Today’s political climate leaves no room for nuanced thinking. This is disastrous for education.

A sad, queer-presenting student with red hair resting their chin on a textbook
Photo: Shutterstock

The political left talks a good line about being “intersectional” and engaging in “nonbinary” thinking. That is until anyone even suggests that Palestinians and Israelis are BOTH victims AND oppressors and the points in between. For those of us who express this, we are purged from the left and silenced.

For the past 20+ years, I have shared my numerous commentaries and PowerPoint presentations with my colleagues and students on our university departments’ social justice listserv. Over the years, I have received many messages of appreciation for my “insights” and my generosity.

That was until this past week when I found this complaint from one of the alums from our department:

Dear Warren, 

Students are reaching out to me to raise concerns about your emails, the most recent example being a message (below) shared within the social justice listserv group. I can imagine your messages have good intentions. Unfortunately, based on the feedback I am getting, they are having an inflammatory effect on our student community, impacting students from marginalized groups the most. 

As a recent alum, I will reiterate that my opinion is that such personal messages have no place to be shared in any official college listserv–a campus communication channel that can’t be opted out of. There are plenty of outlets to share your ideas, opinions, and unpublished academic resources outside of the college (twitter, facebook, editorials, etc.). At the least, I would suggest you have conversations with your colleagues and peers about messaging unrelated to official courses and programs before considering sharing via official lines of communication. 

B.S. (His true initials, coincidently)

 I don’t know which “students are reaching out” to him and whether they are, in fact, “students from marginalized groups the most,” but following his message, several students, the majority being “students of marginalized groups,” contacted me and stated that this person does not speak for them.

The post I shared on the listserv that he found objectionable was this:

Stop Blaming

The fact is that both Palestinians and Jews are indigenous to what we call “The Middle East,” and Jews have existed there when the area was known as “the land of Canaan.” Palestinians and Jews are distant cousins. Yes, it is also true that most Jews who reside in what today is called “Israel” arrived there during the late 19th-20th centuries.
In demanding that Jews evacuate the area is as unrealistic as it would be to demand that everyone without at least 50% indigenous heritage abandon “the Americas” and return to the land of their ancestral heritage(s).
The only way forward is for Jews and Palestinians to arrive at a solution to live with or beside one another as neighbors, respecting each other’s heritages, religions, borders, and customs in peaceful coexistence.
The hatred and killing has gone on much too long. STOP THE BLAMING! Let the healing begin!                                                        

Warren J. Blumenfeld

Along with the alum’s criticism, a campus administrator to whom he forwarded the message asserted that they were more concerned with the title of my posting: “Stop Blaming,” which, quite frankly, I found very curious at best.

My posting about “Stop Blaming” was my attempt to go beyond the vitriol on multiple sides of the issue and join together to move forward to a more peaceful place. I included the same message on multiple Facebook sites to near-universal appreciation.

I am doing all I can in my own meager way to diffuse tensions any way I can. The blame on all sides is only exciting people to violence. 

I know my words have little impact, but I believe I must do all I can. It’s my community organizing background as a youth activist during the Vietnam War asserting itself, and my role as an organizer in the early Gay Liberation Front, and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power coming to the surface.

The history of the Middle East, and especially between Palestinians and Jews, abounds with blame, recrimination, and retaliation and an escalating perpetual cycle of mistrust and violence. And there is indeed plenty of justifiable blame to go around on multiple levels and sides.

We can heap loads of blame everywhere and on all sides. But we blame and blame and blame, and then we expect different results. And we are certainly left with insanity resulting in increasing tensions, violence, death, and the possibility of an ever-widening breakout of war and destruction.

Can we at least suspend blame for a while? By suspending blame, we are not forgetting the history, but rather, we are engaging in an emotional ceasefire for a time.

The administrator of the listserv then informed people who contribute not to share their editorial commentary. They stated that the main purpose of the listserv is to provide a platform to announce events and share information with others, and it was not intended as a discussion list.

Okay, that is great to know after over 20 years of contributing my “discussions.” I will respect these conditions now that I am aware of them.

I believe, however, that this incident raises larger questions regarding the purpose of the “academy.”

Are we merely following the lead of conservative legislators and state politicians by banning certain topics in the classroom? This plays itself out differently in the banning of topics that don’t paint Israel and Israelis as the settler colonialists engaging in an apartheid state and Palestinians as perennial victims.

Any form of nuanced or nonbinary analysis of the Middle East conflict catches flack on the left and the right. And this is how the political left (on the side of the Palestinians only) and the political right (on the side of Israel only) form a circle and merge at the margins.

Yes, we are indeed witnessing a traumatized generation of students with four years of the fascist Trump regime; the global tragedy of Covid-19 and at-home online instruction; the murder of George Floyd and so many other unarmed and victimized people of color; numerous increased reported incidents of Islamophobia, antisemitism, and all the other forms of racism, homophobia and transphobia; anti-immigrant sentiments and acts of violence; economic insecurity; assaults on our planet and climate; and the list continues.

But are we not doing our students a grave disservice by withholding a diversity of worldviews, perspectives, and positions on the issues? How else will students (pre-k to grad school) develop the vital critical thinking skills necessary to ensure they will be successful in a changing world?

I believe that by restricting access to multiple perspectives, we are acting in a patronizing manner, restricting students’ agency and subjectivity, which is itself adultist, racist, and Islamophobic.

Are we merely awarding our students’ attendance trophies as we are seeing take place on sports teams and in classrooms?

What are we doing in higher education if we are not providing the best education possible?

We must, therefore, set clear demarcation lines between creating “safety“ in classrooms and making students feel “comfortable.“

In the ideal classroom, the overriding climate is one of safety. This is not, however, the same as “comfort,” for very often, comfortable situations might feel fine, but are not necessarily of pedagogic value.

“Safety” in this case refers to an environment where educators facilitate a learning process, one in which students can share openly without fear of retribution or blame; where they can travel to the outer limits of their “learning edges” in the knowledge that they will be supported and not left dangling.

Jean Piaget, the Swiss developmental psychologist researched the process of cognitive development. He demonstrated how people encounter new information that may not fit neatly into their past experiences.

To incorporate this information, they either enrich or expand what Piaget referred to as “schemata”: cognitive regions in which to assimilate the new information with present knowledge.

If, however, they cannot easily assimilate the new information, they enter into a state of upset cognitive balance (discomfort): “disequilibration” or “disequilibrium.” To find a sense of balance (“equilibration” or “equilibrium”), they must alter their schemata to accommodate the new information. The result is what we call “learning.”

I enjoy my position as an educator, and I am excited whenever I witness, in a figurative sense, the altering of students’ schemata. Anything less would do them a great disservice.

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