Our Children are watching

“Children are watching and history will judge us,” wrote columnist Peggy Noonan.

children

We should all remember that when enthusiastically endorsing the removal of elements of American history that may reflect on disturbing times and actions.

The school board of three elementary schools in Portland’s Centennial District should have thought of that when proposing that the school names be changed because they included the word “Lynch” and claiming that the removal would be justified because many newer families coming into the district associated the word with America’s violent racial history.

The censorious policing of language in order to spare sensitive young minds does the children no favors. Instead of protecting the delicate young souls, it lays the foundation for later insistence on trigger warnings, objections to micro-aggressions, the shouting down of controversial speakers, the removal of statues of people associated with slavery and the unfortunate spread of presentism, the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.

The other day I was talking with a group of twenty-somethings about the horrific events in Charlottesville. Their unanimous view was that the white nationalists should not have been allowed to demonstrate. The consensus was that reprehensible people had no right to express their views publicly. Who taught them that?

After the horrific events in Charlottesville, the race is on to remove or stop public support of all the Confederate-related remnants of the Civil War.

New York Governor, and presidential hopeful, Andrew Cuomo signed onto the trending issue of the moment, sending out this tweet:

“I just asked the acting secretary of the @USArmy to remove confederate names from the streets of Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn.  Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) August 16, 2017

Robert E. Lee served at Fort Hamilton before the Civil War. Fort Hamilton roads include General Lee Ave. and Stonewall Jackson Drive.

The U.S. military has previously rejected the same demand from some members of Congress. The streets at Fort Hamilton — General Lee Ave. and Stonewall Jackson Drive — honor fighters who were “an inextricable part of our military history,” the Army said.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has even jumped on the bandwagon, calling for the elimination of statues in the Capitol tied to supporters of the slave-holding era.

“The Confederate statues in the halls of Congress have always been reprehensible,” Pelosi said in a statement. “If Republicans are serious about rejecting white supremacy, I call upon Speaker [Paul] Ryan to join Democrats to remove the Confederate statues from the Capitol immediately.” (She’s apparantely unaware that that the decision on which statues go into the U.S. Capitol come from state General Assemblies)

Pelosi didn’t make clear whether John C. Calhoun, a pro-slavery figure who served as a senator, secretary of war, secretary of state and vice president, was in her sights. His portrait hangs just outside the LBJ room in the Senate.

She may not know, or care, that in 1959 the Senate named Calhoun, despite his slavery views, one of just five of the Senate’s “most outstanding” former members. A five-member Senate committee led by then Senator John F. Kennedy struggled for two years to name the “famous five.” The Senate decided that the greatness of Calhoun and the other honorees included “acts of statesmanship transcending party and State lines.” It defined “statesmanship” to include “leadership in national thought and constitutional interpretation as well as legislation.”

If only we had similarly open-minded leaders today instead of hordes surrendering to the frenzy of presentism, interpreting historical events without any reference to the context or complexity of the time.

One thing children and adults need to learn is it’s that it makes no sense to see the world entirely in the present tense. It is critical to acknowledge the degree to which our position and experiences color how we look at bygone days, places and people.

Presentism “…encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation,” said Lynn Hunt, president of the American Historical Association. “Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior…”

Many of our forbears espoused racial views that are today considered abhorrent, including people we still consider exemplars of the American experience.

In addition, somebody’s historical goodness and worth should not be based on just one criteria.

As David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, said, “…making race the only basis of judgment…does violence to the spirit of historical investigation, because it reduces complex individuals to game show contestants who must simply pass or fail a single test.”

The people who tore down the Confederate Soldiers Monument during a Monday protest at the old Durham County Courthouse in North Carolina, we’re not a group of concerned citizens, bug a mob. “Historians can no longer afford to sit idly by as uninformed or misinformed tyrannical mobs seek to stamp out the history they do not like,” wrote Paul Bartow of the American Enterprise Institute. “It is a threat to the preservation of the past. It is a threat to free speech. It is a threat to proper historical understanding.”

If adults don’t understand this, how will our kids?

Commencement controversies: free speech vs. mob rule

What is it about today’s college students, acting like they’d need smelling salts if their safe space was invaded by controversial ideas?

Commencement speaker choices now drive an annual ritual of protest, led mostly by intolerant students (and too many faculty) unwilling to have to hear provocative comments from someone with whom they disagree or who is affiliated with a disagreeable institution. Only people with the right purity of thought and action, usually a liberal, get a pass.

God forbid exposing students to ideas that might challenge their preconceptions and destroy their youthful innocence.

