Education not always PC

A Normandale Community College student’s complaint is reopening one of the oldest issues of education.

Chris Dunbar, who is black, took offense to his speech instructor’s Sept. 6 lecture, in which Mike Wartman, a 22-year Normandale teacher, used the address “Why I Hate Niggers” by the founder of the American Nazi Party as an example of adapting a message to an audience. Dunbar filed a complaint about a month after the speech, asking for Wartman’s suspension without pay, a school-wide diversity campaign and $1,000 for his trouble.

Nowhere in the canons of academia has there ever been any hint that students should be able to go through their academic lives without having their sensibilities offended. The purpose of education, in addition to communicating knowledge, is to enable students to think constructively about the tools and problems they will encounter in their fields of study. Doing this necessarily requires probing the unfamiliar, confronting the unpleasant and analyzing the controversial.

In an often-unpleasant world, instructors do their students no favors by attempting to shield them from the discomfort of seeing their subjects as they are, complete with shortcomings, errors, biases and unfamiliar values. Instructors better carry out their responsibilities by exposing ideas and practices to unrestricted scrutiny. As John Stuart Mill famously wrote, such open debate makes even wrong ideas beneficial by allowing us “the clearer perception and livelier impression of the truth produced by its collision with error.” It also provides the most effective refutation of groundless biases and unsupported opinions. An idea defeated by free inquiry is rendered obsolete and unpalatable more quickly than an idea allowed to skulk in the shadows of doubt, fear and enforced silence.

Professors, of course, should not use their positions to abuse and harass their captive student audiences, and the laws and policies that prevent them from doing so are appropriate. But just as one can fall without having been tripped, the fact that a student is offended does not mean the course instructor’s comments were inappropriate or even unnecessary. The often-prejudiced, erroneous ideas and practices of the past have influenced many topics in history, social sciences and art – and even, according to some, such seemingly unobjectionable topics as math, engineering and architecture. Truly mastering these subjects requires understanding the ideas that influenced them, and an idea’s truth or moral rightness has no connection to its power or value.

This approach to education will certainly result in a few students being offended by discussions of ideas they believe should be accepted or dismissed on face, but they should not be allowed to deny their fellow students the benefits of a freewheeling debate.