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Are Colleges Getting Too Sensitive?

A recent e-mail to the faculty of the College of William and Mary regarding the use of the word 'retarded' in the classroom, while generally welcomed by its recipients, has brought up pertinent questions about how educators should handle potentially offensive material. Are schools too worried about upsetting their students?

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By Eric Garneau

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Offending Incident

On October 13, 2011, the entire staff of the College of William and Mary received an e-mail reminding them to be cautious of the word 'retarded' in a classroom setting. Members of a student assembly at the school reported that they'd caught some professors and students using the word in class recently, so they asked Dean of Undergraduate Studies Kelly Joyce to take action, prompting the message. While her move was mostly met with acceptance and understanding - it could hardly be called controversial - one professor, who asked to remain anonymous when speaking with William and Mary's newspaper, had a slightly different take on the situation.

'My negative response to the e-mail message... was because a member of the College administration apparently thinks she needs to instruct over 500 highly accomplished and professional faculty members… that we should behave with decency in class,' he told student paper The Flat Hat. 'Unless I am totally out to lunch on this, there is no brewing epidemic of mean-spirited classroom references at the College.' This professor went on to state that he feels if the dean did have a problem with any faculty members, she should have spoken to them privately rather than presuming to lecture a whole group of educators who already exhibit appropriate conduct.

Perhaps some readers will be inclined to think this professor has a point. Telling educators to mind their language seems like telling surgeons to wash their hands before an operation - it probably doesn't need to be said. And the lack of specificity from reports of the situation suggests that perhaps no actual on-campus events prompted this e-mail; the students that encouraged the message even noted that they didn't think such language was a campus-wide trend.

Could this, then, have just been the actions of a group of students looking to crack down on a nasty word? If that's the case, it's totally understandable from the students' point of view, but perhaps school administrators ought to have acted differently. To at least one professor, the dean's message came off as patronizing and pointless, though many had no problem with it; one told the publication Inside Higher Ed that most faculty were not 'nearly that fragile' as to be offended. But this author's inclined to take the unnamed professor's side.

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Is There Value in Offense?

My (perhaps uncommon) viewpoint here is that people are too easily offended by things. One of my favorite television shows is South Park, and I wholeheartedly agree with its core philosophy - when it comes to potentially offensive material, everything is fair game or nothing is. That's taught me to be a lot less sensitive to things that my gut reaction might first single out as crass. Ironically, it also means that one of the only things I'm offended by is people taking offense to things.

None of this is to say that I support the word 'retarded' being used in an academic setting. I don't. It's simply not appropriate, and its usage is born out of prejudice and ignorance. But here's the thing: pretty much every teacher in the universe already knows that. So why would a dean feel compelled to waste her time - and the time of her staff - with a message that would more appropriately be targeted at students? The objecting professor quoted above (who interestingly feels the need to remain anonymous) is right on the money here: if there was an educator using pejorative terms in the classroom (which seems suspect), the right way for administrators to deal with it is one-on-one, not with a mass e-mail that treats professionals like children.

My passion about such a minor incident may seem surprising, but the problem is that offense is a slippery slope. South Park knows it, and we all should. And again, I take no issue with the student group here - the work they're doing is noble. But for school administrators to so preemptively (and impotently) attempt to guard against their staff using bad words seems almost laughable, and it could lead to a troubling path. How far are administrators willing to go to create an atmosphere where no one could possibly take offense at anything? What kind of school would we be left with?

Contrary to popular belief, I think there's actually some value to be found in offending sensibilities - at least, in a certain way. Let's forget about insulting epithets for a minute and look at what else can offend - works of art, for instance, or even certain types of knowledge (consider how fundamentalist Christians view(ed) the teachings of Darwin). I firmly believe that in cases like that, if something offends, it's doing its job by making you uncomfortable with things you haven't yet thought about. I would argue that people often claim offense so they can easily brush off points of view outside of their own. As such, the most-offended people are often the most narrow-minded.

Now, if you want to live in a bubble where every new piece of information you gather conforms to patterns you already know, that's fine. But then why go to college? Higher education should shock you out of your comfort zone. I think the most valuable thing about my years away at school was its environment, where I was side-by-side with people of diverse backgrounds, cultures, proclivities and interests. That's a crucial part of realizing that your perspective on the world is only one (very small) way to look at things, which in turn is a crucial part of growing up and becoming a functioning member of society.

Let's get back to the issue of insulting language. It's possible that even there we can find some value in offense. Cheryl Dickter, a psychology professor at William and Mary, remarked about her school's episode in The Flat Hat that 'standing up and challenging prejudicial comments can have beneficial effects for everyone.' But is that really what the dean did? By hiding behind a mass e-mail, she let any actual offenders go with only the tiniest of challenges - there's no accountability in that scenario because no one has to own up to their actions. The students of William and Mary are standing up for themselves and challenging prejudice by trying to eliminate the word 'retarded' from their campus' lexicon. Perhaps administrators should find a better way to help them reach that goal.

Need to talk to your professor about a personal issue? You'll find they're often happy to listen.

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