Brooklyn College Assigns a Book

My home institution, Brooklyn College, has been receiving some bad press as of late, after the dean and the English Department required that all incoming and transfer students read Moustafa Bayoumi’s How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America. Jewish Week quoted from one of the courageous voices on the faculty, Jonathan Helfand, who noted that the “book is problematic if given without an alternative vision.” The New York Daily News reported that one BC alumnus, Bruce Kessler, has withdrawn a “significant bequest” to the school from his will. And in the New York Post, Ron Radosh accused the school of trying to “force feed” freshmen one (extreme) point of view on contemporary Middle Eastern matters.
Bayoumi’s book couples vignettes about several Arab-American youth (the book offers no guidance on how, or if, the author considers his subjects representative of the broader Arab-American community) with an extremist critique of Israeli national security policy and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Regardless of the merits of Bayoumi’s portrayal of his subjects, it’s hard to see U.S. policy toward Israel as the prime mover in how Arab-Americans are treated in the United States.
At one level, the Bayoumi selection is wholly unsurprising. The process through which colleges and universities select mandated books for incoming freshmen too often provides a perfect illustration of Cass Sunstein’s law of group polarization—that is, when people with common beliefs deliberate together, the tendency is toward a decision that reflects an extreme version of the common beliefs. In the typical English Department (the body that made the selection at BC), intellectual diversity is in short supply, while an emphasis on race, class, gender, and victimization is common fare. These sorts of things just don’t happen at BC—take the example of common reading selections at UNC in 2002 or 2005.

That said, it would be hard to argue that Brooklyn doesn’t deserve some criticism for its choice. The college has been opaque, to put it mildly, regarding the specific process and criteria that the committee of English Department faculty used to select this book. What is it, in short, that led BC faculty to decide that this book, more so than any other current publication, should be a common read for all students? More broadly, since conclusion of Bayoumi’s book involves a critique of U.S. foreign policy, how are English professors the most competent people to judge the academic quality of a book on such a topic? The college hasn’t said, nor has it indicated what other books the committee considered.
More problematically, Dean Donna Wilson has responded to critics by linking the book to the college’s alleged respect for “tolerance, diversity, and respect for differing points of view.” Those are fine words—and, certainly, the current Brooklyn president and provost shouldn’t in any way be held responsible for their predecessors’ failure to live up to this ideal.
Nonetheless, let’s take Wilson at her word: the selection committee wanted to choose a book that would demonstrate “respect for differing points of view.” Bayoumi’s discussion of the treatment of Arab-Americans in contemporary society and (to, perhaps a slightly lesser extent) his wild denunciations of Israeli security policy almost certainly represent majority opinion among the current Brooklyn College faculty. How, then, will the college foster “respect for differing points of view” by assigning a book whose message Brooklyn students will receive over and over again during the course of their undergraduate careers?
Moreover, the alleged celebration for “tolerance, diversity, and respect for differing points of view” rings a bit hollow. Imagine the opposite of Bayoumi’s publication—a story of a handful of Jewish immigrants to Brooklyn, which concluded with a diatribe against President Obama for not recognizing the fundamental evils of Hamas and for not doing enough to support Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria (and used those inflammatory terms, just as Bayoumi uses inflammatory language on the other side).
Does anyone believe that such a book would even be considered for a common-reading selection, must less survive the process and ultimately be chosen?


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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6 thoughts on “Brooklyn College Assigns a Book

  1. The book that would directly counter Bayoumi’s book and offer real diversity, intellectual and moral, would be Nomad by Aayan Hirsi Ali. She details the kind of coercion — social, moral,and physical — that surrounds young people, especially women, in typical Muslim environments. (Arab Philosophy students of mine privately told me of forced marriages, honor killings right here in Brooklyn, with the murderer leaving on a plane the next morning for “Arabia,” and the prison of negative gossip.) Hirsi Ali also describes the liberation that coming to America can afford, and she particularly decries the efforts of demagogic grievance peddlers to keep the young inside the very coercive systems that they or their parents came to the West partly to escape. A book like Bayoumi’s, that reinforces this kind of victim psychology and negative group identity, is counter-educational. It directly harms the very young people whom its supporters claim to defend.
    Abigail L. Rosenthal
    Professor of Philosophy Emerita
    Brooklyn College of CUNY

  2. KC, you are committing the same errors here that you honed in on in your critique of the news coverage of the Duke University case. You are making assumptions about people without knowing anything about them.
    Yesterday, I was one of 40 members of the Brooklyn College English Dept. faculty who voted unanimously to commend Moustafa Bayoumi for his award-winning book and to support its use for an assignment to incoming students. My appreciation for a book that tells the stories of marginalized Arab-American youths from Brooklyn in no way diminishes my appreciation for the Jewish people and for Israel as a democracy.
    Stereotyping us as “the typical English Department” that you imagine and then proceeding to criticize us on that basis is just plain unfair.
    – Paul Moses

  3. KC, your accusations of know-nothingism against Bayoumi and the rest of us look a bit silly given that you’ve provided no evidence that you have any idea what goes on in our department or in our courses.
    Frederick: whatever. Thanks for insulting my students.

  4. Johnson seriously errs in treating his “home institution” as if it were an actual college instead of a cartoonish simulacrum–just consider the administration’s semi-literate statement defending the choice of Bayoumi’s book.
    More to the point, the idea that Brooklyn College students might be are in danger of being indoctrinated is ridiculous. They can’t read books. (It’s telling that, as Bayoumi has reported, the only criticism of his book by a student was an objection to its title.)
    And it couldn’t be the case that Bayoumi’s book was chosen by his colleagues in the English department. The chair, Ellen Tremper, makes all decisions for the department: the other professors are too lazy or frightened to speak for themselves.
    Any publicity, indeed, is good publicity. Tremper, like the administration, is desperate to give the impression that Brooklyn College remains an academic contender, and has covered a grim reality with an attention-getting veneer: a Said disciple and a controversy linked, if only tenuously, with current events. We, too, are a college!
    Tremper pushed through Bayoumi’s promotion from assistant to associate, and he’ll soon be a full professor of English even though his work bears no relation to literary scholarship. He’ll have the sympathy of many like-minded colleagues as well as Tremper’s staunch support–and she is chair of the college-wide promotion and tenure committee, and has already gotten Eric Alterman, who’s also vehemently anti-Israeli, a distinguished professorship.
    Bayoumi gains, and Brooklyn College receives another fifteen minutes of fame. The only losers in this farce are truth and American higher education.

  5. I believe that a similar book by a Brooklyn College professor about Jewish immigrants would certainly be considered for a common-reading selection, and I hope it would be chosen. Unfortunately, after a series of attacks by K.C. Johnson and the NAS and Ronald Radosh and a donor who is now withdrawing funds because of this book, I doubt any college will be willing to select controversial books.
    If there is an excellent conservative book that has been banished from a common reading program due to its politics, I would be happy to condemn that. But K.C. Johnson offers no such example, just his random insults and speculations.
    As for the utter nonsense that English professors are not competent to choose books with political views in them, I ask: Should English professors be unable to select books such as “War and Peace” because they are not experts on war and peace?
    It’s time for all of us to speak out against anyone, left and right, who thinks controversial books should be banished (or “not selected”) for their politics. And K.C. Johnson needs to clarify whether he stands on the side of freedom or censorship, or if it depends on which side he agrees with politically. By declaring that a college “deserves criticism” for assigning a controversial book, Johnson is certainly not setting a high standard for his college.

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