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My Students Aren’t Debating ‘Genocide,’ They’re Looking for the Freedom to Learn

I wish more of the people who are so obsessed with campus speech could actually focus on the kind of speech that really matters for college students and those of us tasked with educating them.

In a world driven by sound bites, social media, secret recordings of professors and students and even elected officials demanding yes/no answers, suspicion and division are building, rendering it seemingly impossible to have the difficult conversations in the classroom that always, in my experience, lie at the core of any great education.

This isn’t a new problem. During the war in Gaza, it’s gotten harder than ever.

Earlier this week, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce called in the presidents of Harvard, MIT and Penn to grill them about campus antisemitism. The Republicans on the committee, led by Elise Stefanik (Republican, New York), insisted on simplistic responses and instead received nuance and caution, though all three presidents made it clear that there were lines that can’t be crossed without consequences. The hearing has fed a public outcry, doing exactly the thing that I feared – making it harder to meet the moment through, among other things, education.

Stefanik was careful, asking about whether calling for genocide of Jews, generically, was harassment and violated campus policies. Columnist Kevin Drum argued this was a deliberate choice intending to trap the presidents, because in fact hateful speech not specifically directed at individuals is often protected. But I think it’s beside the point.

No one should be calling for genocide and I want my university leaders to be clear about that, even if their bad-faith questioner asks them about “policy.” But while the show in Congress might be good politics, it doesn’t reflect what I’m hearing on my own campus in the place that matters most to me: the classroom.

On October 9, according to my syllabus, my plan was to talk about the history of the Vikings. I’m teaching a first-year seminar on how historical narratives get made, reading everything from the densest scholarship to the silliest fiction, and focusing on the European Middle Ages.

But after the terrorist attacks on 10/7, I knew my students would need to talk. So I let the Vikings wait and instead sat down on the desk at the front of the class and I told them I hoped that as a historian, this would be a good place to process what was happening in Israel and Gaza, a community where they could safely admit ignorance and ask questions, especially about the history.

I told them I would admit ignorance too, since I’m a medievalist, not an expert in the 20th century, let alone the 21st. They already knew that I am Jewish and I have never hid my politics – it’s hard to hide politics from students when you write political op-eds – but instead always labor when I teach to build a community where we can talk about the hard stuff and often disagree while remaining a community.

It was, on that day, filled with hard talk, confusing talk, because history – all history, but especially this history – is complicated and doesn’t support simple ideological positions.

A few weeks later, we got to the history of the Crusades. We started with a massacre in 1099 CE, as the European armies breached the walls of Jerusalem and slaughtered inhabitants taking shelter in Muslim holy places, but we ended in a nuanced place, reading sources and scholarship that showed both conflict and co-existence, talking about the ways that people have choices about how they react, what they do, how they understand the world. The political implications weren’t subtle, and again we leaned into them as best as I could guide us.

Then right before Thanksgiving, we took up the long and terrible history of the blood libel, or the conspiracy theory – entirely false – that Jews abduct and ritually murder Christian children. Its origins seem to lie in the twelfth century, but extend throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. Most recently, as writer Talia Lavin documented for The New Republic, the blood libel has now manifested within the right-wing conspiracy theory QAnon claiming a secret cabal of elites (they mean Jews, mostly) are extracting adrenochrome (an anti-blood clotting chemical; don’t ask conspiracy theories to make sense) from tortured children in order to attain immortality.

The recent incarnations of the old and vile myth likewise raised political questions, pointing to the duration and spread of antisemitic myths over centuries. We talked about why this kind of thinking was so hard to stamp out and how easy it was for people to fall into or spread antisemitic tropes unintentionally.

This history, I suggested, puts pressure on those who want to criticize Israel to work actively to avoid participating in or being co-opted by antisemites today. It was, in many ways, the hardest of the three classes for me, trying to be so clear that I respected my students’ rights to take any position on the war that they wanted to, but to argue that they needed to know the history and let that inform their pathway forward.

These are the conversations that I believe matter the most on college campuses. They are certainly the kinds of experiences I pursued as an undergraduate and have spent the last three decades trying to foster with my students. The ones that take place in classrooms intentionally built to make the hard discussions possible. Where else but in the classroom can we even aspire to do this?

Certainly not on social media. Certainly not in slogans printed or written on posters. And certainly not in the Congressional hearings. But it’s the latter kinds of speech that dominate the conversation because they are public, simplistic, and allow people to score political points. What’s more, it skews the conversation. People mistakenly think it is the whole conversation.

But if we really care about campus speech (and plenty of the politicians, I fear, don’t), then we must – or anyway in my classroom I must – always return to the question:  How do we make the hard conversation possible?

A simple question. No easy answers.

Source: CNN