Where is the faculty," and "Where are the grown-ups"?
For nearly two academic years now, Concordia has been developing an international reputation as a centre of unreason. The roiling hatreds of the Middle East have been played out in the halls of the Hall Building. Jewish and non-Jewish students have repeatedly reported feeling threatened whenever they dared to stand up against the aggressive advocates for Palestinians in particular and the forces of political correctness in general. In response, the pro-Israel side has also mobilized, and a shouting match has ensued.
If, in a North American university in 2002, any student walks around actually terrified of expressing particular beliefs or, even worse, of identifying with a particular ethnic group or religion, that university is failing dramatically. Bureaucrats can concern themselves with the narrow question of what behaviour is legal rather than the broader question of what is right or appropriate. Educators - especially humanists - should call for civility, constructive dialogue and educational engagement. They should take responsibility for the intellectual atmosphere on campus. As the hallowed halls of Concordia University have come to resemble the set of the Jerry Springer Show, have any faculty members committed themselves to setting a different example? Have there been sustained attempts to get the different sides involved in a constructive dialogue rather than in round after round of their verbal and symbolic food fight? How come a CCC, a coalition for civility at Concordia, a committee of concerned Concordia professors, has not emerged to take a moral stand, not a legal one, to try to educate the students that political posturing gets the blood boiling, but it rarely gets the mind going - and the latter is the goal of a university education?
In truth, it is unfair to single out the Concordia faculty. Neither the McGill faculty nor any other faculty in North America would fare any better. Since the 1960s, faculty members have abdicated this kind of leadership role. Especially in matters of extracurricular tone and of campus politics, the student movement of the Sixties seized the reins from faculty and administrators alike. And in the careerist academic environment of the 21st century, there is no up side in getting up from your computer and getting involved in the fray. As a result, if you will pardon the expression, on campus after campus the inmates have taken over the asylum.
Yes, it is true, Middle Eastern politics are volatile. And yes, it is true, many faculty members often lament the apathy of the modern student and might be happy at least to see some engagement. But students who enter university and leave years later with a degree in some major but with all their political prejudices intact and unchallenged have failed. And if we here in Canada, enveloped in the placidity and distance North America offers, cannot figure out how to have a thoughtful dialogue on the Middle East, what can we expect in the land of suicide bombers and checkpoints?
It is unrealistic and unfair to expect the Concordia faculty to undo 40 years of disengagement that is now systemic throughout academia. Maybe, then, we need to ask the students, for they are the ones on the front lines, and it is ultimately their education, their school's reputation and their own personal development that are at stake. History teaches us again and again that when good people do nothing, evil and ignorance fester. Let us hope that after two years of head-butting, the embattled university can turn a corner and live up to its name, Concordia, a haven of harmony and peace.
- Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University.
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