Albania, Slovenia, Senegal, the Marshall Islands, and Mozambique don’t have much in common—except for the fact that their presidents all addressed Columbia students with pomp and circumstance over the last two weeks during their stays in New York. This season is an exciting time for Columbia: The news section of this paper does full-time coverage of the presidents’ remarks; the Columbia Political Review analyzes the politics; and students from all backgrounds join together, sometimes with headphones for translation, to hear from leaders around the world. The World Leaders Forum is exciting. But is it appropriate for Columbia?
The answer, despite the colorful opportunity to dive into another country’s culture and politics for an hour, is a resounding no. My complaint about the forum is not that the leaders most critical to global debates rarely show up. It is not a complaint against the addiction to “globalism” that this university has adopted full-heartedly in recent years. My complaint, rather, has to do with the heart of what Columbia is about: meaningful, rigorous education. And an objective look at the World Leaders Forum reveals that real education is the one thing that these events do not do.
The core of the University, any university, is the meaningful exploration of ideas—be it inventions in the sciences, criticism in literature, or analyses of theories in philosophy. The idea is never to regurgitate the old but to look deeper in the hope of discovering the new. Professors spend most of their working hours reading and writing in the hopes of putting forth a layered, complicated, or original understanding of an idea or concept, while students, preferably, work to understand causal relationships, varieties of meanings, deeper layers of understanding. When a professor talks at a class during a lecture, he or she is hopefully not reciting well-known facts or worn-out statements but instead pursuing challenging ideas and positing open-ended problems. A good university does this well: The professors produce high-quality scholarship, and the students graduate enlightened, thoughtful, and challenged.
There is another model of discourse: that of politics. In the political world, ideas are stated, not questioned. Established dogmas are not challenged, but upheld, and if they are challenged, it is through empty rhetoric, not action. It is about the timing of what you say and how you say it, not the worthiness of your words. The people guiltiest of this practice are presidents themselves, who are the head of this system. They are not doing anything wrong. They are just part of a system that operates in this often superficial way. The speeches—and question and answer—at World Leaders Forum events cannot hope to transcend the political and move into the academic. They shouldn’t be forced to, either, because politics exists for a reason. That is how governments operate. But it is not how a university operates, and by hosting these events, Columbia stains the intellectual rigor of the academy with the artificiality of politics.
Take the address of Senegalese President Macky Sall, for instance. Amid a relatively lively talk about reforming governance and the effects of poverty, a student in the question and answer session raised the issue of Senegal and homosexuality. This past summer, President Obama and President Sall traded barbs after Obama called on African nations to stop treating homosexuality as a crime. In response to the student’s question, President Sall declared: “I am a free man,” adding, “Senegal guarantees all human rights.” The questioning student intended to begin a discussion on the status of homosexuals in Senegal, their treatment, and Senegalese policy. But the president skirted the issue entirely, even going so far as to pretend that the issue did not exist. While platitudes are both commonplace and accepted in the political realm, in the university, they must be questioned, scrutinized, and sometimes rejected. That the World Leaders Forum is incapable of producing this kind of worthwhile conversation illustrates the damage it does to the standard of discourse that it is our duty at Columbia to uphold.
The World Leaders Forum is not all bad. Some of the events, actually, are quite informative, such as a 2012 forum with both presidential candidates’ economic advisers, one a Columbia professor. But the very nature of this event is telling: It was interesting precisely because it was not heads of state who spoke, but those whose job it is to look analytically at the issues and present their cases in meaningful ways. Columbia should move away from the “World Leaders” model and engage instead in a series of talks aimed at looking substantively at major issues in the world today. It may not be as catchy, and it certainly won’t be as exotic. But it will uphold a valuable intellectual tradition, and that is not something to shy away from.
Joshua Fattal is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. Fattal Attraction runs alternate Mondays.
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