• Exposure Needed for Bad Ideas

    • Posted on Sep 03, 2017

    Today's Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier column.  Free speech really does mean just that, especially on a university campus where debate and discussion form the heart of higher education.   UNI's "Controversial Speakers" program was memorable not only for the speakers it brought before students and faculty, but also for the spirited defense of free speech set for by President J.W. Maucker as well as Cedar Valley ministers, no less.  


    Imagine a university program that actually invites controversy, that sets out to make sure opposing viewpoints get aired, that seeks speakers who generate discussion and debate.  

     That’s exactly what happened at UNI just over a half-century ago, in the spring of ’66.

    UNI’s student and faculty Senates created a “Controversial Speakers” program.  
    This event gets explained in “A Century of Leadership and Service,” a wonderful two-volume history of UNI written by Professors William Lang and Daryl Pendergraft.  They detail UNI’s attempt to challenge students and faculty with speakers they might not otherwise hear. 

    The Iowa Board of Regents fully supported the program, saying it was “designed to demonstrate that in a democratic society all citizens have not only the right but also the obligation to inform themselves on issues of contemporary concern including politics, religion, ethics, and morals.”  

    I began my UNI teaching career as the program was gearing up.  I heard many of the speakers, including Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, civil rights activist Dick Gregory, beat poet Allen Ginsburg, and most bizarre of all, hippie/yippie Jerry Rubin, who in 1970 harangued 5,000 UNI students and faculty at O.R. Latham football field.  

    Some legislators were outraged, most prominently Charles Grassley, who roundly objected to speaker American Communist Party speaker Herbert Aptheker, calling Aptheker’s invitation to speak “deplorable and shameful,” and that “compulsory student fees and buildings paid for by the taxpayers were used to support this un-American philosophy under the guise of freedom of speech.” Other legislators chimed in, putting pressure on UNI to bar such speakers from campus.  

     However, 22 Cedar Falls and Waterloo Ministers defended the program, writing in a letter to the Courier, “. . . an integral function of higher education in a free society is to provide free discussion,” and that SCI students “exhibited a high degree of maturity in evaluating. . .speakers and opinions.” 

    President J.W. Maucker, speaking of Jerry Rubin’s wild speech, insisted that Rubin’s appearance “proved to be a worthwhile experience of a large majority of students and faculty because they got a chance to see this man in action firsthand and judge for themselves the soundness of his views.”  

    “Maturity.”   “Judge for themselves.”  Such words and phrases seem almost quaint these days, when “free speech” means huge protests during the speech and often cancellations out of fear of violence. 

    Let’s face it, a certain degree of faith in listeners’ maturity and judgment is required to invite such speakers as Ann Coulter or David Duke. As Oscar Wilde put it, “I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”  

    I’d like to see the return of a UNI Controversial Speakers program. Speakers on contemporary critical issues, fringe or not, would demonstrate how much we value free debate. Bad ideas only grow stronger when opposed with violence and censorship.   

    Open peaceful debate remains the best way to expose charlatans. 







    Go comment!
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    • Education
    • Censorship
  • Good Teaching Might Involve Offending?

    • Posted on Aug 30, 2015
    This morning's Courier column--offending as a teaching tool?  Worth pondering. 

     Now that the school year is off and running, we need to talk about a strange phenomenon sweeping through America’s universities:  “protecting” students from being offended.   

     Seems that faculty everywhere are feeling pressure to not offend their students, lest they get called on the carpet for causing classroom traumas.   

     “Better Watch What You Say” shouts the cover of Atlantic Monthly’s September issue—subtitled “How the new political correctness is ruining education.”

     It’s a knotty issue, since some students in fact do suffer from post-traumatic stress, and certain words and action can “trigger” terrible reactions, ranging from clinical depression to suicide.  

     That’s a hard reality for a few unfortunate students.  Very few, in my 40-year professorial career.  However, I did discover during those years that  (1) being offended can be a powerful and motivating beginning to learning, and (2) offensiveness is co-created; it occurs as an interaction, not just a reaction. 

     “Offended” means being upset or otherwise roiled up by someone’s speech, actions, or images they present.     

    I occasionally assigned materials in my film classes that upset some students, in particular films such as “A Clockwork Orange” and “Blue Velvet.”  I did not assign them because they were offensive, however.  

     Both films are now decades old (‘71 and ‘86, respectively) and both offer startling images and stories which indeed still offend some viewers.  Both are cinematic landmarks and received major awards, including five Oscar nominations between them.  

     In other words, both films deserve serious attention.  Because of UNI’s “Sexually Explicit Materials Policy,” I was required to print a disclaimer in my syllabus that the films might be offensive; therefore students were not required to view it.

    However, they were required to know whatever knowledge the material presented, including ideas generated during classroom discussions.   

     Incidentally, this requirement made me feel mistrusted and demeaned.   
    One student asked me to offer alternative materials, and I did not because both films are unique.  That’s why I chose them.  

     So those students missed out, by choice, and completely without consequences unless a specific section of a test covered those films.  I would have preferred they dropped the class, but that was not an option.   

     I despised UNI's policy because it undermined what I was trying to teach. 
    Students who chose to miss those films lost a valuable opportunity to discuss and ponder critical issues, including sexual harassment, sociopathology, the struggle with personal responsibility, the role of the state in rehabilitating hard-core criminals, and more, including understanding unusual cinematic elements.  

    I’m presuming those opt-out students were not victims of post-traumatic stress, since they never mentioned it or offered a doctor’s excuse.   

     I think they just preferred to avoid uncomfortable issues.  They probably shouldn’t have gone to college.  

     The students who did attend—the vast majority—were shocked, but their shock led to more engagement with important questions, and some of the best discussions of the semester.

     So, when a book or film or image is deemed “offensive,” what’s going on?
    Is there something intrinsically objectionable about it, so that you can say it “is” offensive?  Or possibly only YOU were offended, implying that others might not be?  

     I think it’s the latter; nothing contains the quality of offensiveness.  That occurs as a reaction from you to the material.    

     Consider what was racy and objectionable on TV, say, sixty years ago, and what we watch now.  Viewers from the fifties would be amazed that we view and discuss subjects that were taboo in the media, from homosexuality to adultery to graphic violence, nudity, free-range sex, you name it.   

     What would have been offensive to many then barely registers now.  That’s a fact of history and life, and shows how offensiveness gets co-created.  

    The current misguided attempt to protect students might give some students what they want.  

     But it ignores what they need.  

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Censorship
    • Education
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