Hate speech and the classroom

Generally, the United States history survey dedicates considerable time to World War II and its impact on American society. When the discussion turns to the Holocaust, it is a subject that my students intensely engage with, passionately decrying the bigotry and hatred that underscored the Nazi agenda. They frequently draw powerful connections to contemporary affairs, reiterating why history courses are so important in shaping civic understanding. However, just over a month ago, I found a symbol of hate-speech in a classroom, a classroom exclusively reserved for doctoral students like myself. As I write this post, I remain extremely disturbed by what I saw, not only because of its vicious connotation but also the location in which I found it.

About a month and a half ago, I was finishing up a class when I noticed a bulletin board with a poster for a recent event. Someone had drawn a swastika on it. You can see from the image to the left that it was small and easy to miss but I still photoimmediately reported it to campus security, who quickly removed the poster and conducted a search. At this point, it remains unclear as to who was responsible and to what end. But ultimately, the motivation of this person does not concern me. My opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not the point either. Bigotry of any kind, be it anti-Semitism or Islamaphobia, is despicable and invoking a symbol so mired in evil only serves to pollute the cause that one supports, whatever it is. But there was something especially insidious about finding a swastika in a space designed to encourage the open exchange of ideas.

When it comes to illegitimate, bigoted statements – racial, ethnic, religious, gender, or sexual prejudice of any kind – the response is clear: there can be zero tolerance in any sphere, but especially in a classroom. Following this incident, I spoke about what I found with my students and it resulted in an important discussion, not only about the history of the symbol but its meaning today, particularly in the broader milieu of freedom of speech debates. Many brought up instances that for some, might be more ambiguous, noting that the separations of legitimate and illegitimate views are not always as irrefutable as a swastika. Yet it also raised a more complicated question that I have grappled with since I first began teaching: exactly what place do legitimate personal views have in a historical learning environment?

As a graduate teaching fellow for several years, I’ve worked with professors who have offered a spectrum of thoughtful and useful advice, ranging from a position of full disclosure to discretion. Still others decide on a case-by-case basis. For the most part, I tend to keep my individual views out of the discussion, unless it crosses a line into the aforementioned illegitimate realm. This is not for a moment to imply that I don’t encourage my students to aggressively explore the ways in which history impacts their individual lives: in fact I believe that it is critical that they do so. Yet as the second half of the survey course approaches the present, history becomes contentious in very immediate ways. Even in the first half of the survey, debates about the Constitution, race and gender resonate profoundly with students lived experiences.

In this sense, my concern is that if I divulge too much of my private outlooks, it could unduly sway students in one direction, undermining the open environment I try to cultivate. Part of the historian’s job is to interpret the past from a unique lens, so perhaps the line falls somewhere between explaining ones particular perspective and stacking the deck. Realistically, I have my own distinct historiographical point of view and as Emily astutely observes, students are well aware that bias is a factor in the writing of history. I would never want a student to feel uncomfortable expressing their beliefs, for fear of disagreeing with my own, yet clearly there are certain instances that call into question broader assumptions about acceptance in academia. When swastikas are used so carelessly in an institute of higher learning, that is bias run completely amuck. If our classrooms are not safe from this particularly hateful form of ignorance, then students at all levels suffer. I am left then with a second question, to which I’d sincerely appreciate your answers: can we as teachers, keep our views out of the classroom, when these issues of intolerance seem so determined to find their way in?

2 thoughts on “Hate speech and the classroom

  1. You pose a very important question: I think it’s important to have a biased point of view when teaching history. Bias- in this context, is not a negative thing (!)- it is imposed when attempting to make sense of the larger contextual picture. It gives a depth and nuance to a subject, that without it, is dry series of events and dates which cannot get at a deeper understanding of the impact they have had then and today. Attempting to make sense of historical events through your own expert point of view can teach students how they themselves can think critically about these events. A teacher’s function to direct the Thought Process that goes into creating a new generation of more biased and divergent points of view! Disagreements are OK if both sides have the goods to back it up, but Ignorance is different (and dangerous) and cannot be tolerated – no matter what side of the argument is lies on.

    • Exactly! Very well said. There was a terrific post last week on the subject of bias and how students react to it. Yet, bias can be so important in cultivating multiple perspective, especially when trying to encourage dialogue and understanding. It seems only when it goes to serious extremes — crossing into the realm of intolerance — and shutting down the discussion of several viewpoints, that it becomes something else entirely.

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