The Excruciating Worth of Criticism

The democratic experiment is neither certain nor assured. It takes courage and perseverance, a willingness to wrestle with the toughest issues and to learn from honest disagreements. Cornel West called this "democratic dialogue. This vital ingredient -- fundamental to attaining a just society governed by the rule of law -- is being undervalued in the imbroglio currently playing out at Oberlin College. Allegations of a tolerance for anti-semitism in Oberlin's culture have been widely circulated. Subtlety, nuance and considerable factual evidence to the contrary have been kicked to the curb.

Oberlin has a strong tradition of advancing the human condition through the arts and sciences grounded in critical thinking, boundary explorations and active civil engagement. That said, like democracy in America, Oberlin is not perfect. I'm a child of the '60s and, as a student at Oberlin during those years, I had much to say about what I saw as its imperfections. That's what Oberlin students do: look for ways to make the world -- and the College -- better.

As a grateful alumna, I can attest that Oberlin focuses on the very best possible experience for its students even when it's tough. I got a full dose from Day One. My assigned dorm roommate was the daughter of a New York State legislator who had just won his seat on the coattails of Senator Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign. Her first day, she joined the (very active) campus Young Republicans. We wrestled constantly with extreme differences from civil rights to America's military buildup in Vietnam, the Israeli-Palestinian topics of our day. Yes, it was a long year. And hard as it was, we both were the better for it. Still. No place for wimps or the close-minded.

Genuinely embracing the intellectual, spiritual and emotional rights of everyone in Oberlin's local, national and international community is not for the faint of heart. It means providing a context conducive to ensuring the right to respect, to feeling physically and intellectually safe, to the expectation of equality of and for all people, and, again, an overriding commitment to justice under the rule of law. None of that is possible without an unwavering commitment to academic freedom and the free exercise of First Amendment rights.

If there is an institution of higher learning in America doing a better job than Oberlin in combating bigotry of all kinds, I would love to know about it. I treasure my experiences with the College as a student and an active alumna: a place grounded in an overarching commitment to justice. In Democracy Matters, Cornel West asserts that America has a unique three-part heritage offering a base for building a better polis: the Greek tradition of democratic dialogue, the Jewish focus on justice and the African American adaptation of tragi-comic hope. Oberlin employs all three, imperfectly.

Oberlin's modus operandi -- "with justice for all" -- has explicitly been applied since abolitionists began the College's commitment to inclusion (admitting men of color two years after its founding in 1833), then invented co-education, transitioned away from its specific religious orientation in the mid-1800s to include those of all faiths (and none) and now recognizes every difference imaginable.

I was indeed privileged to attend this outstanding liberal arts College in the midst of the turbulent '60's, when heated exchanges were the course -- and expectation -- of the day, every day. Today, I understand distress prompted by specific actions of an assistant professor of rhetoric, whose personal Facebook posts included three which have come under intense scrutiny as anti-semitic and which I personally do find repulsive. This is happening as campuses across America are being roiled by over-heated arguments about the State of Israel's relationship with its non-Jewish neighbors and citizens. Much of the heat is focused on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

I will resist getting dragged into the particulars of what crystallized accusations of an ambiance of anti-semitism on the Oberlin campus because a.) I am too informationally distant and thereby under-informed, b.) I am not resident in the community (tenured Oberlin professor and alumnus Dr. Justin Emeka is, as are eloquent Jewish student leaders), and c.) most of the rest of what I've seen reflects all too well John Godfrey Saxe's classic poem, "The Blind Men and the Elephant" illustrating the predicament in which each individual seeks to describe an elephant based on touching only one part:

... (And so these men of IndostanDisputed loud and long,)Each in his own opinionExceeding stiff and strong,Though each was partly in the right,And all were in the wrong!

First, there is the challenge of "anti-Semitism". What is it, when the word now gets tossed around with such abandon that it has lost the pungency and utility it deserves? Disagreeing with a person, an institution or a State which (who) self-identifies as Jewish is not anti-Semitism. In a self-governing community, it is intrinsic and essential that honest and honorable people will disagree. Colleges and universities exist to improve the quality and the outcomes of these dialogues, particularly in any self-governing polity.

It is only slightly ironic that I find myself going back to our conversation with Alan Dershowitz, an unabashed Zionist who is quick to describe as "anti-Semitic" those whom he views as unfairly criticizing the State of Israel.

Mr. Dershowitz vividly reminds us of the credit traditionally given to ancient Hebrews for planting the seeds of justice in the Western world. In The Genesis of Justice, he follows that path toward justice through the centuries, as the art of argumentation becomes fine-tuned within the Talmudic tradition. Even God can -- and sometimes must -- be challenged in our ongoing arguments! Justice remains the goal which must be at the heart of our every endeavor. Or, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, "True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice."

I've been fortunate to know Oberlin's president, Marvin Krislov, since he assumed that role 9 years ago. I respect and admire the work he has done there. I've not talked with him about the current clamor. Based on what I know and what I've read, he is coping admirably with a truly unpleasant dispute, one which will be redeemed from wanton destructiveness only by the learning he and the Oberlin community will wrest from it.

There is no better place than Oberlin College to think deeply, hard and long in the company of others, to grapple with challenging questions that affect our present and our future, whether the edges of those conundrums be rough or smooth. The opportunities await in classrooms and coffee shops, dorms and seminars, faculty homes and athletic facilities -- among people who share a commitment to critical thinking and (borrowing the title of Robert Frank's book) acknowledging that we do well to keep our Emotions within Reason.

Oberlin has become a proxy punching bag for disagreements about the State of Israel via a charge of anti-semitism. Oberlin has the imposed opportunity to advance knowledge and understanding of "anti-semitism" and to turn up the light and turn down the heat on the long-standing mess that is the Middle East. When we treat such issues as untouchable or intractable, we relinquish our agency to address the full range of pressing issues in the world, in America, and on every college and university campus in the U.S. That "agency" is the soul and heart of citizenship in a self-governing state. That "agency" is what we expect and should demand from education, particularly colleges and universities.

Oberlin's governing structure is unusual and ideal for this moment. Dating back to the "Finney Compact" (of 1835), the faculty -- the FACULTY -- "is responsible for the internal management of the College."* This (almost) unique feature of Oberlin has been fine tuned over the decades. The result has been that when challenges small and large have come before it, due process has been at the heart of the ways "Faculty Governance" has played out. Justice requires published rules (thanks to another Semite, Babylon's Hammurabi) along with processes for assuring those rules are followed. Democracy requires that the citizens be empowered to establish and alter the rules. Oberlin has rules and procedures in place. The entire institution is committed to following those rules and procedures and, if appropriate, changing them ... using rule-based procedures. Inflamed and tendentious rhetoric is helpful only in identifying those unlikely to contribute to a just outcome for whatever subject is at hand.

So I leave questions of the assistant professor's role in the academic life of the institution where it belongs: Oberlin's uniquely enabled General Faculty. Already, Oberlin is actively addressing what they acknowledge are opportunities to improve the campus for all, conscientiously evaluating verifiable facts before responding to perceptions and specifics from which the destructive allegations arose.

No due process, no justice. Since Oberlin explicitly honors that process, I am reassured that both my own and Oberlin's commitment to justice, academic freedom and the First Amendment will be honored.

I am also inestimably grateful that Marvin Krislov is leading the institution as my alma mater relishes yet another learning opportunity. We try to remember what some of our critics seem to forget: learning precedes teaching.
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