It was late at night on a spring evening in 2006 at Columbia University, and a dozen of us remained around a table; no one wanted to leave. Earlier I had spoken about how to identify what was and what was not anti-Semitism. This group of progressive Jewish students wanted to keep talking. I had expected their post-presentation conversation to be about Zionism or definitions of anti-Semitism, but what made the students want to stay for that last hour was a discussion about the college experience itself.
After talking about the expected topics, one student had said, “This is the first time I’ve felt comfortable saying what I really think about Israel.”
When I asked why that was, she said, “Because I always have to gauge, if I say what I think, whether that would impact a grade or a friendship.”
“Is this only about Israel that you find yourself repressing your views?” I asked. “No,” she said. Others agreed – this culture of double-checking one’s thoughts, they said, applied to many issues, and was experienced by non-Jewish students at Columbia, too, as well as by students they knew at other campuses.
How depressing that at an institution designed to shake up the thinking of smart young people, the message heard instead is the importance of self-censoring. Not because of harassment or intimidation, but because there was insufficient space created and cultivated for students to take intellectual risks. College should be the time when students receive encouragement to say things that others might find difficult or even offensive, as part of the learning process.
The flip side of this problem occurred Feb. 8  at the University of California at Irvine. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren spoke, or at least he tried to. He was repeatedly interrupted by anti-Israel students, heckling him.
This is part of a disturbing trend of Israeli speakers on campus being denied the ability to speak or speak without harassment (as has happened at University of California at Los Angeles, University of Pittsburgh, University of Chicago and elsewhere). The UCI campus has had a long history of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents, usually tied to its Muslim Student Union. These students were not afraid to say what they thought, but they displayed a complete unwillingness to listen. They interfered not only with Oren’s ability to share his ideas and experiences, but even more importantly, the ability of their classmates to learn.
To the university’s credit, protesters were removed and arrested. An Irvine official noted that disrupting a speaker violates the campus code of conduct, and that suspensions or expulsions might ensue. The students who disrupted the event must be disciplined. What they did directly undermines the integrity of the academic process, much as plagiarism does, and should not be tolerated.
But there is a larger issue here. As young adults become engaged with new ideas, especially ones that touch some supercharged aspect of their identity, they may lose the capacity to see complexities and grays, and self-righteously see themselves as arbiters of correct thoughts or morality.
Rather than just accept this developmental zealotry as a fact of life, university leaders should strive to educate students who can think clearly about -- as opposed to demonize and dismiss, or be fearful of engaging -- ideas with which they do not agree.
The problem is that students do not sufficiently understand the nature of the academic enterprise, and what is expected of them. To help them learn, faculty members and university leaders must mine conflicts (about anything, not just views toward the Middle East), not avoid them. It is from difficult and contentious questions, not the easy or formalistic ones, that students can learn the most.
Yes, it is true that students identify with one faction or another and may have a great desire to “win” a political contest. But universities should be much clearer about defining the importance, and uniqueness, of the academic enterprise and the culture it requires. No student should be afraid to say what he or she thinks, and no student should prohibit another from learning. It is no accident that the smartest people I know are more likely to begin a sentence with “I might be wrong, but....” It would help if students learned they might be too, and that being wrong is not the end of the world.
Academic freedom, of course, requires that people have the right to talk on campus. But for that freedom to be real, rather than a nice-sounding notion, much more than policy statements and enforcement of rules is required. Campus administrators need to have a clear goal: that every student should understand, in his or her core, that the purpose of their college education is to help them learn one thing -- to be a critical thinker.
A critical thinker appreciates ideas that challenge or contradict more than those that endorse or confirm. And a critical thinker takes risks.
Kenneth Stern is director of the American Jewish Committee's Division on Antisemitism and Extremism.