There has been a great deal of attention paid lately to Columbia’s invitation to have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, participate in a Q&A session with faculty and students on Monday in an event sponsored by the university’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).
John Coatsworth, dean of the school, released the following statement about the event and the school’s decision to not rescind the invitation:
“Opportunities to hear, challenge and learn from controversial speakers of different views are central to the education and training of students for citizenship in a shrinking and still dangerous world. This is especially true for SIPA students, many of whose careers will require them to confront human rights and security issues throughout the globe.”
Later, in a television interview, Coatsworth explained that if Hitler were alive the school would have no problem inviting him to participate in the same type of event. As much as I am open to exploring different ideas, I am concerned, yet also conflicted over the school’s stand in this situation.
To endorse Ahmadinejad’s world view legitimizes his opinions as academically sound. Ironically, Ahmadinejad would likely send every faculty member of Columbia to prison for thinking anything other than his party line if the school were in Iran.
Giving him a soapbox to proclaim his position is misguided; I further doubt doing so will actually substantiate his standpoints. I liken this choice to the desire of people after a violent incident to understand “why” the violence was perpetrated. But, would the rambling words of a sociopath make any sense to those with a rational mind?
Conversely, a colleague of mine shared with me the following thought earlier today:
“Whatever we repress comes back to bite us. When you shine a light in a dark place, there is no longer darkness.”
Grounding this in a human developmental and psychological theory, my colleague’s point is that simply ignoring something doesn’t keep it from becoming a problem. By confronting it you can deal with it directly . I understand this approach and, to a degree, feel there is value in confrontation and interaction.
So then, should there be limits to academic inquiry or should every experience be seen as one from which learning can occur? This opens a Pandora’s Box of who is empowered to decide what is and what is not academic inquiry. Frankly, I don’t know if I am comfortable giving anyone that power.