Academic Freedom and Syllabus Construction: The Question of ‘Endorsement’ and ‘Balance’

My focus here on this blog, before the weekend’s traveling-imposed break, was academic freedom and on ignorant attempts to severely attenuate it at Brooklyn College. These attempts have relied on two patently dishonest, obfuscatory tactics: equating ‘sponsorship’ with ‘endorsement’ and with proposing ‘balance’ as a valid desideratum for academic content. Today, I want to offer some clarification of ‘academic freedom’ by analogizing the Brooklyn College Political Science department’s act of sponsoring a talk on the BDS movement to a professor’s humdrum, mundane, weekday task of  including an item on a reading list for a class. Or more generally, by analogizing a department’s selection of academic and intellectual offerings to its students to a professor’s preparation of a syllabus.

So, first, consider my Political Philosophy seminar from last semester. Its reading list featured, among others, Burke, Maistre, Paine, Sieyes, Arendt, Walzer, speeches from Robespierre and Saint Just, excerpts from the Federalist Papers. And so on. Am I ‘endorsing’ these writings? Or ‘sponsoring’ them by including them on my reading list? Or am I ‘merely’ indicating to my students these writers are worth reading for a variety of reasons, historical, cultural, intellectual? These are ‘required’ readings for my class; have I somehow put a seal of approval or ‘endorsement’ on them? Do I intend to ‘indoctrinate’ my students? But what happens to these writers when they ‘meet’ my students? I don’t know. They might find Maistre reasonable or Robespierre utterly pellucid or Burke a raving lunatic. I can’t predict. But I do place the readings on my reading list because in my considered assessment of the class, this would be something valuable to read for those considering Political Philosophy. To say this is to do no more than state the obvious: professors add readings of all kinds, all the time, to their reading lists. Their students might or might not respond favorably to those same readings; class discussions can result in a professor’s ‘favorite’ being torn to shreds. A few years ago, I included Susan Okin in a reading list for a philosophy of feminism class; some of my best and brightest mounted a withering critique of Okin that caught me completely by surprise. Inclusion on a reading list is always an invitation to read, discuss and consider. That is all; do with it what you will. You have read the original; make up your mind.

Or consider the question of balance. Do I always have balance in my readings? No. In the fall of 2010, I taught Problems in the Philosophy of Psychology. I decided I would teach the class with an emphasis on psychoanalysis. I decided further, to teach the class with a concentration on Freud. So I had now made two executive selections about the scope of the class. I had narrowed its focus to psychoanalysis and within that to Freud. There are thus, already, two grounds for complaint from those who would want  balance: Why concentrate on psychoanalysis? Why on Freud within psychoanalysis? Why not Jung, Adler, Klein? And then, it gets worse for those would want balance. During the semester, I ‘only’ read a variety of selections from Freud’s corpus along with Jonathan Lear’s little expository book on Freud. But this seems problematic too: Why not read the Popper-Grunbaum critiques of Freud? Why not the feminist critiques? Someone from a science department could conceivably object that I was indoctrinating my students in a pseudo-scientific cult; someone from women’s studies could complain I was propagating sexist, misogynist propaganda. Why didn’t I include anti-Freud voices in my reading list? Surely, I should provide my students some balance? By teaching a whole class on Freud, wasn’t I endorsing him, his writings, his views on women and the appropriate therapeutic treatment of mental disorders, the role of the unconscious in science and philosophy of mind? Heck, wasn’t I endorsing his cocaine use too?

I taught a whole class on Freud and psychoanalysis because I considered Freud and his writings important enough to  the philosophy of mind and psychology to deserve that much attention. But why leave out anti-Freud critiques? Because there was enough of Freud to read; because I wanted our readings to be direct and unmediated and to get a chance to be critical on our own and not be guided too much by other critique; and so on. None of these responses of mine are knockdown responses to these objections to my choice of possible syllabi. The next member of the philosophy department that teaches that class will almost certainly devise a very different reading list. But my responses are adequate if taken on good faith and at face value. I was able to expose my students to some important ideas in the philosophy of mind and psychology by doing some very close critical readings of Freud: we considered the problem of the unconscious in great detail; wondered skeptically about Freud’s extravagant claims for psychotherapy, his being prone to the sexism of his times, and so on.

