Jill S. Schneiderman is a professor of earth science at Vassar College.
In March 2014, I and my co-teacher stood with 27 Vassar College students at the sparkling Auja Spring in the parched West Bank of the Palestinian territories. We listened attentively as environmental educators from the Auja Eco Center and a Palestinian graduate student from Al-Quds University explained the Auja village’s dependency on this sole water source. Sadly, this learning experience almost didn’t happen. My colleague and I were nearly prevented from embarking on the trip by opposition from a surprising source: the faculty and students of our own academic institution.
I am a tenured geology professor at Vassar , an elite liberal-arts school . I research, teach and write about the complex and intimate connections between land and water resources and social justice. For the study trip I led to Israel and the Palestinian territories, I created a syllabus designed to explore difficult issues and engage diverse perspectives that was vetted by Vassar’s faculty and administration. I have successfully led numerous similar trips to locations such as the Appalachian Mountains and the Mojave Desert. My modest goals for such trips are to impart knowledge and share experiences with my students that can be realized only by traveling to the regions we are examining. In studying arid regions without seeing the situation with their own eyes, it is difficult for students from places where water is relatively abundant to think about solutions to the problems that occur when local residents must share a meager supply.
Several months before my trip, the American Studies Association voted to support an academic boycott of Israel, a position that several faculty members at my college also held. Apparently, my course and the study trip associated with it were subject to the boycott, and the trip became a flash point for the boycott, divestment and sanctions — BDS, for short — debate on campus. Protesters bearing anti-Israel signs stood chanting outside my classroom; students were pressured by their peers to drop the course. My integrity was attacked in a standing-room-only forum at Vassar’s campus center led by pro-BDS faculty members. The stress affected my health, and my faith in longtime colleagues and the college administration was shaken. If not for the support of my family and reluctance to yield to such tactics, I very well might have backed out of the trip. And I and my students would have missed out on an educational opportunity of a lifetime.
What are the implications for education when students are pressured to avoid unique and difficult educational opportunities? Is it responsible for educators to support an academic boycott — essentially, a boycott of ideas? Isn’t our mission to teach students to engage with ideas that are different from their own? Vassar’s mission statement asserts that the college “nurtures intellectual curiosity” and “respectful debate.” Is it consistent with this mission to restrict study trips to regions of the world where the political landscape is similar to our own (which many would argue has its own share of overlooked injustices)? We are in dangerous territory if our ability to even travel for study’s sake to a politically charged region can be blocked by political agendas.
This is not to say that protest does not have its place; of course students should protest and argue about positions with which they disagree. I would have liked for the students holding placards and chanting slogans outside my classroom to come inside and debate in full sentences with a fuller command of the issues at hand. Had they done so, I am sure we would have had some challenging and uncomfortable discussions. But we would have all grown from the exchange, and we would have come closer to fulfilling the mission of my college and educators everywhere. By fostering narrow perspectives, bullying stymies learning and is anti-intellectual.
I understand from national reports that what happened at Vassar is happening in some form or another at academic institutions across the country. Instead of working to engage debate and refute contentious ideas, students and faculty are shutting down avenues of inquiry and blocking the attempts of others to examine difficult issues. Though it came at great personal cost, I decided to stick to my educational principles, and I’m glad I did. By learning on the ground from Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians instead of just from texts, my students and I came to appreciate why water issues are central to the conflict in the region. We also learned lessons about principled stances and forms of protest that I never would have thought to put on my syllabus. This is something I would teach again — field trip included — in a heartbeat.