Do N-Word Policies Define Free Speech & Academic Freedom in Our Schools? | Joel Backon | 9 Min Read

October 13, 2022

Recently, I received a note asking Intrepid to write about a specific free speech/academic freedom issue that occurred at Milton Academy (MA) in April 2022. Events at schools, while often very specific circumstances that are difficult to fully understand from the outside, are more valuable as an example and catalyst for an exploration of issues that might interest many in our community. In this case, the issue is free speech on our campuses and is focused on a single word, the n-word. Given its history, the word deserves a focused discussion. For context, I will give you the “facts of the case” based on a published account by an interested party, but no additional context for the event since it is not the central focus of the discussion, and Milton Academy has opted not to comment on the specific event.

Briefly, a Milton student organization called the Public Issues Board invited Harvey Silverglate, a free speech advocate and founder of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), to speak at a series of seminars on a variety of topics selected by students. Silverglate’s topic was free speech and academic freedom. Early in Silverglate’s talk, he referenced a book written by a friend at Harvard, Randall Kennedy. In his reference, Silverglate stated the title of the book, N*******: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. Silverglate’s explanation for using the word, which is the focus of this article, was unsatisfactory and offensive to many of the students, and consequently, a majority walked out of the lecture, leaving a small, but interested audience. While the walkout was irritating to Silverglate, it was not the event that triggered his ire. Several days later, the student Public Issues Board sent an email of apology to the student body for the use of the word, and one student forwarded that message to Silverglate. He responded to the upper school head asking to circulate his response to the student email. The school did not reply to Silverglate after repeated requests, leading to the article about the incident written by Silverglate and Kennedy (referenced in the first paragraph).

As we all know, nothing controversial that hits the internet flies under the radar these days, and the Milton incident was no exception. There were numerous responses to the Silverglate/Kennedy article here, here, and here, for example. The responses range from a missed opportunity, a teachable moment at a highly prestigious prep school, to the accusation that Silverglate and Kennedy are whining about their bruised egos. It would not be fruitful to adjudicate the debate since we don’t have complete information regarding what occurred at and following the Milton event. Instead, it would be more instructive to focus on the impacts and meanings of the n-word itself and whether specific words in our history should not be spoken, regardless of the context.

Most of our schools have a policy that prohibits members of the community from using language that is deliberately upsetting or hurtful to others. In most cases, it is scaffolding for appropriate behavior because respecting others, showing empathy, and contributing to belonging means that you don’t say things that are insulting, demeaning, or exclusionary, and you don’t use language that might trigger personal or cultural trauma. It sounds straightforward and noncontroversial, but in practice, these kinds of blanket policies, absent of interpretation, have been subject to reasonable challenge from parents and students. Once good behavior regarding speech is codified, then responsibility shifts back to the intentions of the speaker rather than the impact on the person affected by the speech (student handbooks state what you can and can’t do; absent empathy, a student might have a green light to say something offensive with the best of intentions). In a sense, the policy creates a form of cognitive dissonance by sending one message to the speaker while DEIJ/SEL training sends a different message to those affected by specific speech (the empathy argument). I’m not suggesting that any such policy be retracted, but upon reflection, might be clarified to explain that this is, in a sense, two-factor authentication where both factors are honored in tandem: both the speaker’s intent and the affected student’s response.

Some argue that the speaker’s intent no longer matters and that the empathy interpretation rules the day.  Empathy has, however, always been an important factor in our interactions with others, even though during the 20th century, cultural stereotypes and hierarchical organizations increased the focus on the “free speech” of the speaker. Certainly, I experienced that phenomenon growing up in a small New England town in the 1960s. There were frequent taunts and insults, to the point where a few kids took to calling me a “kike.” Supporting that sense of exclusion through actions in addition to words, my teachers asked whether I would prefer to leave the classroom during the Christmas party, why I missed school on Yom Kippur if I was not sick, and how insulting it was to “Mary” that I didn’t want a slice of her birthday cake during Passover. The point of these anecdotes is not to compare kike to the n-word but to illustrate how cruel people can be when they don’t fully understand and accept the experiences of others. By extension, many would argue that it is sufficient grounds for never using the n-word, and they would be on fairly solid experiential, social-emotional, and moral ground.

