Ahmadinejad's Visit: The Entire Campus was the Classroom

09/25/2007 11:25 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One story that hasn't come out of the coverage of President Ahmadinejad's coming to Columbia is that of the students. Before the speech, hundreds of Columbians swarmed around the podium on the famous Low Steps of the Morningside Heights campus in the shadow of Alma Mater. Electric energy coursed through the small neoclassical quad, surrounded on the outside by hundreds trying to gain access to the highly secured area.

The fact that the majority of the university was conscious before noon on a Monday was remarkable enough, but the conduct and energy of student participants and listeners stood as an incontrovertible rebuttal to those who doubted the academic and cultural purpose of the president's visit. The students' forum was structured such that any interested student group was allotted a short time to speak to the Columbia community, outline their thoughts on the event and take a position on the invitation and the president. Some groups took a very aggressive tack, shouting at the crowd, raw anger exposed. Others calmly delivered their carefully reasoned argument for endorsing the university's decision to invite Ahmadinejad while firmly outlining their opposition to him and his regime. All were met with a polite crowd, but the feeling of urgency and gravity dominated.

Creative teachers turn to debate-oriented teaching styles, holding that students retain the most information and are most drawn into material when they are forced to come to a position, defend it, and take part in a partially adversarial dialog. September 24 was the largest class ever held at Columbia, and the entire campus was the classroom. Nuances of Kantian ethics and Weberian theories can fall into the dusty attics of a Columbian's memory, but the issues brought up by the event, Presidents Bollinger and Ahmadinejad, and the student responders will not be soon forgotten. The academic and political value extracted by the denizens of Columbia's campus was on display all around today. Sitting on a main lawn, you would hear behind you a medical student rehearse anatomy interspersed with incredulous references to Ahmadinejad's denial of the existence of homosexuality in Iran. Engineers talked with each other outside their building about the implications of the resident's acceptance of Bollinger's proposal to lead a delegation to Iran and dialogue with university and faculty in the country. Students across campus imagined what they would say if they were part of the student delegation, what they would want to convey, advise, and help change.

There's a cautionary tale in some of this activism, however. Identity politics actuated the responses of many of the groups and protesters during the student responses to Ahmadinejad's coming. Engagement is one of the top issues facing young adult politics in the U.S., but resolving it by mobilizing narrow ethnic and identity-bound positions leads to a politics in which only particular groups care about each issue, and concern for overarching national goals falls away. Rejection of this approach dominated Columbia's response to Ahmadinejad's visit. Posters proclaimed the Iranian regime's crimes were not just a "Jewish, Woman, Gay, Security...issue." This recognition of the dangers of segregating politics and tying engagement to identity speaks volumes on the promise of the political consciousness of the generation on deck.

President Bollinger pointed out that the event was not about Ahmadinejad's rights. It was to further the aims and objectives of the university, and mainly for the benefit of faculty and student. A look around this hot September afternoon at the hundreds of college students across all academic fields thinking, and conversing on one topic makes clear the event more than succeeded in its primary purpose.