The Scarlet & Black

The Independent Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Guest Column: Knowledge acquired from different perspectives

Last week Noah Tetenbaum ’12 and Smita Elena Sharma ’08 reminded readers of the S&B of the mission of Grinnell College, “to graduate men and women who can evaluate clearly both their own and others’ ideas.” The mission registers an ambition to help students distinguish criticism from critical thinking and, in the process, to acquire analytic skills that inform the different ways in which they engage with the world, regardless of where they are positioned on the political spectrum. Toward this goal, as a professor, I emphasize keeping in mind two questions—What is the premise? What does this premise presuppose?—when considering both the arguments that are appealing as well as those with which we disagree.

Grinnell students who truly aspire to the lofty goal of discriminating “between truth and lie, who do not tolerate bigotry and political soporifics, and who will use their critical thinking skills to ensure that political discourse progresses rationally and fairly” should question and investigate when “truth and lie” are rhetorically invoked. Knowledge and expertise are not acquired from listening to one perspective, or reading a selective set of “facts.” This is not to be misinterpreted as a critique of owning a political perspective but rather a disdain for the audacity of shoddy scholarship and partisan pedagogy which undermine efforts to nurture global citizens who will contribute to the noble goal of social, economic, and political justice. (Those who have truth claims might re-read the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side.”)
So while the opinions of Tetenbaum and Sharma are opinions, it is the disingenuity, or perhaps simply a reflection of their lack of established, simple information, which should be disturbing. They accuse guest lecturer, Libyan-born-and-raised Professor Maurice Roumani, (one of something like 40 percent of Israeli Jews, often referred to as Arab Jews and, like other Afro-Asian Jewish Israelis, a person of color in the West) of being racist, ignorant, and an obstacle to peace. Professor Roumani, on the Israeli right of center, offered a perspective that has not been articulated in a public forum at Grinnell College in the 14 years that I have been here.

As someone who was on the left when I lived in Israel (as I am here), I disagree with Professor Roumani’s perspective. At the same time, a Grinnell student striving to fulfill the mission of the College should be aware of and, indeed, should find his opinion of interest. Listening to and understanding the multiple sides of a complex debate denotes comprehension, not agreement. Instead, Tetenbaum and Sharma shrewdly insinuate the spurious debate over whether Zionism is anti-Semitism and insidiously cite Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt, as a shield en route to the crescendo of an incendiary statement: “we wonder why Chalutzim would invite [Maurice] Roumani, a member of the overtly polemical Israel on Campus Coalition, and whether his views are synonymous with Chalutzim’s.” What a silly comment! Have speakers whose invitation they have successfully supported been members of groups which are less “overtly polemical?”
Reading selectively and intentionally to armor oneself may be useful for the self-righteous. It is not useful for engaging with the kind of political activism that supports a just and lasting peace.

I am not shocked by the absence of knowledge—there is nothing wrong with not knowing unless one demonstrates deliberate, intentional bias reflecting ignorance and is totally closed-minded to different interpretations of the same material. There is nothing wrong when students have little to no knowledge about the Middle East and North Africa, who have never heard of and know nothing about the fact that more than half the population of Israel are Christian and Muslim Arabs, Druze, Bedouin and Circassians, and, like Professor Roumani, Jews from “non-European” countries or are unable to identify differences between political culture of Ramallah and Gaza on the one hand—including the pressure on women— and the political movements of Hamas and PLO on the other. I am not even surprised by students who do not know there was a landmark event remembered as Black September or realize that the Egyptian and Syrian governments have a different policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood in their respective countries.

I do not mean to belittle the sincere efforts of students to engage in support of one cause or another. Living with informational overload and time constraints does not exempt anyone wishing to support a cause from taking full advantage of our very privileged access to resources that can educate us about the broad and minute aspects of a particular region or conflict. If students and faculty have different responsibilities for intentionally seeking out different points of view and perspectives, we also share a responsibility for learning about the histories of the people who—in the final analysis—will continue to live together in the same region.

View Comments (1)
More to Discover
Donate to The Scarlet & Black
Our Goal

Comments (1)

All The Scarlet & Black Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *