Why Education Sometimes Requires `Offensiveness'


COLLEGE professors enjoy a degree of intellectual freedom that people in other professions find astonishing, but in fact, few academics exercise much daring. The collapse of public university budgets, coupled with soaring private tuition during the Reagan-Bush years, has left too many faculties ``downsized'' and shaken. The job market outside the halls of academe is fierce; inside, those lucky enough to hold tenure-track jobs tread carefully.

Even so, there are new efforts around the country that, intentionally or not, could further restrict what remains of our ability to educate our students. One of them is what we might call the ``consumer model'' of education: a view that the customer is always right. In a recent case at the University of New Hampshire, a professor's conversation in the classroom, including some sexual references, led to his being suspended (though he was subsequently reinstated); women students claimed, among other things, that they had the right not to be offended in class.

Rather than earnestly invoke academic freedom and the First Amendment, I want to speak up for the importance of being offensive - in the right way. Good education must offend students. That can mean saying shocking things, reading un-comfortable passages, and analyzing disgusting pictures. If it never offends, it's not education.

I can feel parents wince.

AFTER all, most parents (and politicians) try to protect their children (and constituents) from worlds different from their own, from history that undermines the bland pronouncements of public celebrations, from evidence of shameful behavior by their own ethnic, religious, or racial group.

My students, for example, are shocked to learn that Christopher Columbus's men sometimes tested the sharpness of their swords on the living flesh of Arawak men and women. They come to class angry, upset that they have never heard this version of the tale. Columbus's story, and the way it has been told mostly from the standpoint of the European conquerors, make a crucial step in their effort to understand that history is more than a parade of costumed figures and dates, presidents and battles.

The depth of students' turmoil is an essential teaching tool.

History teachers struggle to prevent students from condescending to the past. Even pessimistic students generally believe that they live in an enlightened era, light-years beyond the bad old days of Queen Victoria. I ask them to define the word ``slut.'' In the initial, embarrassed silence some blush, others squirm. Then the class erupts into argument. They give me the evidence to show that we maintain a standard for ``appropriate'' female sexuality, that it is usually different from the male standard, and that we owe more to Victorian mores than we think. Because students are first startled, and then react emotionally, the entire class can learn from those reactions.

Or take the word ``nigger.'' I was raised to think it was the vilest single epithet in the English language. It is nevertheless central to the history of American race relations. I now worry about being interpreted as offensive when I read painful passages from Frederick Douglass or from ``The Autobiography of Malcolm X.''

When I started teaching I worried about offending the black students. Then I saw that the white students were most uneasy. They would have been happier burying the word, consigning it to history, perhaps, but not having to hear it in class right now.

In more than six years no black student has called me on this. Consistently, I've found, it is the most offensive scenes described by fine writers that stick with the students, that lead them to say, ``You know, I knew slavery was bad, but I never had any idea it was that bad.''

Last year one student complained that I hadn't called on him enough. ``I pay my tuition,'' he argued, ``I get to express my opinions.'' But the consumer model doesn't work for education. The customer is not always right. The product is more complicated.

To do our job, professors have to shake students up, get them to doubt cherished beliefs. We need to break through a lifetime of misinformation, talk-radio half-truth, television-trained attention spans, parental and peer-group prejudices, and nearly universal intellectual laziness. We need to offend more rather than less. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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