By Mira Sucharov, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science
I’m no stranger to advocacy and opinion. As a columnist in various news outlets, I regularly bring my voice to bear on normative and policy issues. And I encourage my students to find their “opinion” voice, usually through teaching and assigning an “op-ed” writing project. Still, encouraging students to maintain an open mind in class where the desire to have one’s opinions confirmed can easily lead to the enemy of analytical inquiry, namely cognitive closure. This was a distinct challenge in one of my recent courses.
There’s a fine balance between embracing critical inquiry and pressing an activist agenda. Near the end of the term, this tension seemed to come to a head, particularly around the question of whether Israel is an apartheid state. I don’t usually introduce the term apartheid in the context of Israel — I find its use more polarizing than analytically illuminating — but since it was raised by students in class, I agreed to broach it. I suggested we begin to assess the question of whether Israel is — or isn’t — an apartheid state by looking at the difference between Israel’s rule in the West Bank and Israeli rule within its pre-1967 borders. Rather than respond to the question, some students challenged the framing. I felt cornered. As a professor, I don’t see my role as advocating for any one side or for burnishing the image of any country or government; I’m in the classroom to model how to assess claims, see where the data takes us, and generate knowledge.
I left class that day feeling uneasy.
After consulting with colleagues, the following week I opened the class session with a discussion of my hopes for the course — that we would join each other on a path of analytical engagement and open-mindedness; that we would join on a learning journey together. As I spoke, slowly and deliberately, perched on the desk in a faux-casual manner that concealed my nervousness, I feared that my message would be misinterpreted to suggest that certain political assessments are off-limits. I used terms like critical thinking and cognitive closure; paths and roads and bricolage of evidence and open minds. I don’t know whether my message penetrated. I do know that the air was thick with tension. I hope my students left with something to think about. I know I did.