Tom Elia take issue with one of the letters -- for me, however, this one was the most amusing of the lot:
To the Editor:
As a (left-leaning) college history professor, I am bemused by accusations that I am trying to indoctrinate my students with my progressive ideals. If I had that kind of influence, all my students would do the reading every week, proofread their papers meticulously and attend every class. (They don't.)
Samuel S. Thomas
Springfield, Ohio, April 5, 2005
Meanwhile, the lead Times editorial discusses the fracas at Columbia's Middle Eastern Studies program -- in which students have claimed to be intellectual intimidated by pro-Palestinian faculty members and faculty have received hate mail and death threats. The editorial trashes the selection of the faculty committee tasked to write a report and the overall clumsiness with which the university handled the affair (i.e., refusing to do anything until a documentary film brought the issue into the public eye).
What I really found peculiar, however, was the closing paragraph of the editorial:
[I]n the end, the report is deeply unsatisfactory because the panel's mandate was so limited. Most student complaints were not really about intimidation, but about allegations of stridently pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli bias on the part of several professors. The panel had no mandate to examine the quality and fairness of teaching. That leaves the university to follow up on complaints about politicized courses and a lack of scholarly rigor as part of its effort to upgrade the department. One can only hope that Columbia will proceed with more determination and care than it has heretofore.
Replace "pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli bias" with "pro-liberal, anti-conservative bias" -- is there any difference between the NYT's complaints about substantive bias in Columbia's Middle Eastern Studies program and conservatives' complaints about substantive bias in the humanities and social sciences?
[But just because academics are liberal doesn't mean they proselytize in their classes--ed. This is true, and it should be stressed that I think professors using their lectern as a bully pulpit is the exception as opposed to the rule. However, as a category of concern, the Times objection in this paragraph and the conservative complaint are awfully similar. However, as the letter quoted above suggests, how much difference any of this makes in the end is subject to debate.]
Personally, I think that the master narrative of Zionist historiography is dominant in the American academy. Mostly this sort of thing is taught by International Relations specialists in political science departments, and a lot of them are Zionists, whether Christian or Jewish. Usually the narrative blames the Palestinians for their having been kicked off their own land, and then blames them again for not going quietly. It is not a balanced point of view, and if we take the NYT seriously... then the IR professors should be made to teach a module on the Palestinian point of view, as well. That is seldom done.
This sort of argument makes me wonder if Cole has ever actually sat in on an international relations course. It is possible that someone at some college teaches the Middle East as "Zionist historiography" but most IR scholars are way too professionalized to ascribe such a normative judgment to any nationality. It sure as hell ain't "dominant in the American academy." In fact, I'll dare Cole to find a single syllabus at the American Political Science Association archive or elsewhere with a "Zionist" bent.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Cole responds here, saying:
Drezner has misunderstood my point. I don't give a rat's ass whether those courses have a Zionist bent or not. I am saying that "bent" is not a relevant category of analysis when evaluating university teaching. Everybody has some bent. The question is, whether students come out of the class having learned to reason about a set of problems or not. The content is not as important, since they'll forget a lot of the content anyway, and will receive it selectively, both during and after the class. But if you teach them to take things apart and see how they work, to think about social and political causation, to see how things work together, in a particular field, then they can produce their own knowledge and understanding about it thereafter. They can also question their own and the professor's premises because they will have learned about hidden premises and how to bring them out in the open and interrogate them.
I certainly do not disagree with Cole's point about teaching students critical and analytical skills -- but his first posting (excerpted above) on this topic was entirely a discussion about content and not method. Furthermore, Cole has misunderstood my rebuttal. When I say that, "most IR scholars are way too professionalized," what I mean is that my fellow IR profs rarely, if ever, offer only one master narrative of any event. Instead, they tend to discuss how an event or case can be explained by different theories of international relations, and how for almost every theory, there are inconvenient facts that problematize that model. This doesn't leave much room for the "Israelis good, Palestinians evil" mode of teaching (and, again, let me stress that this is in international relations classes, which were the target of Cole's lament; I can't speak to how these questions are taught in comparative politics or history classes).
See Henry Farrell for a similar take. His punchline:
This doesn't at all gel with my experience of how international relations is taught or practiced, which is that IR courses which cover Middle East politics usually provide readings that cover both sides of the argument....
I suspect that Cole's claims reflect his lack of experience with IR as it is actually practiced in the academy. Certainly he needs to provide some evidence if he wants to make the rather strong claims that he is making stick. Otherwise, he's doing what the people who he's (in my opinion correctly) criticizing are doing – condemning an entire discipline wholesale on the basis of a rather shaky set of claims as to what the people in that discipline are "really" doing in the classroom.