Alternatively, there are a few important counterarguments in education to consider. First is the “destruction of the literary canon” argument. It was used by Harvey Silverglate in his talk at Milton after the initial student response to his use of the n-word. Randall Kennedy writes in their joint article, 

“He [Silverglate] intended to point out that if one followed the fashionable rule that the infamous n-word could never be appropriately uttered in full under any circumstances, one would have to leave gaps in the writings and performances of, among others, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty, Mark Twain, Richard Pryor, and Lenny Bruce.”

We have all heard stories of schools that have dropped Huck Finn, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and Beloved from their curricula. The troubling element in the elimination of (some are calling it censorship or book banning) classic works is the notion that if works like these are true classics, were good for student learning yesterday, last year, 10 years ago, and 50 years ago, why are they not good for learning today? And that question suggests the intellectual lens of “presentism,” an uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts. David Hackett Fischer has argued the fallacy of presentism, and it aligns with the thinking of Silverglate and Kennedy. Here is where we bring free speech and academic freedom back to the table. If we eliminate critical works from our curriculum because they use words that some students find offensive or traumatic, then are we trading their learning experience for emotional safety? Is that a compromise worth making? Jonathan Haidt might argue that there were two broken pieces here, and we fixed the piece that was easiest to repair (dropping the book), but not the piece that would have the most long-term impact (working with the offended or traumatized student).

The second argument comes from John McWhorter, a Columbia University linguist and columnist for the New York Times. He opens his February 2022 Op-Ed by writing:

“Over roughly the past two decades, American mores have been settling into an idea that when it comes to the N-word, there’s no difference between use (lobbing the word as a slur in reference to a Black person or Black people) and mention (referring to the word itself). Particularly if the speaker is white.”

In other words, we can’t use the n-word as a characterization of a black person, and we can’t talk about what the n-word means and how it evolved historically to reinforce the reasons why we shouldn’t use it to characterize somebody. Clearly, McWhorter thinks that it is an oversimplification to have a blanket policy (a binary choice) for words that have important historical significance. As educators, we are well aware of the dangers of blanket policies about issues that don’t place an individual’s life at risk. One teacher, Michelle Kenney, describes, in her post, the challenges associated with using the n-word in the classroom, and the reasons why a more nuanced approach may be advisable.

Finally, does outlawing a controversial word mean that “trigger warnings” are no longer fashionable? I recall several faculty and department meetings between 2014-16, in which we were told that as long as we let students know in advance that we were going to use words or discuss topics that might make them uncomfortable, and give students the chance to opt out of the affected class meeting, we were okay. I can recall thinking at the time that there was a flaw in that reasoning. Students who chose to not attend a particular class would then miss some of the relevant discussion, thereby being in the uncomfortable position of having gaps in understanding, but being unable to fill those gaps without some real creativity and commitment on the part of the teacher. By including a word or topic in our curriculum, we were implicitly saying that it was something of value, but the trigger warning was our way of letting the affected students know that they were proactively given the opportunity to be excluded from learning something of value because of their emotional history and/or racial/cultural background. Even though inclusion was not the word of the hour in 2014, it became clear to me that I had to find another way to provide intellectual value for the impacted students. 

So we are left with a dilemma. On the one hand, the forces of free speech and academic freedom cry for making any historical work of literature, history, anthropology, sociology, and political science fair game for appropriate use with our students. Alternatively, the diversity of our student bodies challenges us to respect and empathize with the personal and cultural experiences and narratives of each and every student. For some, that might mean censoring some of the best works for understanding our culture and the wider world. One might decide that the conflict is unresolvable unless there is flexibility on both sides of the free speech argument. What are our primary learning goals and how does the curriculum support those goals? How do we minimize reigniting memories or trauma in our students while helping them to better cope with the topics and words they will most certainly hear in their lifetimes? It will take some clear and balanced thinking to decide whether to use the n-word and under what circumstances, at your school.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Joel Backon for Intrepid Ed News.

Joel Backon

Joel Backon is the Editor of Intrepid Ed News, responsible for all educator content on the website. He joined the OESIS Network as Vice-President from Choate Rosemary Hall (CT) where for 27 years he held key roles in Information Technology, Academic Technology, classroom teacher, curriculum designer, and roles in academic and student advising. Joel leads the online and professional development initiatives through the Intrepid Ed News website and a variety of other platforms. He has been an OESIS Network Leader since 2015.

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