The Crisis at Oberlin: The Case of Joy Karega-Mason and the larger issues it raises

As an Oberlin College graduate (class of 1965), I was dismayed to learn of blatant anti-Semitic and anti-American Facebook shares and posts by a member of the Oberlin faculty. The things Joy Karega-Mason put up on Facebook should disqualify her from any teaching job at any high school or university in the country, but I believe this is the tip of the iceberg and that a deeper problem exists that cannot be ignored.

What did Karega-Mason post that would lead me to the conclude that she ought not remain a teacher? Shortly after the massacre at the offices of the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, she shared a graphic of an ISIS terrorist pulling off a mask portraying Benjamin Netanyahu, suggesting Netanyahu is some kind of front for or ally of ISIS. She went on to claim that Netanyahu came to Paris not to mourn the victims but to make sure French President Hollande knew the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, was behind the attacks.

In another post she indicated her support for Louis Farrakan’s allegation that Jews were behind 9/11. On another occasion, she repeated slanderous accusations about the Rothschild banking family. In her words, “the Rothschild-led banksters exposed and hated and out of economic options to stave off the coming global deflationary depression, are implementing the World War III option.”

Further, she criticized the Obama administration for a grant given to Holocaust survivors, suggesting Obama was nothing but a tool, accused Jews of being behind the shooting down of the Malaysian airline over the Ukraine, and she repeated the notion that ISIS is run by Mossad AND the CIA.

Academic Freedom and the First Amendment

Doesn’t the first amendment protect posting these types of views on Facebook? The first amendment only protects her from governmental attempts to silence her, but that’s not what’s at stake. We’re talking about whether the things she posted disqualify her from her job as a college instructor.

What about the concept of academic freedom? Does academic freedom protect her right to post or share documents that lack any factual basis and that are hurtful to a group of people?

Some argue academic freedom protects her right to have unpopular opinions, but again that’s not what’s at issue. Having unpopular opinions is one thing, posting them on a public social media site is another. Some believe academic freedom protects those posts if she keeps her views out of the classroom. I disagree on both counts.

Facebook posts are public, and as such they are available to students at the college as well as to those considering applying to Oberlin. To see such beliefs expressed by a faculty member is clearly deleterious to the college’s reputation. Further, they might intimidate all but the boldest Jewish student from speaking up in class on virtually any subject for fear of being attacked while other students might feel the need to convey to Karega-Mason that they agree with her in order to obtain a passing grade. Finally, what does it say about someone who believes such calumnies that Israel/Jews (she conflates the one with the other) were behind 9/11? How can Oberlin trust Karega-Mason, whose position is in the department of rhetoric and composition, to distinguish for students what is propaganda and what is reasoned argument when she fails that test herself?

If a janitor or cook had posted such materials, s/he would certainly be disciplined and probably fired. Why? The college must protect students and faculty from a person who might take such beliefs to the next level and engage in violent acts against Jewish students or faculty. Does not the college have an equal obligation to protect the minds of its students from someone who cannot distinguish the mad ravings of Louis Farrakhan from rational, fact-based analysis of an issue?

While I am dismayed by Karega-Mason’s anti-Semitism and by her willful refusal to accept that label as a legitimate criticism of her posts, what concerns me to a greater degree is what this situation says about American higher education in general and Oberlin in particular.

The Big Picture

When I was an undergraduate, faculty didn’t express their personal political beliefs in the classroom. I didn’t know whether my teachers were Democrats or Republicans, or even how they felt about the civil rights movement, which was prominently in the news. They kept their beliefs to themselves for a reason. College faculty are in a position of power vis-à-vis their students. They can exert undue influence on their students, influence that could damage the students’ career prospects as well as their relationships with other students and their family. An instructor’s mission is not to indoctrinate students into whatever political or social principles they hold to be true, but to give students the tools to make their own reasoned decisions.

To demonstrate that the problem at Oberlin is not just one assistant professor’s being beyond the pale, what can be said about a course that’s being offered under the title, “Ideal vs Practice of US Democracy: Gender, Race, and the War on Terror?” Here’s the first part of the course description: “This course examines the fundamental sociopolitical tension resulting from the discrepancy between democratic ideals and democratic practice in the U.S.”

Let me clear, I do NOT object to studying the tension resulting from our failure to achieve our ideals. I do, however, have a problem with the word “fundamental” because it suggests a fact that ought to be one of the questions up for discussion. I also find the lack of any time frame to be problematic. An open-ended time frame for the topic invites the danger of imposing today’s morality on the past. In fact, I suspect that’s intentional on the part of the instructor who designed the course. S/he wants to condemn American democracy by judging past events by today’s standards.