My syllabi are imperfect; they represent compromises between a variety of competing imperatives. They recognize that professors encounter students at a variety of moments, in a variety of ways, that their students’ education takes place over a period of time, that they will need to encounter many different ideas and ways of thinking if they are to think for themselves, that they should read a lot and write a lot if they are to try to make sense of all that confronts them in this complex world. My duty at any given moment is to think about how I can aid in this process: by pointing my students to a variety of topics and writers they should confront and take on. Sometimes these writings will make them uncomfortable, sometimes they will enrage them, sometimes they will confirm prejudice, sometimes reinforce an old one or dispel it. I cannot control my students’ reactions; I can simply point them in one direction.

The freedom I need as I navigate, with my imperfect and incomplete knowledge, among the various choices available to me, and the constraints I face, as I try to work with  my students is called ‘academic freedom’; it’s what lets me do my job.

26 thoughts on “Academic Freedom and Syllabus Construction: The Question of ‘Endorsement’ and ‘Balance’

  1. When everything is a parody of a parody of a response to a parody, where everything is sufficiently removed from the original material that nothing can be discussed without losing the class in a maze of responses and counter-counter-counter-responses, it seems positively trailblazing to consider the original material on its own. Then, to argue (hope?) that students will be able to work with it on their own? That’s almost too original!

    I wish more professors would follow your lead.

  2. Well, I don’t know how useful it is to point out the fallacies of the balance argument, when it’s obviously an attempt to subvert the strategies of inclusion (and other progressive responses to oppression and exclusion) into an ironic, multi-faceted defense of the indefensible: land theft, cultural genocide and violent occupation. To create a facade of victimhood and exclusion in a context where Zionists hold power and want to look good doing it. Where Zionist voices have many and powerful occasions to speak and anti-Zionists must face tremendous odds to even speaking, much less being heard.

  3. Samir wrote: “These attempts have relied on two patently dishonest, obfuscatory tactics: equating ‘sponsorship’ with ‘endorsement’ and with proposing ‘balance’ as a valid desideratum for academic content.”

    Samir, even if I conceded your two points are correct, which I do not, your use of the word “dishonest” would still be problematic. Once again you have gone beyond calling your opponents ‘wrong’ and demonized them by denying that there is any honest to their efforts. Apparently you can not see what is wrong with doing that.

    You seem to think that a BDS forum is just a usual college event. But BDS is a very extreme and problematic movement. It is well known that even Norman Finkelstein, who is certainly a very aggressive critic of Israel policies, has called BDS a “cult” and accused BDS advocates of lying about their goals.

    In any case there has not been an effort to block this BDS forum. Considering the reputation, extreme views, and the extraordinarily aggressive demands made by BDS, asking for an additional speaker does not seem particularly outrageous. That certainly does not infringe on BDS freedom of speech, nor does it trample on academic freedom.

    Here is Lawrence Summers discussing his view of BDS:

    1. Whatever dude. Screw Finkelstein and screw Lawrence Summers. They fundamentally believe in a Zionist inevitability narrative re Israel that many people, especially those who suffer at the hands of Israel, don’t believe. Many people believe in a just, anti-racist, equal rights and equal protection based nation-state, where rights for all people, not just one religion or ethnicity, are protected. Can’t see what’s wrong with that? If Israel feels shaky as a construct, it’s because of the shakiness of its racist founding principle, and the corruption and crimes that it continues to commit. It’s nothing anyone else did. The darkness you see is the mote in your own eyes.

      1. FSB wrote: “Can’t see what’s wrong with that?”

        What’s wrong with you statement is that it is not true. Israel is the only democracy in the region in which it exists. Unlike the other countries in the region (Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, etc), in Israel the same laws apply to all its citizens, no matter what their religion or ethnicity.

