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Professor knows balance appears unbalanced to those taking sides

Seeking to present a balanced picture as he teaches classes on environmental studies, political science and the Middle East at Gonzaga University, Jon Isacoff is aware that presenting a balance of perspectives may seem unbalanced to people of strong views.

He finds that true both in the area of his research—the Arab-Israeli conflict—and in environmental studies.

Jon Isacoff

Jon Isacoff

“As an educator, I hope to give students ideas and tools to use to make a difference,” he said, such as helping people weigh economic values with environmental values, or weigh the perspectives and experiences of both Israelis and Palestinians.

“Gonzaga’s new environmental studies program is not training activists, although some may choose that direction.  Our goal is to invite students to look at implications of political, scientific, philosophical, historical, psychological, religious and sociological perspectives on environmental issues,” he said.

The program covers issues from water quality to pesticide use, from civil engineering to recycling products, from toxic waste cleanup to the divine in nature.

Five core faculty and eight affiliated faculty from a variety of disciplines help students work in science labs, study environmental policy, learn about the history of wilderness areas and explore the ecological philosophies of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. There are 19 students enrolled.

Environmental studies were in the plans before Jon came three years ago. 

While it is being offered as a minor with a broad curriculum and an interdisciplinary seminar, he hopes it will become a major.

“Around the country, and especially in the Northwest, environmental studies has become a standard part of the liberal arts curriculum,” Jon said.

His interest in the environment began when he was growing up in Armonk, N.Y., outside New York City.  When he was 11, his family began hiking, backpacking and bird watching in national parks in California.

Academically, his interest in environmental studies stems from teaching a class on global environmental politics when he was a teaching assistant at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a doctoral degree in political science in 2002.  He also taught at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

Jon’s doctoral research was on the politics of Israel and Palestine, which took him to the Middle East in 1994, 1997 and 1999.  There he experienced the tenuousness of his concept of balance. He found “no balance in the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Despite his Jewish heritage, Jon does not like to be characterized as taking sides in the Arab-Israeli dispute.

“I’m pro-Israel, pro-Palestine and pro-human.  For some, just saying that Palestinians have rights means being biased.  When I say that I consider myself pro-human, I mean that both sides—all people—have rights and reasonable needs,” he explained.

“Some people on either side think that it’s not right to acknowledge the other side’s rights,” he said.

Jon believes that in the United States, there is more empathy for Israel’s problems with terrorism and more identity with its cultural, political and military life.  So he thinks there is need for knowledge of the Palestinian story.

For some, a similar divide is present in environmental studies, so Jon hopes that offering the breadth of that field will bring balance to discussions.

Jon, who considers himself a “modified transcendentalist,” experiencing a connection with the divine outdoors in nature, as did Thoreau in 19th-century New England.  He also appreciates and incorporates the Jesuit philosophy on environment, and statements of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on global warming, of Northwest bishops on the Columbia River watershed, and of Catholic leaders globally and locally supporting the integrity of nature.

“To study nature is to study the human relationship to the environment,” said Jon.

“A social justice thread runs through environmental conflicts between those with more power and those with less power.  Knowledge taught is usually what those in power want taught,” he said.  “The same is true in the Arab-Israeli conflict.  We know what those in power want us to know.”

“The goal of courses on those issues is to advance intellectual understanding of problems and help students contemplate solutions” he said.

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Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - © June 2007