It's unfair to expect students and teachers to set aside their moral
commitments or the way they identify emotionally with a topic when they
enter the classroom, according to history Professor Joel Beinin.
"In my view, moral commitment and passion are a good thing," Beinin said. "I
have it. Why shouldn't my students have it? It's why I do what I do."
And while such a philosophy probably wouldn't invite much debate in, say, a
course on particle physics, it comes heavily into play when the subject is
the Middle East -- and, more specifically, the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Beinin happens to be one of the world's leading scholars on the modern
social history of the Middle East, and he teaches a course on the
Arab-Israeli conflict. He spoke Thursday about the role strong feelings,
which are inevitably aroused when discussing one of the world's most
complicated geopolitical imbroglios, should play in the classroom.
His talk, "Moral Commitments, Emotional Identifications and Historical
Evidence: Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict," was this year's first
installment of the Center for Teaching and Learning's Award-Winning Teachers
on Teaching series, and it drew a crowd of more than 50 people to the
Hartley Conference Center in the Mitchell Earth Sciences Building.
Discomfort, Beinin asserted, is key to the learning process. "Teaching
should be about developing the ability to think critically," he said. "It
requires people being willing and being led to challenge received truths.
The student who graduates from Stanford after having been here for four
years and who has the same view of the world that he or she had when he
arrived hasn't learned very much."
An activist for the Palestinian cause and strong opponent of the looming war
with Iraq, Beinin said he makes no bones about his social and political
views in or outside the classroom. "I think it's essential to respect and
acknowledge students' differences and moral commitments and emotional
identification," he said. "I also acknowledge my own, and I make it very
clear that any student who disagrees with me and presents even a shadow of a
coherent reason why is going to get an 'A' in the class." This, he
explained, permits students to openly challenge his views in their papers
and in class while eliminating the specter of retributive grading.
Nevertheless, Beinin's activism and the fact that he was president of the
Middle East Studies Association (MESA) of North America for a year beginning
in November 2001 -- a period that was, for obvious reasons, rather
tumultuous vis-à-vis U.S. relations with various Muslim countries -- have
made him a lightning rod for criticism by conservatives and supporters of
Israeli policy toward Palestinians.
Much of this criticism stems from comments Beinin made at a Sept. 17, 2001,
rally organized by the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center. In the speech,
Beinin pointed to controversial elements of U.S. foreign policy toward the
Middle East -- such as America's considerable military aid to Israel -- in
describing why many Arabs and Muslims feel anger toward the U.S. government.
A cohort of right-leaning pundits and Middle East scholars seized on
Beinin's words to paint him as an apologist for the Sept. 11 attacks and
Middle Eastern terrorism, in general. But they failed to mention that
Beinin, in the same speech, said Arab and Muslim grievances about American
foreign policy "can in no way justify the attack on the World Trade Center
and the Pentagon."
Supporters of Beinin maintain that his views on the Middle East have been
speciously represented by reactionary critics. In any case, Beinin has not
been cowed. Indeed, he has remained an active presence at many Bay Area
demonstrations over the past year.
At a rally in San Francisco last March, he called for suspending military
aid to Israel until it ends its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and
East Jerusalem and addresses the claims of Palestinian refugees; at a
gathering outside Memorial Auditorium, where former Israeli Prime Minister
Ehud Barak was preparing to speak last October, Beinin joined dozens of
other demonstrators in protesting the Israeli occupation; and just this past
weekend, at Palo Alto City Hall, he spoke at a rally held to oppose war with
Beinin said he does not believe that being a professor should mean giving up
his rights as a citizen -- that is, the right to publicly express his
personal views. "One thing I'm trying to convey here is that this history
[of the Arab-Israeli conflict] isn't dry and removed from life," he said.
"Of course I'm going to speak at demonstrations, because I want students to
understand that the conclusion they come to -- one way or another --
actually should make a difference in what they do."
However, he said he does impose certain limits on himself. For example, he
said he does not publicly criticize students outside the classroom,
including in letters to newspapers.
During Thursday's presentation, David Patel, a graduate student in political
science, asked Beinin whether it was wise to show moral commitment and
emotion in the classroom as an untenured professor. Patel asserted that such
demonstrations can reflect badly in a profession whose most prized commodity
is dispassionate, high-caliber research. "My impression is that the easiest
way to scuttle a career in Middle East studies is to teach the Arab-Israeli
conflict and to write about it," he said.
"I'm living proof that you're wrong," Beinin responded, explaining that he
has taught in the same fashion since he first started his professorial
career at Stanford in 1983. Beinin recalled that Morris Zelditch, a
professor emeritus of sociology, once told him that young professors at
Stanford have a better shot at tenure if they set themselves apart from the
Later, Beinin qualified his remarks: "Everyone doesn't get away with this;
you're right," he said. "The waters are pretty muddy when it comes to the
Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict, in particular. But if you don't
get up there and say what you think, the whole enterprise is useless. It's
just not worth being here."