  4. No political science department wants to be seen as licensing or even engaging, arguments that are seen as absolutely outside social norms. if the White Students Union decided to hold a debate between a holocaust denier and a holocaust endorser no department would sign on as a co-sponser. No department would sponsor Farrakhan, Kahane or David Duke, (though a triple bill would be worth it). There wouldn’t even be an argument. Heads of state are in another category.

    The only reason the Brooklyn political science department signed on the the BDS presentation is because they take it seriously, as an argument worthy of consideration. Arguments deemed not worthy even of consideration, or worthy of actual contempt are simply ignored. A BDS event would not have been sponsored ten years ago. The change over that time is political and cultural. Change outside the academy has resulted in change inside the academy.

    On the larger issue, academic “freedom” is a misnomer. The better term is academic independence: the independence of the academy in decision-making. Let them handle their own internal politics. Let their struggles with groupthink and lazy assumption remain theirs alone. I know a few people who’ve based their entire careers on where funding was going to be at any given time. That’s not academic freedom it’s academic realpolitik.

    Zionists are afraid that things are changing and they’re right. BDS is not a cult. It’s outside the norm but no longer by so much that it’s considered absolutely beyond the pale.

    Malcolm you’ve already admitted if only tacitly that Zionism stands in opposition to equality of all under law. I think that was obvious always and all anyone should need to know. The fact that others now think it’s worthy of debate is a sign of progress.

    1. I like this analysis. I would only quibble with some deconstruction of what the norm is, and who defines it. Is it based on context? Is it based on location? Is it based on “inalienable values”? Majoritarian views? And one more thing: BDS gets pulled into pieces and deconstructed. Don’t forget what the underlying issue or need is — justice for Palestine and an authentic accounting of the crimes of the State of Israel. This is why people get so worked up. Because BDS points to those issues, which sometimes are hard for people to look at.

    2. Seth wrote: “Malcolm you’ve already admitted if only tacitly that Zionism stands in opposition to equality of all under law.”

      That’s news to me, Seth. Show me where I said that.

      In fact all Israelis are governed by the same set of laws. There is not one set of laws for Jews and another set of laws for Arabs. As David Mamet wrote: “Israelis would like to live in peace within their borders; the Arabs would like to kill them all.” Its not easy to maintain a democracy in those circumstances, but the Israelis have done a pretty good job of doing that. I suppose you know that, but you say the opposite anyhow.

      In Newspeak that is called “blackwhite,” as George Orwell describes in ‘1984’:

      “…this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink.”

      Orwell’s definition of Blackwhite practically defines the BDS attempt to demonize Israel, and everyone who supports it. For example: the Jews, who died by the millions at the hands of the Nazis, are redefined by BDS as Nazis; while the Palestinians (and many other Arabs), who actually supported the Nazis, and even fought in the SS, are redefined by BDS as the victims of Nazis. Or, as in this discussion, a critic of BDS is described as pro-torture, while it is ignored that Hamas and Fatah actually use torture extensively to get confessions from political prisoners prior to executing them. In certain circles, BDS has succeeded in redefining black as white, to the point that supporting Israel has become in some circles (to use another word from Orwell) a ‘thoughtcrime.’ That is not exactly Jefferson’s concept of freespeech, but it is what BDS activists call freespeech. If nothing else, BDS has proved innovative in inverting the true value of words for their use as anti-Israel as propaganda.


      1. Malcolm,
        Arab citizens of Israel face discrimination de facto and de Jure. I haven’t linked to critics of those policies I quoted a respected mainstream supporter, Peter Beinart. For nervous white/Jewish moderates who want more information, there are jewish Israeli civil rights organizations they can consult. For the more adventurous, there are angry Arabs to consult as well.

        Israel is singled out for criticism because of a 47 year miltary occupation, and because of it is singled out for support. The majority of its defenders in the US, as self described liberals, are in the position of supporting integration and equality at home and Jim Crow away: Israel tacitly is given the right to be exceptional while the fact of that exceptional statuse is publicly denied. The cognitive dissonance presents in the intellectual class most strongly among rationalists, as opposed to practicing (not theoretical) empiricists, and people who’ve made careers attacking irrationalism. Zionism in toto is synecdochic for the larger intellectual fixations of the last century.

