Last week I had the privilege of attending my first class taught by a local celebrity, English Prof. Ralph Williams. As expected, the lecture – an introduction to the works of Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi – was riveting from start to finish.
Williams introduced the lecture by skirting a direct reference to what students generally call the Holocaust and deeming it instead “a series of happenings.” He explained he was taking extra care with his wordage, since the term “Holocaust” carried a potentially offensive implication. Before World War II, the word was used in a strictly religious context to denote a burnt offering to God, ostensibly given up to atone for one’s sins. Williams used this example to emphasize the importance of the words we use and the implications they carry, whether intended or not.
Until then, I’d never realized that I’d been abusing a term that certain audiences would find deeply offensive, and I don’t intend to use it again.
Compare this to another experience from my college years. During my sophomore year, I was asked to lead a discussion section for an American Culture class focused on the struggles of Native Americans. Before I began, I turned to my GSI and posed a question that would help me segue into the discussion, “Isn’t it true that much of Native American culture used to rely on ‘word of mouth’ or oral tradition to pass stories and traditions from generation to generation?”
I thought the question perfectly harmless, so I was surprised when my GSI refused to answer it. She told me, in so many words, that I was being presumptuous and borderline offensive, adding that in her class the students were expected to be politically correct. Basically, my entire opener was dead on arrival, and I spent the rest of the section trying to salvage my grade by walking on eggshells for the remainder of the presentation, proctoring what was probably the driest, blandest discussion of my college tenure.
The reason I bring this up is that it highlights an issue that permeates every level of academic thought. While the basic goal of political correctness is legitimate, the ways in which many professors, GSIs and students try to maintain a politically correct learning environment often seem misguided.
My main problem with politically correct education is its tendency to repress the same qualities of open-mindedness and free speech that liberalism is supposed to foster. Imagine for a moment that a racist/sexist/otherwise bigoted student expresses his views in class — perhaps they use a derogatory slur, or verbalize a belief about a certain group that’s blatantly ignorant and offensive. In a typical academic setting, I have no doubt that such a student would be either shouted down or ordered to leave the class, and most of his peers would relish watching him cringe.
While professors in these situations are probably trying to avoid the shouting match and potential lawsuit that could result from their students’ offensive opinions, they’re also completely throwing out the same cultural theories espoused by their own humanities department. Psychology 101 tells us that many of the beliefs and opinions held by an individual are the result of his or her upbringing and education, rather than some inborn tendency to be tolerant or bigoted. So why do universities try so hard to sanitize the environment of their classrooms?
If personality is formed through experience, then we can’t hold a bigoted student entirely responsible for believing what they believe. Their ethical tapestry was knit together with the same threads as that of the student activist — with threads of parental guidance, education, peer influence and the like. It follows that both the racist and the activist deserve to have their views heard and (if need be) corrected, especially in an environment tailored by an institution they’ve paid to teach them how to think.
Simply put, you don’t clean a stained floor by throwing a rug on top of the stain. You clean it directly and gently, taking care not to damage the surface while you scrub away the dirt. In the same manner, Williams showed me the hazards of a word I’d always thought to be acceptable by explaining its historical context and the intentions of the man who first used it before I even had the chance to utter it myself. I hope that in the future, professors and lecturers follow Williams’ example by doing their jobs and teaching all their students, not just the ones whose opinions they find most agreeable.
Timothy Rabb is a senior editorial page editor.