The Provocateurs

28 February 2022

Carleton Professors Amna Khalid and Jeff Snyder are challenging seemingly progressive academic orthodoxies — from the left.

Amna Khalid & Jeff Snyder
Amna Khalid & Jeff Snyder

During a period when it’s de rigueur for conservative pundits on cable television to proclaim that an epidemic of “wokeness,” “cancel culture,” and “political correctness” has hijacked higher education, two Carleton professors are earning a reputation for traversing similar ground in an ongoing series of politically provocative critiques.

Amna Khalid, who teaches South Asian history, and Jeff Snyder, who specializes in the history of American education, have variously questioned the effectiveness of diversity training on campus and the need for trigger warnings in the classroom, defended the Western canon of classic literature, and challenged the tenor and tone of contemporary antiracist discourse. Their coauthored essays are published by outlets including The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Conversation (“academic rigor, journalistic flair”), Inside Higher Ed, the New Republic, the Washington Monthly, and Arc Digital. Khalid has her own podcast (Banished) that explores what happens when people, ideas, and works of art get censored, silenced, or banned. The two also appear together and separately on various podcasts and news programs, oftentimes sharing space with conservatives.

Yet Khalid and Snyder both see themselves, politically and personally, as people of the left who are compelled to challenge a kind of reactionary progressivism, inside and outside of academe, that they worry renders too many topics in the polarized present untouchable. In particular, they blanche at any attempt to narrow the range of “acceptable” inquiry or expression, or that represent one-dimensional and, hence, ineffective responses to bigotry and other burning issues.

“This either-or paradigm presents a highly misleading picture of the nature and consequences of ideas, policies, and social movements. It describes a world that never was and never will be, a world without contradictions, ironies, or unintended consequences.”

For instance, they argue that diversity training, the go-to response by many colleges and universities recently under fire for lacking equity and inclusion, too often substitutes a quick-fix etiquette for real educational engagement with discrimination and its history. Especially when the moderators most likely to lead the trainings attack representations of the past that appear racist through a modern lens, but then fail to contextualize that history — which often leads to oversimplification and demonization. They also note that there’s a tendency in these group training sessions to avoid topics or points of view that don’t line up with current antiracist norms, which can chill the atmosphere and render honest and uncomfortable discussions even more difficult.

Brown vs. Board of Education was a civil rights victory with unintended circumstances
Brown vs. Board of Education was a civil rights victory with unintended circumstances

Instead of falling back on diversity training, Khalid and Snyder write, professors and their administrators should put a premium on “coursework, lecture series, discussion panels, student speak-outs, collegewide teach-ins, exhibitions, performances, and common readings.” Exercises that, rather than “relying on the kind of mass-produced, drive-through diversity training provided by outside ‘experts,’ ” draw on scholarship and knowledge that members of the academic community already possess.

As historians, the pair insists that being open to contradictions, ironies, and unintended consequences is essential to understanding what really has happened and continues to happen in the world around us. They began collaborating when, as the Trump presidency calcified political divisions in the country, students and faculty members were becoming afraid of being labeled right-wingers or bigots if they brought up issues that introduced complexity into antiracist discourse.

“When you refuse to think about or debate or even entertain an idea that might be held by tens of millions of people, that’s not going to prepare you for life once you leave campus”

“I think both of us saw self-censorship,” says Snyder. “Certain topics were too hot to handle from an academic point of view. I’m not talking about ‘is the world flat’ or ‘are Black people genetically inferior,’ things that are pseudoscience or racist or just crazy nonsense. A lot of the things that were too hot to handle are views, policy positions, and intellectual frameworks that are actually endorsed by the majority of Americans. To me, when you refuse to think about or debate or even entertain an idea that might be held by tens of millions of people, like, for example, school choice, that’s not going to prepare you for life once you leave campus.”

For Khalid, the concept of topics that are “too hot to handle” in an academic setting brings back memories of her school days and undergraduate years in Pakistan. “There are parameters of thinking there that you have to observe very carefully,” she says, “certain kinds of questions you can’t ask. From a very early age I was curious and I wanted to ask questions about Islam or about the founding of Pakistan, but I was shut down. I learned very quickly that these are not areas that I could explore deeply in the educational context.”

