Years ago, right out of high school, I took several automotive repair classes at my local community college. One particular instructor was notorious for his sexist and racist remarks, and while I knew beforehand that he exhibited this behavior, I wasn’t prepared for the extent of what I had to listen to while in class.
Naturally, my classmates and I complained, and naturally, by the time the complaint made its way up the chain of command, the term was over. I never knew what happened with our concerns other than I knew the instructor continued to teach.
Fast forward to today. Here I am at a rather well-regarded university, located in what can be argued is one of this country’s most progressive and liberal cities. I pay for my classes, and I expect at least marginally decent service from my professors. I should not have to listen to xenophobic and racist ranting from any professor working in an official capacity.
I thought my community college instructor, constantly making fun of overweight women and Mexican nationals, was
an outlier. A one-off. Apparently I was wrong.
The recent debacle at Reed College has me thinking about the nature of free speech on campus and if we, as students, should be protected from speech that may make us feel uncomfortable. Our society is not a bubble (or at least, it shouldn’t be), and all of us are going to be exposed to ideas and philosophies at one time or another we do not agree with. I think it’s ludicrous that students feel they have a right to be shielded from speech they find offensive or don’t agree with. Being able to express opinions in an open and public fashion is one of the cornerstones our society is built upon. Freedom of speech is sacred: Regardless of location or circumstances, personal freedom of speech should never be curtailed simply because those with thin skin might get a case of the vapors.
So how does that philosophy jive with the speech of a professor? Why should students be allowed an open forum but professors should not?
Professors serve, above all, the students. Making racist remarks in class undermines (to put it mildly) the ability of the professor to be an inclusive provider of factual information and ideas. The important distinction here is being in the classroom. Outside of class, everyone—professors included—should be able to express their beliefs without restriction. However, when acting in an official capacity as a representative of the university, making racist comments is wholly unacceptable. In such capacity a professor is not—or at least shouldn’t be—expressing personal views but rather teaching factual information. A professor standing on a street corner, in no way acting as a representative of the university, shouting profanities and insults against Polish or Spanish people, is perfectly legal. The same professor, lecturing in class and insulting Polish or Spanish people, should be immediately dismissed from the university.
Someone who is given the responsibility of teaching true, factual history in a respectful manner and in a professional environment yet lacks both respect and professionalism is unfit to teach. Quod erat demonstrandum.
And yes, this article comes from a recent experience I had in class. A class I was quite excited to take but now am dreading completing. It shouldn’t be that way.