And the protests are not, as some would claim, exercises in free speech. The students are not just objecting to the speakers’ ideas; they are endeavoring to stifle what the speakers have to say.

In 2014, International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde withdrew as a planned commencement speaker at Smith College and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pulled out at Rutgers University.

Lagarde withdrew after a petition circulated on iPetitions with charges such as, “IMF… policies (have) led directly to the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”

At Rutgers, Rice withdrew after some students asserted that by inviting Rice the university was “…encouraging and perpetuating a world that justifies torture and debases humanity.”

Students protest planned commencement address by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers University

Students protest planned commencement address by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers University

This year, dozens of faculty at John Fisher College criticized the school’s commencement invitation to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, asserting he is “a political figure who has recently shown himself to be inflammatory and divisive in his commentary.”

In Texas, student’s objected to a commencement address at the University of North Texas by Gov. Greg Abbott. The critics assailed Abbott’s views on immigration and same sex marriage and his efforts to undo a voter-approved fracking ban in the area.

The protests are part of the effort by intellectually arrogant students (and faculty) to filter out different opinions, to create echo chambers for “acceptable” views.

The protests are consistent with the push for “trigger warnings”, warnings that certain class material might make some students uncomfortable.

At Rutgers University, for example, a student wrote to the school newspaper endorsing notifications to students of material that might trigger discomfort, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” which “…possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.”

Even the liberal New Republic has raised warnings. “Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons,” the magazine wrote. “Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration.”

The way things are going, the only acceptable commencement speaker will be Kermit the Frog. He’s already primed and ready, by the way, having addressed commencement Exercises at Southampton College in 1996.

kermitcommencement

Warning: this post may trigger thinking

Universities apparently have a new mission…protecting students from exposure to speech that makes them uncomfortable. God forbid, we don’t want our academic institutions subjecting kids to provocative ideas that might challenge their preconceptions and destroy their youthful innocence.

On a recent trip to Santa Barbara, CA I spotted a brief item in a local paper about the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). Its Associated Students Senate had passed a resolution to begin the process of instituting mandatory “trigger warnings” on class syllabi.

“Having a trigger warning on a syllabus allows a student the choice to be present and gives a student advance notice of possible triggers and the choice to be present or not instead of having to leave in the middle of a class or lecture,” the Resolution said.

The high level of Students Senate debate at the sun-steeped school overlooking the blue Pacific was exemplified by the supportive comment of Off-Campus Senator Beatrice Contreras, “I’ve been in this kind of situation before — it sucks; we should pass it.”

University of California Santa Barbara

University of California Santa Barbara

The Los Angeles Times opined, and rightly so, that the whole idea is foreign to learning. “Trigger warnings are part of a campus culture that is increasingly overprotective and hypersensitive in its efforts to ensure that no student is ever offended or made to feel uncomfortable,” said a Times editorial.

Still, the concept appears to be gaining ground.

In February, Ohio’s Oberlin College put out guidelines asking faculty to refrain from using in their course materials information or works that would offend students. If professors believed such materials were essential to the course, they were expected to place a “trigger warning” in their syllabus. If students felt the material would be too emotionally difficult, faculty were encouraged to make such triggering material optional.

Faculty were urged to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly” contribute to learning goals.

For example, faculty were cautioned that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a highly-praised novel about the struggles of a man from an Ibo village in Nigeria, may “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.”

After strenuous criticism within the school and in the media, Oberlin has temporarily suspended the trigger policy, pending further faculty review.

The issue has surfaced at Rutgers University, too, where a student wrote to the university newspaper endorsing notifications to students of material that might trigger discomfort.

“…literature courses often examine works with grotesque, disturbing and gruesome imagery within their narratives,” the student noted. “For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s critically acclaimed novel, “The Great Gatsby,” possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence. Virginia Woolf’s famous cerebral narrative, “Mrs. Dalloway,” paints a disturbing narrative that examines the suicidal inclinations and post-traumatic experiences of an English war veteran.”

Even the liberal New Republic ran a piece criticizing the trigger-happy trend. “Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons,” wrote Jennie Jarvie. “Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration.”

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas had the right answer to all this foolishness.

“…a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute,” he wrote in the majority opinion in   Terminiello v. City of Chicago  “It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea.”

A university free from challenging or disturbing thoughts is a university free from learning.

 

Addendum, 11/19/14:

The Microaggression Farce

The latest campus fad, which sees racism everywhere, will create a new generation of permanent victims.