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Language Matters

How do we teach classic literature if we cannot discuss offensive words?

Universities must be preserved as places of active, even volatile, thinking — where ideas about which there is no consensus are welcomed and protected.

Since the spring of 2016, I have taught a seminar in the New School’s MFA program on writing and literature as radical questioning. As I put the syllabus together, I sought out texts that would challenge our most basic assumptions (for instance, that a novel has a plot; an author’s work must be original; skewed syntax can’t be lucid and beautiful) so that together as a class we could experience and examine how writing and reading lead us out of complacency and into a fluid and sometimes volatile relationship with language, thought, feeling.

Included in the readings are several books by black American writers that vividly and painfully grapple with issues of racial injustice. During one discussion last semester involving James Baldwin’s essay, “The Creative Process,” I mentioned the title of a recent documentary, “I am Not your Negro,” that euphemistically alters Baldwin’s language, replacing what is known as the “N-word” (I have wondered what Baldwin would think of this term) with “negro.”

I quoted Baldwin and asked the class of graduate students to compare the two versions, and to think about the issues involved in altering the language of an iconic writer. Does the alteration interfere with the meaning? If crucial aspects of the meaning are lost, are we really even reading that writer?

Throughout his life, Baldwin eloquently made the case that “we, as a nation, modified and suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history,” and that the promise of a more just society must involve “a long look backward whence we came and an unflinching assessment of the record.”

I wanted the class to think about these issues, and the ways in which great writers unsettle both themselves and others.

What is an education for?

A young woman — white, like me — objected. She said that under no circumstances could a white person utter the word I had just quoted. She said she had learned this from her undergraduate professor. This incident eventually led to charges of racial discrimination and improper conduct being filed against me.

Now that the university has cleared me of the charges, what strikes me most about this painful interval is not the fraught content of the clash between my judgment call and the student’s moral outrage, but the necessity that universities be preserved as places of active, even volatile, thinking — where ideas about which there is genuine urgency and no consensus are welcomed and protected.

Earlier in my teaching life, I had raised my nonwhite daughter and had been confronted throughout her growing up with all sorts of intended and unintended hurts, stereotypes, unconscious exclusions and misunderstandings. The situation with my student felt sad and unsettling. I made a pedagogical decision; others would make different ones. In the end, what is crucial is that the right to do so be protected.

There is a vigorous tradition in this country of preserving such freedoms, often at considerable cost. That they can lead to discord and offense makes their protection all the more important. As former University of Chicago President Hanna Holborn Gray observed, “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.”

Censorship is a shortsighted abuse

In 2014, the University of Chicago issued a statement affirming the absolute necessity for freedom of expression. It asserted that “it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive,” and that concerns over civility and mutual respect, while important, “can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be.”

The statement has since been endorsed by more than 65 institutions, including the University of Wisconsin, Appalachian State University and Princeton.

During the McCarthy era, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter warned that intimidation leads to excessive “caution and timidity” and interferes with “the freedom of responsible inquiry.”

Justice William Douglas warned that if made “(fearful of) condemnation,” teachers “ will tend to shrink from any association that stirs controversy. In that manner freedom of expression will be stifled.”

Over these past months, a long-neglected memory from kindergarten has come back to me. A boy in my class is energetically talking. I can’t tell whether the teacher disapproves of what he’s saying, or whether she wants total silence, but suddenly she is standing over him in exasperation, holding a roll of masking tape in her hand. With a snip of the scissors she frees a segment of tape, then presses it over the boy’s frightened mouth. I don’t know what censorship is, I’ve never heard the word, but I feel a disturbance so unsettling it remains in my body for decades. I am 5 years old and I know as surely as I can ever know anything, that what I am witnessing is profoundly ungentle, shortsighted, an abuse of power.

Laurie Sheck is the author of Island of the Madand A Monster’s Notes,” as well as five books of poems. She has been the recipient of fellowships at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, among others. Her work has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Dublin International IMPAC Award. This piece was originally published by USA Today.

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Laurie Sheck

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