    1. Israeli law that does not apply equally to all its citizens

      Amnesty International condemns the extension by the Israeli Knesset of a law (Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law) which denies thousands of Israeli Arab citizens the right to live as a family.

      “Israel invokes spurious ‘security’ justifications for a law which institutionalizes racial discrimination and violates international law,” said Amnesty International.

      The Knesset’s decision came despite calls by Amnesty International in a report published 13 July 2004 to repeal the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law on family unification. The law, initially passed for a one-year-period last year, was extended for six months on Wednesday. It bars Israelis married to Palestinians from the Occupied Territories from living with their spouses in Israel, and forces families to either live apart or leave the country altogether.

      I can get more…. just Google… if you know how to

      1. Yes, BB, certainly you should try again. What I wrote above is: “Give me an example of an Israeli law that does not apply equally to all its citizens.”

        The law you cite concerns to people who are not Israeli citizens, and are from the West Bank or Gaza Strip. The law came about following a bus bombing perpetrated by a man who had been allowed into Israel automatically, from the West Bank, under the previous existing citizenship and residency law.

        The law would apply equally to an Israeli Jew who married a resident of Gaza or the West Bank. In any case the law only makes them ineligible for the automatic granting of Israeli citizenship or residency permit. They can still get into Israel, but the process is not automatic at this time. This is a translation of the law:

    2. Oh my God, really, Malcolm, this is so easily found just by a cursory conversation or search on the internet (and by opening one’s eyes) that I’m wondering how you’ve let yourself into this logic trap. The question now is only if you will have the courage to acknowledge that you’ve made a serious error in your analysis. Israel is in the Middle East and behaves much like a Middle Eastern nation-state. Much like Iran, I am sorry to say.

      Click to access Adalah_The_Inequality_Report_March_2011.pdf

      If you don’t like this site, you can find more “neutral” ones, for laws, practices and state actions that clearly and institutionally favor one ethnic group. This is the axiomatic founding principle of a Zionist state — a state that favors its chosen people — so I am not even sure why one looks for evidence on the ground, although it is so easy to find and experience that it’s laughable that you even ask.

      1. FSB, I said “Give me an example of an Israeli law that does not apply equally to all its citizens.” I did not say give me links to sites that make a lot of accusations. Let me know if you find something.

      “JERUSALEM, Jan 12 (Reuters) – Israel’s top court has upheld a law denying citizenship to Palestinians married to Israelis, with one judge saying it helped the Jewish state fend off “national suicide”.
      By a 6-to-5 vote, the Supreme Court late on Wednesday rejected petitions against the 2003 ban, which civil liberty groups denounced as racist for potentially forcing members of Israel’s 20-percent Arab minority who wed Palestinians to emigrate.”
      “The explanation appears in the frank comments of councilman Yakir Segev, a party colleague of the united city’s Mayor Nir Barkat and the holder of the municipality’s East Jerusalem portfolio. In a newspaper interview a year ago Segev said: “We will not allow residents of the eastern part of the city to build as much as they need … I don’t think the most important task is to resolve the housing shortage in East Jerusalem.”

      This elected official went on to say: “At the end of the day, however politically incorrect it may be to say, we will also look at the demographic situation in Jerusalem to make sure that in another 20 years we don’t wake up in an Arab city.””
      “The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill which gives the right to absorption committees of small communities in Israel to reject candidates if they do not meet specific criteria.
      The bill has sparked wide condemnation and many believe it to be discriminatory and racist, since it allows communities to reject residents if they do no meet the criteria of “suitability to the community’s fundamental outlook”, which in effect enables them to reject candidates based on sex, religion, and socioeconomic status.
      The bill is due to be presented before the Knesset plenum in the coming weeks.
      …The committee’s chairman, David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu), responded to claims the bill was meant to reject Arabs from joining Israeli towns. “In my opinion, every Jewish town needs at least one Arab. What would happen if my refrigerator stopped working on a Saturday?””
      Corey Robin: “City Council Speaker—and leading mayoral candidate—Christine Quinn is a signatory to that “other” letter about the Brooklyn College BDS panel from the “progressive” government officials and politicians.
      …For many years when she was a member of the City Council, Quinn and her office financially supported—to the tune of roughly $4,000 a year—the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) at the CUNY Graduate Center. The money, according to one representative request letter from CLAGS that I have seen (from 2004), was supposed to fund publicity and outreach for CLAGS talks, panels, and events.

