Professor Tarek Masoud found his work the object of dissent across the political aisle earlier this year when he organized a Middle East Dialogues series featuring voices on both sides of the Israel-Palestine debate. In six one-on-one conversations, Masoud, the Director of the Middle East Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School, invited figures with opposing but similarly divisive politics to explain and defend their stances. 

None of Masoud’s guests may be strangers to controversy, and neither is he. Reproving posts and concerned colleagues didn’t dissuade Masoud, whose choice to examine unpopular opinions on stage mirrors his teaching philosophy in the classroom. His experience leading students in intense, often tense debate and his belief they appreciate it nonetheless led him to write an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “Students Aren’t the Obstacle to Open Debate at Harvard.” He goes on: “It is us: faculty and administrators who are too afraid—of random people on social media, hard-core activists, irritable alumni, assorted ‘friends’ of Harvard—to allow a culture of open debate and dialogue to flourish.”

So how does the expert on democracy and governance in the Middle East approach concerns about student safety and belonging in the classroom, while encouraging pupils to confront topics and opinions they disapprove, even despise? Unease about pervasive mental health challenges on college campuses has fed debate over whether exposing students to objectionable content facilitates wellbeing by cultivating resilience, or puts them in harm’s way by leaving them feeling unsupported and disrespected. With LearningWell, Masoud discusses challenging students through argument, empowering them the same way, and his overriding conviction that learning, in all its discomfort, poses “some of the most joyful activities in the human experience.”

On LinkedIn, you posted about how the classroom should feel more like the gym than like home — that universities should be encouraging student discomfort, as opposed to a commonly talked about value, which is belonging. Can school be a gym where you also belong? 

I think school can absolutely be a gym where you belong. It can be a place of very rigorous inquiry that you nonetheless feel a very deep attachment to and feel deeply connected to. But the connection of the student to the community should be based on the right foundation. It should be based on the fact that we are here as a community of learners and teachers, who are engaged in this very difficult but very fruitful task of expanding the limits of human knowledge, testing what it is we think we know against what it is that others think they know. I want people to belong to Harvard. I want people to feel that they are home at Harvard, but not because we're part of something called "Club Harvard," not just because we're the random people who happen to get lucky to be chosen by admissions officers, but because we are people who have this very deep commitment to this very important value of dedicating all of our energies to the task of open and honest inquiry.

In your own classroom, are there ways you try to foster both of those things, discomfort and belonging, with student mental health in mind? 

I think I have a high degree of confidence in my students. And I think student mental health is extremely important. And we as instructors obviously need to be very careful that what we're doing is strengthening our students and not weakening them. I'm constantly thinking and rethinking about how I'm teaching to make sure that I'm not putting students in situations where their mental health is at risk. I strive not to put things in the conversation that are gratuitous and that aren't going to serve any educational purpose except to shock and cause people to feel uncomfortable in ways that don't advance the learning mission. So for me, the kind of uncomfortable position I might put my students in would be to read somebody whose views they don't agree with. 

I teach in graduate school, which is also a little bit different. The teaching environment I'm in is one where sometimes I wish my students would think about my mental health because I will get very vigorous and rigorous pushback. I might say something that I think is completely anodyne, and some student will, in a very sharp way, show me all of the ways in which it reflects some less than noble aspect of my positionality. But in all of these places, we need to remind everybody that this is an institution of learning. And if I, Harvard, am prioritizing your comfort and I am making it possible for you to avoid discomfort and not strengthening you so that you can face discomfort and defeat it, then I'm not doing my job for you. You're paying me an inordinate amount of money, and my job is to make sure that you come out of this place much stronger and much smarter. And I guess what I'm saying is there's no way of avoiding, then, the discomfort. And what I think the institution needs to do is really help our students learn to manage discomfort, to transcend discomfort, and even to seek it out in the rest of their lives because they know that's how they get stronger.

You touched on this in terms of graduate school versus undergraduate, but do you think that this approach would be effective, or come with different risks, at a school that isn't Harvard and struggles more with things like retention and completion? 

First of all, in any institution, we as faculty need to be in touch with our students as persons and not just as disembodied brains into which we're pouring information and with which we are having arguments. We always have to be attuned to our students as persons. And I probably have, in many cases I know I have, over the course of my career gone too far and had students say, “I felt that you were pushing too hard on me or not respecting me as a person.” So we should never allow the situation to get to that point. I would be distressed if somebody interpreted my call to center learning and debate and argumentation as somehow being a call to ignore the fact that we're teaching human beings, and human beings have emotional reactions to things. 

The point is I want our students to come away with a feeling that they have a great deal of power. And there are arguments out there that they might deem to be harmful, that have caused them to conclude that they don't have a lot of respect for the holders of those arguments. But you have a lot of power and a lot of strength to confront those arguments. And so I just want our students to develop a powerful sense of their own efficacy that is born fundamentally from the fact that these are super highflying and bright people.

And in terms of empowering students intellectually and otherwise, is that coming back to the idea that instead of being something that turns people away, this kind of debate could actually boost people's interest in their own education?

So that's the theory. I'll also just tell you some empirics. A few years ago, I had some undergraduates take my class and ask to meet me. And I was fairly certain that what I was going to be told was that there was a feeling of a lack of safety in my classroom because I really do try to engage in rigorous argument and get people to argue with each other. And these students never agreed with anything I said. So I met with them. “So how are you finding the class?” And the ringleader said, “Oh, this is our favorite class. You are the only professor we've had at Harvard who is not afraid of us.” And I said, “Well, actually, I'm quite afraid of you. I just am not very smart, and I have low impulse control.” 

“I want our students to come away with a feeling that they have a great deal of power.”

