Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Eric Holder is right - we are cowards

At least according to this very thoughtful excerpt from a book by the late Professor Paul Lyons reprinted in Inside Higher Ed.  We had reported earlier that another new book suggests that university faculties, in general, have become more timid in the post 9-11 climate.   

In this brief excerpt, one gets a sense that Professor Lyons was a very earnest man who wanted to understand the "truth," to the extent anyone ever can, and thus shunned political expediency.  As a result, he endured the ire of his colleagues.  However, Professor Lyons lack of concern for "political correctness" seemingly enabled him to engage in a more open, direct and honest discussion about racism, as it exists both in and out of the classroom, than most people usually do. 

A black female undergraduate asked me how I would respond if she believed that I had said something racist in class and she came to complain to me. I told her that I would take her allegation very seriously, consider whether I thought it was valid, and give her my most honest response. She was dissatisfied, indeed offended by my response, as were many on the panel and in the audience. The student asked me why I wouldn’t accept the validity of her allegation. I told her that I thought it would be harmful to her or any other student to allow an automatic acceptance of any allegation, that it risked corrupting her or anyone else in that it would allow for false charges to go unchallenged. I ended by suggesting that true respect included disagreement. I added that if not satisfied, a student always had the remedy of taking the allegation to my superiors.

The room erupted with anger at me, with one white colleague screaming at me that I was patronizing the student. I was disappointed and depressed by this display of what seemed to me to be wrong-headed, racially retrograde, and demagogic. I need to add that I was not angry at the student who raised the issue; she seemed honest and forthcoming, even in disagreement.

Most interesting is that over the next weeks several of my African American students asked me what had happened — there obviously had been a buzz in the hallways. This led to some fruitful conversation about how one determines the existence of racism. I also received several notes from white colleagues expressing admiration for what I had said but confessing that they were too cowardly to do the same. This depressed me even more than the hostile responses. Had we come to this — faculty, even tenured ones, afraid to speak their minds in fear of being charged with racism? Indeed, we had. One junior faculty member told me that he never goes near certain hot-button issues like affirmative action or underclass behavior because of his fear that it might put his job at risk.

As teachers we struggle with students who hold back from authentically discussing issues of prejudice, who go silent or simply echo agreement. It is hard work to achieve honest discussions; all students enter with bruises. One must establish a trusting environment for such discussions to be fruitful. Trust does not exist at the beginning of a class. I tell students that the handshake is an apt metaphor for our relations — I hold your hand, you hold mine — we trust one another but I also prevent you from hitting me in case that is your hidden desire. We trust and mistrust simultaneously. And then we can begin to have an honest dialog.

My own view is that the optimal way to help students respond to moral challenges is to help them understand the contradictory strands of heroism and knavery, the victimized and the victimizing, of many of our peoples. And we as educators need to understand and communicate the contextual nature of human behavior, its range and subtleties, and the contradictory ways that humans respond to moral challenges. As such, we teach humility before the wonder — the heroism, the cowardice, the insensitivity's, the villainies — of our own natures, our own histories.

This might be called the double helix of all peoples, the intertwining of their burdens and their inspirations, their hidden shames and forgotten accomplishments, the recognition of which makes it more likely that they will be able to recognize the same complexity in others.

. . . .

I want that young woman who was offended by my comments at the panel discussion to hang in there, continue challenging me, but I also want more time to try to persuade her that there is respect in disagreement, that she will be best served by being taken seriously.

At a time when compliments get tossed around so easily and frequently that they lose any real meaning, Professor Lyons sounds to me like he was an authentically decent man.  A person who exalted truth and understanding over self-interest.  We need more educators like that.

I am the scholarship dude.




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Wow. I can't imagine answering the question any way other than the way Professor Lyons answered it. Perhaps I should be more wary. A few years ago I taught Civil Procedure. In the course of discussing the potential intrusiveness of discovery, I rhetorically asked the students whether they'd want to get into a fight over whether they'd be required to answer whether they'd ever done illegal drugs or whether they'd ever had an abortion, etc.

One year later in the course of a performance review I learned that several students had complained that I had asked them whether they had had abortions. I have no reason to think anyone took the complaint seriously (certainly it wasn't taken seriously enough to result in a hearing or anything of that sort), but the fact it even was mentioned in my review was a bit mind boggling.

Have others had horrific experiences with political correctness gone wrong? There's so much noise about such things, but I myself have never known of colleagues who experienced the sorts of things Professor Lyons did. I consider my own brush with something similar pretty trivial. But others of you?

Posted by: Peter | Apr 2, 2009 11:22:51 AM

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