There’s a great article today in The Chronicle of Higher Education (account required to access), “The Truth About Teaching About Racism,” by Paul Lyons, a professor of social work and history at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He discusses the issues, including free speech, that come up when teaching about and discussing racism:
I am not a great fan of those who see political correctness running rampant on college campuses. Although there is certainly more conformity than those people left of center are willing to admit, charges of political correctness ignore forms of right-wing conformity at some conservative institutions and, like charges of racism, are often leveled unthinkingly. What I want to argue is that playing things straight, and teaching honestly about racism, diversity, multiculturalism, and tolerance, is not only our responsibility—it happens to work. In all my years of teaching, my students have shown the maturity to deal with nuanced and complicated analyses of race and ethnicity. They have been able to recognize that being victims does not inoculate them from becoming victimizers; they have been able to see that none of us is reducible to singular categories such as race or gender—or age, lifestyle, nationality, or religion. Let’s begin with the obvious. I am a white guy teaching about race and racism. No matter how you slice it, that makes a difference. For me to be effective, I have to demonstrate that I can be trusted to be fair-minded toward all my students, but especially my African-American ones. I tell my students to keep in mind that all of us are human beings—and individuals.
I agree with Lyons that charges of “political correctness” can sometimes hide or downplay the seriousness of racial tensions that do exist on campus; one has got to admit, however, that there are lot of “politically correct” university policies out there that can chill the open dialogue and discussion that he and other fair-minded professors sincerely seek. Just check out speechcodes.org to get a dose of the PC affliction that has hit many of our nation’s campuses in the form of rights-violating speech codes. While conformity does indeed take place among those at different parts of the political spectrum, the key to being able to “teach honestly” regardless of what background you are coming from, as Lyons strives to do, is to not have speech codes that can be abused to punish those who are simply trying to be honest. Imposing vague restrictions on expression on campus can undermine sincere efforts to dialogue about the most serious and controversial issues our society faces. For Lyons’ efforts to teach fairly and play things straight, I say: right on!