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Mount Holyoke Professor on Words and Censorship at Smith College

By November 25, 2014

Chris Pyle, a professor at Mount Holyoke College, recently took to the pages of Smith College’s campus newspaper, The Smith Sophian, to point out the absurdity of treating adult college students as though they were incapable of hearing certain words, such as the word “nigger.” As we have reported before, FIRE Board of Advisors member Wendy Kaminer participated in a panel on free speech earlier this semester at Smith, in which she used that word to discuss censorship (not as a slur to describe anyone), thereby igniting a controversy at the college.

In his piece, Pyle takes aim at college administrators who “are the primary source of the patronizing idea that college students, especially women, are psychologically delicate souls, easily wounded by unvarnished prose”:

These deans are direct descendants of Harriet Bowdler, the Victorian lady who persuaded her brother John, a publisher, to sanitize the great books so that they would be suitable for the fragile sensibilities of women and servants. As a result, it wasn’t until the 1950s that professors could find an unexpurgated edition of Shakespeare’s plays to assign to their students.

Criticizing the Sophian’s decision to substitute “[n-word]” for the actual word in its transcript of the panel event, Pyle also elaborated on Kaminer’s own example of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by pointing out that if Twain were invited to read from the book,

The Sophian would publish Twain’s speech, but post warnings, like those that preceded the Kaminer transcript, declaring that “This author is guilty of ‘racism/racial slurs, sexist/misogynist slurs,’ and writes about ‘race-based violence.’”  Twain’s admirers might be offended by such prissiness, but that’s too bad. The Sophian has a moral duty to give its adult readers early warning of impending isms on it pages. Otherwise they might be shocked, like little children confronted by age-inappropriate messages.

Read the rest of Pyle’s letter to the editor in the Sophian.

Schools: Smith College