Friday, November 20, 2015

Sunday, November 1, 2015


There has been a series of stories in the past few days about an imperative for college students not to offend while having fun. First there was a news story about colleges warning students against culturally or ethnically demeaning Hallowe'en party costumes: Halloween Costume Correctness on Campus: Feel Free to Be You, but Not Me. Then there was a report on moves to apply high standards to college mascots--specifically, a movement to get rid of "Lord Jeff," the namesake of Amherst College and its home town. At Amherst College, Some Say It's the Mascot's Turn to Embrace Diversity. The original Lord Jeff evidently treated Indians badly. And then Erika Christakis, Associate Master of one of the Yale Colleges, pushed back against an encyclical from a Yale committee to avoid those culturally insensitive costumes.
“Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” Christakis wrote. “American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”
That, of course, caused a furious reaction and a petition demanding an apology.  Christakis, allegedly, is party to the marginalization of already marginalized students. The way we respond to defenders of unwelcome speech is … to bully them into shutting up.

Christakis is a brave woman. She was co-Master of one of the Harvard Houses until her husband Nicholas decamped from Harvard to Yale last year. She has written also about the risk of over-reaction to college sexual assault -- another unpopular and unfashionable position.

The thrust of her worry about the costume warning is that colleges are growing-up places, places from which graduates should emerged prepared to deal with the world as it is. In the real world there will be no one to mediate grievances about inconsequential matters. We do students no favor by teaching them to expect that society will protect them from seeing silly costumes, or by training them to be sensitized to slights they might not even have realized were demeaning until someone explained it to them.  We don't have to like the supposedly offensive costumes to realize that we do more harm than good by landing hard on those who wear them to parties.

Discouraged by my reading of the day's newspapers, I turned on the Notre Dame-Temple football game, where I witnessed people in the crowd dressed up as grotesque caricatures of Irishmen. Right there on national TV, in spite of this country's despicable history of "No Irish need apply" and other forms of institutionalized discrimination. And then I turned to a broadcast of our local pro basketball team, and more of those Irish caricatures. Where is the outrage?


The blog has been dark for a long time, and probably won't be very active anytime soon. I am trying to write in a longer form, and in spite of being dean no longer, I seem to be busier than ever. But after the series of stories and the attack on Christakis, I decided I had better say something.