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Bollinger: Educator Hero?

September 26, 2007

What do we make of Columbia University’s President Lee Bollinger? Is this guy—pictured to the right—a hero, goat, or something in between?

When I first heard about his comments to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the human rights activist in me wanted to declare President Bollinger a hero. I went to H&E’s posting section, uploaded a picture, pasted in an AP story, and typed up a few notes. But other responsibilities called and my brother sent me a picture of his Mad Max replica (see below). The Bollinger post rested in my queue.

But maybe thinking about Mad Max saved me from a deeper error? If so, how?

Now that a few days have passed I am less happy with my early reaction to President Bollinger’s upbraiding. It is not that I have flip-flopped, but I know that President Bollinger did not satisfy ~all~ of the human rights activist in me. That part of me sees the acts of teaching and learning as critical aspects of the human rights picture. And teaching is not simply declaiming to, or upbraiding, a submissive learner.

My educator’s conscience asks whether it would not have been better to let President Ahmadinejad dig his own hole? I think President Bollinger ought to have played Socrates rather than Kruschev. Why not let the Iranian president supply all of the terms, then ask him to define those terms rigorously with regard to Islam and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? And if his answers were not forthcoming, then let the silences speak for themselves.

Is it not true that educators—all that are worth their salt—should help their students figure out things for themselves? Concerned educators ask questions, listen, and then ask again from a different angle. We certainly lead our students in a direction that corresponds with our opinions, commitments, and views. But the point here is not the end; it is the means. We bring them along, letting them sort out their own contradictions.

While President Bollinger satisfied my instinct for outrage, he violated my sense of the educator’s role in world. President Bollinger may have been right but I’m not sure, on Monday, he was a hero to educators. – TL

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One Comment
  1. Anonymous permalink

    There is a time and place for everything. While Bollinger's statements about Ahmadinejad may have been true and needed, they were neither appropriate nor helpful in the time and place they were made.

    Insulting an invited speaker to his face is not useful. It does not educate anyone. It is not polite. In fact, it is so out of the realm of accepted behavior – in almost all cultures – that engaging in it ultimately ends up doing nothing more than ossifying everyone's position. Ahmadinejad's, the students', Bollinger's, and every other individual who heard, saw, or merely read about the event.

    In other words, it did not enlighten, it merely damaged.


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