      Talks like this one (see p. 13 of this newsletter): ‘Unzipping the Monster Dick: Deconstructing Ableist Penile Representations in Two Ethnic Homoerotic Magazines.’ ”

      It says something about the relative situation of Palestinians and homosexuals in our society that Quinn can take the position she has, and that it allows Robin to respond by linking to actual homosexuals rather than simply to their heterosexual supporters.

      The focus on academic freedom has the effect of defending academic exceptionalism, as a sort of august moral passivity. The philosophy professor who defends the need for the Jewish state, in case he needs to flee, sees his field as a science.

      enough is enough.
      I’m out.

  5. I don’t see anything in your links showing separate laws for Arab Israelis, Seth. For instance you wrote:
    “The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill which gives the right to absorption committees of small communities in Israel to reject candidates if they do not meet specific criteria.”

    As far as I know that was a draft bill that never became law. You also had a link to a US State Dept opinion about administration of Occupied Territories, but that does not involve Israeli citizans.

    You also linked to a PDF about the quality of education in Arab schools, which certainly does need improving. But that is not because of Israeli law. Infrastructure too thin in Israel. When we were living in a development town there, the school was short of teachers, and my youngest daughter got a first grade teacher who was doing her military service, and sent by the army. That means she was 19 at the most, and had gotten only a few weeks of teacher training. I was not happy about that, but while we were there that is what we were stuck with. All the school had was four walls, and some teachers…many of whom were worthless. And that was for Jewish students. People who have not lived in Israel do not understand that a lot of what is done there is just winging it. Pretty much everything done in Israel is done on a prayer and a wing.

    1. Nothing is going to convince you, since you do not want to open your eyes to see. The fact that the Israeli Supreme Court upheld a discriminatory law re citizenship obviously means nothing to you. And that’s only one of dozens of examples of different laws for Jews and Arabs.

  6. The Admissions Committee Law passed the Knesset. According to its critics, it would allow “screening committees at 475 communities in the north and south, which comprise 46 percent of all the towns and cities in Israel and 65 percent of its communal and agricultural settlements.”

    This December, it was in front of the High Court. It is by far the largest and most important decision on housing to reach the court in years:

    Last month, the Attorney General publicly defended it:

    It has been widely covered in the Israeli press.

    A naive belief that “one set of laws for all” solves everything misses the changes in Israel since 1966, and the unsettled questions for Israeli law & courts,namely:

    a) Where Israel exists: Are the Occupied Territories “Israel”?
    b) Does the state permit discrimination between & among private parties? This was addressed in the US with laws like 1968 Fair Housing Act.
    c) What is a public place, and who has access to it? As public services are increasingly privatised, can the law continue to regard such providers as “private”? This is especially acute with respect to land ownership and leasing, and the Jewish National Fund’s historic role, as well as its new one in the reformed Israel Land Authority (ca. 2009).

    The BDS movement also engages the first and third points above, albeit from a Palestinian nationalist position (i,e., the OT are Palestinian; the JNF/KKL is synonymous with the Israeli state). It is not outside any “norm” in that regard.

  7. I asked for an example of an Israeli law that applies to Israeli Arabs but not to Israeli Jews. No one has given a single example. For example: The law allowing communities in the Negev and Galilee, with up to 50 families, to screen people who request moving into the community, but (according to the Haaretz article) “The bill states, however, that absorption committees “may not refuse a candidate only on the basis of race, religion, sex, nationality or disability.”” My point is not that Israel is a perfect place, but that Israel does not have apartheid-type laws. However, all the countries that surround Israel actually do have apartheid-type laws. Jordan, for instance, is judenfrei, and it is forbidden by law for a Jew to become a Jordanian citizen. See Article 3 (2) in this link.

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