A former president’s visit to a college campus is usually expected to generate a buzz among students. President Jimmy Carter’s upcoming visit to GW, however, is instead drawing criticism from some students and campus groups. His recent performance at other University forums is also a cause for concern. Still, Carter’s visit is not the dramatic affront to academic debate and educational principles that its detractors depict.
Carter’s book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” likens the Israeli treatment of Palestinians to the prejudicial Apartheid policy that existed in South Africa. As Carter caught flak from many critics for factual errors and an extreme point of view, he was also accused of refusing to engage in an open debate about his book during visits to Brandeis and Emory universities. At appearances at those schools, Carter answered prescreened questions, refused to answer follow-up queries and refused to debate the issues with leading foreign policy scholars.
Indeed, such watered-down appearances in an academic setting are detrimental to the principles of scholarly openness and inquisition. A source familiar with the upcoming forum has ensured that Carter will take never-before-heard questions from the student audience, a step in the right direction toward an open and honest debate. If this is, in fact, the format of Carter’s visit, then GW students are guaranteed a more intellectually worthwhile discussion than was had at previous college appearances.
Carter’s openness to discussing his book notwithstanding, the visit of a member of this most elite club – the remaining four living presidents – to a school where a large number of students study foreign affairs is cause for celebration, not derision. While Carter may not debate his positions with other policymakers during his visit to GW, by no means is this University adverse to hosting a variety of opinions. In fact, over the past few years, student groups and the University brought Israelis, Palestinians and U.S. policymakers with a wide spectrum of views on Middle East peace to campus. Thus, students should view campus dialogue in broader terms – the debate at GW on Israel-Palestine issues does not begin and end with Carter’s visit.
Ultimately, it is incumbent upon students to read Carter’s work and understand that his arguments fall into a range of views about the Middle East, rather than to expect that a counterpoint view should automatically follow the former president’s remarks. It is also incumbent upon the University to ensure that campus events promote academic dialogue – something which, at this point, is planned as part of Carter’s visit.