Here’s the rest of the description, “Through an in-depth study of three themes – gender, race, and the War on Terror – we will analyze the gaps between the democratic system of government we imagine ourselves to have, and the reality of historical and contemporary discrimination, exclusion, and curtailment of rights.”

Do you see the problem? The description states very clearly that the instructor has already reached a conclusion about the subject matter, which is what the students who take the course will “learn.” The instructor might as well have included the following statement in the description: “Students will not be allowed to form their own opinions. Anyone disagreeing with the thesis that our democratic system of government is imaginary and that the reality is discrimination, exclusion and curtailment of rights, will fail the course.”

 The Proper and Improper Way to Teach

This is not education. It is indoctrination.

Need I remind readers that the social sciences are built around theories? It’s the theories not the facts that college students need to be exposed to, and they need to learn the tools of analysis pertinent to each field they study. Even when interpretations of events are supported by data––demographic or financial, for example––competing theories are always possible. The goal of instruction should be to help students learn how to use various techniques of investigation to support their own explanatory theories.

In the case of discrepancy versus reality of American democracy, the instructor might offer readings from authors offering a variety of opinions and then ask students to marshal facts in support of or against one of the competing positions. The instructor should focus on what makes a good argument, and not tell the class her/his position on the topic.

The class description of the Ideal vs Practice of American Democracy suggests the instructor plans on teaching her conclusions to the class as fact. That is a fundamental violation of the mission of college instruction. I don’t know the name of the instructor, but I assume this is not the only course taught at Oberlin that violates this basic principle

My intuition on this point is supported by Ms. Karega-Mason’s having been hired in the first instance and by Oberlin President Krislov’s initial response to learning of her Facebook posts. Admitting the posts were hurtful to him personally, Krislov wrote Oberlin “respects the rights of its faculty, students, staff and alumni to express their personal views.” By that statement, Krislov abdicated his role as a college administrator, which in part is to assure that a member of the faculty is not violating the college’s mission!

Oberlin and American higher education are in deep trouble. The social sciences, history, philosophy and other disciplines are being taken over by commissars, by ideologues, by educational activists who have little regard for the notion that students need to learn skills and knowledge, not be taught opinions as if they were facts. It will be interesting to see whether these events lead Oberlin to address the deeper problem or try to resolve the Karega matter as if it is an anomaly.

 

5 thoughts on “The Crisis at Oberlin: The Case of Joy Karega-Mason and the larger issues it raises

  1. Diversity of opinion makes democracy strong, and protection of these expressions make institutions of higher learning more open to free thought and open debate.
    If there are actual instances of deliberate falsehood or misrepresentation of fact that can be attributed to attitudes of prejudice or bigotry, those should be exposed and refuted with verifiable facts and not emotional hyperbole and subjective taboos that fall under a category of “anti American”, or “anti semitic” jargon.
    The clamping down on dissent in this way reminds me of the Inquisition in Spain, or the book burning of the Nazis in Germany.

    Like

    • Thank you for your comments. In general you are correct, but we’re talking about an instructor in the rhetoric and composition department at a liberal arts college–not a barbershop, diner or school yard. As such isn’t she required to demonstrate a level of competence in evaluating fact from propaganda, calumny from assertions supported by evidence, hate-speech from exageration? If a physics instructor posted something that said the theory of relativity was wrong because it was first posited by a Jew, do you think s/he would be protected by academic freedom or free speech rights? Those statements are not a matter of dissent. They are offensive. They are ad hominem attacks on Jews as a group made without provocation. What if a religion instructor at a college attacked Catholics based on something some Pope said 500 years ago? Further, is it permissible for an instructor to create a classroom atmosphere where students fear speaking? That’s how any freshman would likely feel after viewing her posts.

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  2. I agree with you and if I were you I would certainly file a complaint with the University; however, if the Professor has tenure I doubt that it would do much good.

    You might want to raise your complaints to the Alumni Association since the University does tend to appreciate Donations.

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    • Thanks, Edwin. Karega-Mason is a first year instructor and hence is not protected by tenure. Even if she were, I’d move to dismiss her based on demonstrated incompetence in her field of rhetoric and composition. Sharing those posts demonstrates a willful ignorance of the impact those statements can have on Jewish students and faculty at the college. How can someone who supposedly understands rhetoric post such nonsense UNLESS she intends to cause harm.

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      • I do not disagree with you and was not disagreeing with you in my last posting.

        If we do not stand up for ourselves who else will?

        Incidentally, when I was a PFC in the Army back in 1962 I was assigned (singled out) to be on some crummy Detail because I was attending a Saturday religious service so I made a formal complaint.

        The Sargent who discriminated against me was subsequently diceplined.

        Liked by 1 person

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