I teach democracy at Princeton. Student protesters are getting an education like no other | Razia Iqbal

Teaching an undergraduate class on democracy at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs this semester has felt urgent and clarifying. In the classroom, we’ve been looking at backsliding and the slow corrosion of democratic norms in so-called democratic countries. Meanwhile, what’s been happening outside the classroom in more than 120 universities around the US and the world tells us a more ominous story about democracy.

For two weeks, we focused on the United States; there were lively discussions on political polarization, January 6 and the threat posed by supporters of Donald Trump, as well as how robust or fragile US democracy currently is. Looking at each democracy involved criticism of the state. In the class on Israel, we examined, among other areas, controversial proposed judicial reforms, as well as the incarceration of Palestinian minors held in administrative detention, as examples where democratic values might be defined as absent.

But before we did that, we talked about the current debates around criticism of Israel; we agreed that what we were doing was not antisemitic. Students go to college to learn broadly and in depth, to debate, engage with intellectual rigor and agree and disagree. Free speech as a pillar of democracy means you are willing to protect that with which you do not agree. And that the world in all its difficulty can be brought into the classroom. And so it was in my class.

In thinking about these current protests, many have invoked the ones that overtook US campuses decades ago against the war in Vietnam; there are parallels, not least the call for divestment from the defense industry. And there’s a timely historical reminder of that movement: 54 years ago this week, four students involved in the anti-war Vietnam protests were shot dead at Kent State University.

For some, the prevailing atmosphere of an earlier US era seems apposite too: McCarthyism. In a letter to Linda Mills, New York University’s president, Steven Hahn, an NYU professor of history and the author of Illiberal America, says arrests of students reminded him of “the darkest days of McCarthyism, when self-regarding liberals rushed to do the dirty work of the rightwing political police and tormentors who laughed as dissidents were fired, blacklisted, and personally ruined by their one-time ‘colleagues’. You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Faculty members wear makeshift signs as they form a protective wall across H Street Northwest to show support for students on the campus of George Washington University on Thursday. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What’s clear in this international, student-led movement that continues to defy college and state authorities in the face of arrest and expulsion is that it has also energized many academics in support of their students. The American Iraqi novelist and scholar Sinan Antoon, an associate professor at NYU, arrested on 23 April, told me: “Make no mistake, this is a wake-up call for all citizens: the erosion of citizens’ rights, the surveillance state and the violation of academic freedom. The exceptionality of this country is being challenged. The protests are the best thing to have happened in years. I have never been prouder of my students, their morality, their decency, protesting against the killing of children.”

The students are clear: these are anti-war protests, first and foremost. And they are getting an education unlike any other, not least an awareness of power and state apparatus.

One Columbia professor, who prefers to remain anonymous, reminds me of the post-9/11 atmosphere, when the focus was on Muslim men. He wasn’t allowed to travel for five years. “Today,” he says, “the atmosphere is much worse. Yes, Jewish students have to deal with microaggressions, but Muslim students deal with state surveillance, Israeli surveillance.”

For those inside the movement, there was a euphoric acknowledgement of what solidarity looks like when hundreds of academics at Columbia walked out protesting against arrests, and days later, when faculty created a protective circle in the face of the imminent eviction of the encampment. However, for the final year student Noor Shalabi, a Palestinian American, “nothing, not the arrests, nor debates about freedom of speech or antisemitism should distract from the reason for the protests – to demand a stop to the slaughter of innocent civilians. The crux of this is Palestine. I know this story, I have lived with it my whole life, and to get people who aren’t Palestinian to join and commit to this is amazing.”

Professor Mahmood Mamdani, in Columbia’s anthropology department, says that whatever happens, it’s important to recognize two things: “That the students should never have expected quick results, especially regarding divestment, and that they should recognize that they have won. They have put Palestine and the divestment issue not just in front of university committees, but also at the heart of a global student movement.”

In all universities, there are large swathes of faculty who are not involved. At Princeton’s protest, I spoke to Curtis Deutsch, a professor of geoscience and environmental science. “In my department, I would say, it’s as if October 7 never happened. I’ve never heard a single person say a single word about it. Even obliquely. To see people bury their heads in the minutiae of the natural world so deeply that they can’t even recoil at an atrocity that surrounds them is just mind boggling to me. And we’re also citizens of a country that is supporting and funding this violence. You can get people to talk about the moral urgency of climate change at the drop of a hat, right? If you can’t be motivated to get out of your chair when people are being slaughtered, how do you expect to convince the world that they ought to be mobilizing for abstractions like changes in rainfall or heat waves that kill people?”

Protest movements are never perfect, but this one has mobilized young people around the world. According to Clara Mattei, associate professor of economics at the New School for Social Research in New York, there is also a lot of learning going on. “There is an effort to connect Gaza to bigger struggles, the violence of capitalism, for instance. Not only are the students experiencing novel forms of community, they are also aware of what is and isn’t working, politically and economically.”

Not every university administration has been confrontational with the students; at Brown and Rutgers, a different approach has been taken.

Pro-Palestinian protesters, including students and faculty of universities across Philadelphia, hold a Passover Seder at the University of Pennsylvania. Photograph: Matthew Hatcher/AFP/Getty Images

And there is already a sense from the retiring professor Rashid Khalidi, who holds the Edward Said chair in modern Arab studies at Columbia, that one day, this protest will be valorized on the university’s website, just as those who protested against the Vietnam war, as he did, are honored today. As was the case then, he believes that students today are the “conscience of the nation”.

Everywhere the protests emerge, however small, there are faculty who want to support their students and who see the protests as being as much about academic freedom as about Gaza. At MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Michel DeGraff is a Haitian professor of linguistics. He recently resigned from the executive committee of the illustrious Linguistics Society of America, where he had unsuccessfully suggested the LSA should urgently make a statement about the use of language to veil propaganda in favor of the killing in Gaza, especially in light of previous statements about the war in Ukraine, racism and gender pronouns. He says: “There is an Orwellian use of language that permeates so much about Palestine and Israel. How can we study language if we don’t look at how language is being used to dehumanize people?”

Learning does not only happen in classrooms. For the last part of my final class on democracy, I gave my students the option to go to Princeton’s sit-in, to listen to the Palestinian lawyer Noura Erakat speak. Only one chose not to, and several wrote to me afterwards to say how glad they were that they had experienced it, that it took them out of their comfort zone.

Among the mistakes being made by those in authority is seeing college students as kids. Students in this movement on the whole are conducting themselves with maturity and grace; they are learning about community and are looking after each other as well as actively educating themselves, including on what it means to be confronted with heavily armed police. You don’t have to agree with everything or anything they are standing for, but if you believe in democracy, surely you believe in their right to stand for it. And in doing so, you are supporting potential democratic leaders of the future.

The Guardian