Political science professor and faculty president Dev Gupta appreciates that the pair places such a premium on scholarly rigor, open debate, and the quest for teaching moments. “In this current environment it is gutsy to take a public stand on any side,” she says. “They are entering an important national conversation and drawing a lot of attention to their arguments. And by extension they’re drawing a lot of attention to Carleton’s contribution to this larger national conversation. We tell ourselves as academics that we value discourse and we like to think through complex issues, break down echo chambers, be challenged, and have our ideas pressure tested.”

Khalid and Snyder’s willingness to enter the fray is exemplified in an essay they wrote about a controversy in San Francisco surrounding a massive, 13-panel mural hanging in George Washington High School. Sponsored by the WPA and painted by Victor Arnautoff in 1936, The Life of Washington features a panel depicting the first president of the United States pointing westward over the body of a dead Native American; another shows enslaved African Americans toiling in the fields of Mount Vernon, Washington’s plantation.

13-panel mural hanging in George Washington High School.
13-panel mural hanging in George Washington High School.

When a group made up of students, school employees, and community members petitioned the San Francisco school board to have the mural removed, Khalid and Snyder pointed to Arnautoff’s credentials as both a leftist and a revolutionary (he joined the Communist Party in 1937). The dissident artist’s purpose, they argued, was to highlight, not celebrate, the shameful realities of slavery and the destruction of Indigenous communities. “Arnautoff decided to place Native Americans, African Americans, and working-class revolutionaries front and center in the four largest panels, relegating Washington to the margins,” they opined.

Addressing those who consider an artist’s intention irrelevant if the content offends or makes viewers uncomfortable, Khalid and Snyder also wrote that “disregarding the intentions of artists would place every significant creative work with a whiff of controversy in jeopardy because of its ‘problematic’ or ‘offensive’ content. In a world where intentionality and context are irrelevant, satire and irony would not only be incomprehensible but forbidden.”

Robinson Crusoe book cover, 1889
Robinson Crusoe book cover, 1889

In another article, Khalid answers those who would exclude Robinson Crusoe from the classroom on the grounds that it is a parable of Western colonialism. She notes that Daniel Defoe’s novel is very likely a multicultural adaptation of Hayy ibn Yaqzan (Alive, Son of Awake), a philosophical tale by Abu Bakr ibn Tufayl, a 12th-century Arab polymath. The tale was immensely popular in Europe and is considered to have made a major contribution to Enlightenment thought.

“How to Be an Antiracist” book cover, 1999

“No doubt, the novel is of a time when the natural social order was one that privileged white men, and the story was perniciously employed by Victorian educators as a means of encouraging colonial ambitions,” Khalid writes. “And we do not wish to foster those attitudes and aspirations in our students today. I certainly do not. But should we delete it from the canon holus-bolus? Or can a deeper engagement with the milieu in which it was written allow us to question some assumptions around what the book is about and where its Enlightenment values come from?”

Snyder takes Ibram X. Kendi, author of the bestselling How to Be an Antiracist, to task for asserting that “every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.”

“There are countless examples that challenge Kendi’s dichotomous worldview in which the light of racial justice is either shining or extinguished,” Snyder writes. By way of example, he cites ambiguities in one of the greatest achievements in the history of the civil rights movement, Brown vs. Board of Education. While the desegregation of schools was a clear victory for equity over Jim Crow, it cost the jobs of more than 2,300 southern Black principals and more than 30,000 southern Black teachers; their total loss of income was about $240 million.

“This either-or paradigm, alas, presents a highly misleading picture of the nature and consequences of ideas, policies, and social movements,” Snyder concludes. “It describes a world that never was and never will be, a world without contradictions, ironies, or unintended consequences.”

Khalid and Snyder are both aware that they have peers who might find the way they challenge unexamined assumptions, no matter where they originate, unnecessarily provocative, especially given their growing propensity to show up in nonacademic spaces. They’re also aware that opportunists on the right may co-opt and oversimplify their arguments. Still, the two are adamant that, first and foremost, the job of an academic is to challenge easy generalizations, no matter their provenance. And if that makes students or faculty in predominantly liberal academic environments uncomfortable, that’s all for the good.

“I have deep respect for my students as individuals,” Khalid says. “I respect their curiosity and I see it as my job to help them navigate difficult topics. The mission of an institution of higher learning is to equip them with the tools to deal with difficult material and to navigate the world. It should be an empowering experience, not an experience that coddles them. When you give them the responsibility to be intellectually rigorous and [the permission] to dive into difficult things, they rise to the challenge.”

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