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    What’s the point in livin’ if you don’t want to dance?

    When I started college in 1991, I was a conservative Sabbatarian Christian—very conservative, very Sabbatarian, very Christian. Once during the first few get-to-know-you weeks of freshman year, I mentioned (at a point in the discussion at which it was a most natural thing to do) that I was a creationist. One of the people in the room literally made a face at me. I’m not talking about that slight raising of the eyebrows and tightening of the smile you get when you’re not quite sure he said what you think he did; I’m talking about the full-on, unapologetic Mr. Yuk. From then on, he acted as if I weren’t in the room.

    Later that same semester, I went to the head lecturer in the first-year Japanese program and explained that I needed to miss a week of classes for a religious festival. She chuckled at me—I did not imagine this—and said that while my section lecturer could decide to let me make up the quizzes I’d miss, she had no idea what made me think some holy festival in my idiosyncratic little sect was more important than a week of classes. (Yeah, I’m paraphrasing, but not by much. I remember this conversation very well.)

    In both cases, I was pretty offended. In the former, I wouldn’t have minded being argued with; in the latter, I wouldn’t have minded being crisply told that absences were to be kept to an absolute minimum, with strict criteria for which absences were acceptable. But this was college. For everyone who was dismissive of ideas he couldn’t sympathize with, there were ten people who wanted to argue over them until three in the morning. If you stuck with classes and people that promoted the unfettered life of the mind, you welcomed good-faith opposition, because it helped you sharpen your thinking, and you didn’t mind bad-faith opposition, because if you just shrugged it off, there was sure to be a real no-holds-barred debate waiting in the next class or at the next table.

    Bear in mind, I’m talking about 1991-95 here.

    In the comparative literature program.

    We thought PC had already reached lunatic and obsessive proportions then, mind you. Little did we know. Perhaps you’ve managed not to see the latest outrage, from the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign:

    The University of Illinois has fired an adjunct professor who taught courses on Catholicism after a student accused the instructor of engaging in hate speech by saying he agrees with the church’s teaching that homosexual sex is immoral.

    The professor, Ken Howell of Champaign, said his firing violates his academic freedom. He also lost his job at an on-campus Catholic center.

    Howell, who taught Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought, says he was fired at the end of the spring semester after sending an e-mail explaining some Catholic beliefs to his students preparing for an exam.

    “Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY,” he wrote in the e-mail. “In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same.”

    An unidentified student sent an e-mail to religion department head Robert McKim on May 13, calling Howell’s e-mail “hate speech.” The student claimed to be a friend of the offended student. The writer said in the e-mail that his friend wanted to remain anonymous.

    “Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing,” the student wrote. “Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another.”

    In an e-mail to other school staff, Ann Mester, an associate dean at the College of Liberal Arts
    and Sciences, said Howell’s e-mail justified his firing.

    “The e-mails sent by Dr. Howell violate university standards of inclusivity, which would then entitle us to have him discontinue his teaching arrangement with us,” Mester wrote.

    Look, I entered college a devout Christian and left a flaming homosexual and atheist (or homosexual and flaming atheist, depending on when you catch me), so I have no problem with ensuring that religious principles are considered fair game for debate on campus. But that’s nothing at all like what we’re talking about here. I mean…sorry, bitch, but if your A game consists of (1) an anonymous, (2) second-hand accusation that (3) doesn’t even attempt to take on the clearly stated substance of Howell’s argument, you don’t deserve Lawrence v. Texas. Men and women risked their reputations and livelihoods forty years ago so you could live an openly gay life, and this is how you repay them?

    Of course, gay rights aren’t the major point here. To get back to that, here’s Erin O’Connor, who linked to that article and added her own comments:

    When I was teaching at Penn, I learned the hard way how very powerful students are. They hold professors’ careers in their hands–and can destroy them very, very easily, simply by accusing them of offensive classroom conduct. Most students don’t realize this–and if they did, would never dream of abusing their power. But some students see that power very clearly–and they work it.

    Where do students get the idea that they had the right not to be offended? University policy. It’s all there–on the books at DePaul and Brandeis and many other schools, in policies on hate speech and verbal harassment and so on. They encourage students to grossly misunderstand the purpose of higher education–which should involve being exposed to a wide range of views, learning how to choose among them, and learning to navigate the marketplace of ideas like an actual adult (as opposed to a spoiled child). When students avail themselves of these policies, administrators must take their complaints seriously, and follow through. Careers are ruined along the way, absolutely asinine judgments are made, and the educational enterprise is reduced to a joke by the very people whose job it is to uphold it. And it all happens over and over again, every year, on campus after campus, like sick clockwork, while nobody learns.

    Eric, not without warrant, is somewhat testier:

    Standards of inclusivity? What the hell does that mean? [I doubt we really want to know.—SRK] It’s not as if he threw gay students out of his class; what he did was merely to state his opinion, and explain why he thinks what he thinks, leaving students free to disagree without penalty of any kind. How does that exclude anyone? Are students considered so delicate that the slightest mention of something with which they feel uncomfortable is now to be considered a form of “exclusion”? Hmmm… Perhaps I can return to school and complain that I am being “excluded” every time a professor says something I disagree with.

    Right. We have a professor who put his ideas out there for students to disagree with without punishment, and we have a student who caviled about him in a fashion that got him ejected from campus, but it’s the professor who’s not being inclusive.

    Added on 14 July: Erin O’Connor has posted more—apparently, Illinois is reconsidering its decision. O’Connor ends this way:

    I think it’s interesting to see the elaboration of a moral system that is established and powerful and has enormous institutional weight behind it — precisely because it bears so little relation to my own baseline moral set points. It’s always empowering, enlightening, and stimulating to understand how people different from oneself think. There’s nothing intimidating or hateful about it.

    One might have expected college students to know that.

    5 Responses to “What’s the point in livin’ if you don’t want to dance?”

    1. Leslie says:

      Gosh, it just gets worse and worse, doesn’t it? The only heartening thing is that it sounds like push back might start working against this inane crap. When I was in college (LSU 1975), professors ruled. This is the way I wanted it. They were just guys (yeah, mostly guys) with big-time degrees who knew subjects we did not know. And we knew we didn’t know. Professors could be real jerks, but we knew we were there to learn stuff, not react to our own discomfort as if were more important than learning about history and, better, how to think. I really can’t believe how much my generation has screwed up intellectual life.

    2. Sean says:

      People do seem to be starting to demand an accounting, yes. And you’re right—at least in what you seem to be implying—that it’s not only the nugatory student-life administrators who are to blame here. Classroom professors have done their bit by pushing the idea that learning is “dialogue,” rather than that the reason they’re standing up at the lectern is supposed to be that they actually have knowledge to impart to the people sitting in the chairs.

    3. Leslie says:

      Yeah, I wonder when they’ll start “unpacking” the term “dialogue” and perhaps see that it’s really one long, interminable, solipsistic “monologue” that no one can bother to memorize.

    4. Eric Scheie says:

      Thanks for the link, Sean! Nothing beats your discussion of these things from experience.

    5. Sean says:

      Leslie, these are people who think—let me see whether I can remember how this was phrased—that supposed individualism actually privileges members of the dominant group. I’m pretty sure thinking of a monologue as a dialogue fails to cause them even the slightest sense of cognitive dissonance.

      Eric, thanks for the compliment as always, and you deserved the link as always.

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