Debates over free speech have deeply immersed themselves into the fabric of our culture over the past few years. Wild and sharp finger-pointing has gone in both directions.
Last week, a Cornell University junior accused of posting violently threatening statements against Jewish people on campus was held without bail after his first appearance in federal court on Wednesday, as he should have been.
Patrick Dai, from Rochester, New York, has been charged with using interstate communications to post death threats. The graphic, anonymous messages posted this weekend on a Greek life forum rattled Jewish students on the Ivy League campus. “While we take some measure of relief in knowing that the alleged author of the vile anti-Semitic posts that threatened our Jewish community is in custody, it was disturbing to learn that he was a Cornell student,” Cornell President Martha E. Pollack said in a message to the university community.
There is no question the violence in Israel and Gaza has heightened tensions on college campuses across the U.S. Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian student groups are weighing in online and in person, with many of their statements and protests provoking strong reactions from the other side.
The truth is Hamas’s actions on October 7 were nothing short of sadistic and abominable. We must start with this assertion, as everyone must accept this indisputable fact. There is no room for debate here. The consensus must be unanimous.
Now, college campuses are supposed to be forums for the rational examination and exchange of ideas among people with diverse, pluralistic views. In these important spaces, individuals can become intensely immersed in various forms of inquiry. This intellectual universe is deeply embedded in the American social and cultural imagination. However, the current Middle East conflict has resulted in numerous universities morphing into battlegrounds where ideas have been weaponized in a manner that has become more and more acrimonious, leading to an increasingly bellicose inquisition.
This drama is occurring at a time when the public opinion of higher education—always ambiguous at best, especially among conservatives —has reached new depths. The sector has come under increased scrutiny from many quarters: politicians, students, college graduates themselves, and the public at large.
According to a Gallup poll conducted earlier this year, just a third of the roughly 1,000 randomly selected people surveyed stated they had confidence in institutions of higher education, down from about half in 2018. Although this is hardly a scientific study, it is a barometer for the public mood on the issue, provided that a broad swath of Americans from various walks of life were interviewed.
There is no doubt that such a dramatic drop is the result of a constant barrage of criticism regarding the increasing cost of a college education as well as merciless attacks from right-wing pundits, politicians, neoliberals, and those without a degree. Needless to say, as a professor who has served as a member of academia for more than a quarter of a century, this erosion of public confidence is troubling and disturbing.
Dissension and criticism aside, higher education has (and continues to be) the pathway for upward mobility in American society. Yes, many important jobs do not require a college degree. For those who decide to pursue such careers, great! God bless them. Nonetheless, there are many other professions where a degree is a prerequisite.
It is essential that we cannot prevent any type of conflict – racial, religious, political, or otherwise – to diminish, erode, or nullify an institution as crucial as higher education.
Copyright 2023 Elwood Watson, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate
Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.