I really do feel that our students want to be treated as adults and that means disagreeing with them sometimes. I really do have that belief, as long as they understand that the professor's goal—this is very important— as long as they understand the professor's goal is not to preach some gospel, rather to teach them and to make them stronger. So I think one thing students definitely get out of my classes is they're like, “Tarek Massoud is not trying to convince me of anything. He is not trying to convince me of what he thinks.” In fact, I would be horrified if my students came out of my class as little copies of Tarek Masoud, spouting Tarek Masoud-isms. What the students, I think, come away from my class believing, and I do say this always, is that “What Tarek wants me to do is really know why I think what I think and to be able to defend my position.” And so I'm trying to make you the best version of yourself. I'm not trying to make you a version of me. And it doesn't come out of any kind of strategy. None of this is terribly theorized in advance. It's just kind of who I am. It's why I got into academia. I got into academia in part because I'm not sure of what I know, in part because I love to argue, in part because everything I've ever learned, I learned by first arguing with it. 

Your comment about students enjoying this kind of debate more than people might expect reminds me of the article that you wrote for The Wall Street Journal. In that article, you place the responsibility more on faculty and administration, rather than students, for not cultivating these debates. I wonder, for other faculty who are interested but maybe hesitant, do you have advice for how they can establish these kinds of dialogues in their classrooms?

Look, I think it's not easy. And I would certainly not say that every faculty member needs to do that. But my view is that those of us who do want to foster this space for open debate and inquiry should not find the administration of the university to be an obstacle to that. What I don't want the administration of the university to do is tell us to do anything. I would not like the email from the administration of the university that says, “You must now foster debate on this.” I think we're a heterodox enough institution that there are those of us who want to do that. And there are others who would prefer to have more comity in their classrooms in order to maximize the possibility that people learn. We teach different classes, different things, et cetera. So my plea is really for administrators to help those of us who want to expand the space for debate and discourse on campus, but not to say that everybody needs to be like me. I think that would not be a recipe for a healthy institution.

“I'm trying to make you the best version of yourself. I'm not trying to make you a version of me.”

And for faculty who are interested in leaning more into this kind of debate or dialogue, you mentioned taking a personal approach to it. What do you mean by that? 

I think, again, about the things that I mentioned earlier, number one being you can't just foster this culture of debate without being attentive to your students as persons. And so you have to have that front of mind. The other point I would make is that one must also have a sense of humor. And I do think that one of the ways in which I am lucky is that I don't take myself too seriously. Somebody wrote about me that I had a Midwestern sense of humor. It's actually an Egyptian sense of humor. And I do think that helps, as well, because it reminds students that we are actually engaged in a very joyful enterprise. And we are among — “we” being people attached to universities, not just people attached to Harvard University — we are some of the most fortunate people in the world, engaged in what should be some of the most joyful activities in the human experience. And just reminding ourselves of that, from time to time, with smiles on our faces, with periodic reflections on how lucky we are to be in communion with each other, I think, is also helpful. 

Have you also encountered students who don't like this culture of dialogue or have negative feedback about it? How do you help them through that discomfort?

Without question. Typically, it will express itself in the following way, this discomfort with dialogue. It will express itself with students being aggrieved that I platformed a certain position that they believe is unworthy of being even discussed at Harvard. It comes from actually quite a noble place that our students have very deep commitments to conceptions of what is just and what is right. And it grieves them when they see a professor who's a figure that they should respect at a place like Harvard, no less, who is platforming these views or who is making people read these views that they believe should be consigned to the ash heap of history. 

And what I try to convince my students of is that I'm not platforming the views so much as I'm platforming them. I'm trying to give the student the opportunity to develop the most powerful arsenal against these arguments that they find to be unworthy. I'm starting from the premise that I believe you, the student, have valid reasons for thinking that this is unworthy. I want you to bring them to my class because there are other people, by the way, who don't know, and you may convince them. Or, in the process of trying to convince them, you may detect where there are some gaps in your knowledge or argumentation. You either fill them, or you'll change your mind. There isn't a way in which this is bad for us, if our goal is to expand our knowledge, to become smarter, to know why it is we hold certain views.

What do you think about the perception that so-called “Wokeism” has radicalized this generation of students more than those before it?

I really don't like the term "Wokeism" because it doesn't take seriously the constellation of very deeply held values that I think animate a lot of our students and indeed our colleagues. And I think these values have been quite a constant presence throughout the academy. I saw a whole front page of The Crimson from the 1960s, and it literally could have been written today. I mean, did they use the term “structural racism”? I don't think so. But they talked about the phenomenon, and the students were very angry and wanted the curriculum to be revised in ways that our students today say. So I don't feel that this is a new phenomenon that has emerged out of the inundation of the students with a particular set of newfangled ideas. These are very deeply held ideas that emerge from, frankly, a kind of liberal belief in the primacy and value of humans and individuals. And I think it's part of what makes students such a joy to interact with because they're motivated by these ideas that are quite valorous. 

What has changed, probably, is there is more of a sense of the university and the classroom as a place for the playing out of public conflict and the classroom as a kind of public space in which people are taking stances and positions that will be or are public, as opposed to part of a private learning experience. Part of it is the move in our culture where everybody thinks of themselves now as a brand, as a social media presence, as an influencer. And so consequently, if all of this is happening in public, it's much harder to change my view. I have always argued, “Look, the very best technology for increasing the quality of our pedagogy is not using clickers in the classroom or some newfangled program that tracks students doing this or that. It's having a small class size.” And that is the original safe space. Because a small class size is where we can first develop the relationships to each other as persons that make it possible for people to venture with difficult and maybe even sometimes heterodox arguments. And it's also small enough that the feeling of embarrassment and the imperative of winning and defeating one's opponents is minimized.