Tag Archives: Smith College

From Banned in Boston to Banned in Berkeley in 55 years

When I arrived in Cambridge for grad school 55 years ago, there were a lot of sore shoulders in people who’d been patting themselves on the back for the blows struck for freedom of expression. Boston was still banning books, and the year before Grove Press had won a suit permitting them to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Hilariously, the same self congratulatory and self-righteous lot is now banning speech in a campus near you. The impetus is always the same, thought control by someone more moral (and now smarter) than you, and always for the noblest and purest of reasons. What happened to irony? Where is George Orwell when you really need him? Well he’s right here

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Which brings me to some recent campus disturbances.

Smith, where only members of the media agreeing with the demonstrators were allowed in — http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2015/11/your_comments_readers_respond_19.html#incart_river_index

U. Mass — protesting for free tuition — https://news.vice.com/article/million-student-march-wants-free-college-education-and-debt-forgiveness

Princeton — wanting Woodrow Wilson out because of his opinions — http://www.nj.com/mercer/index.ssf/2015/11/after_protests_students_still_have_work_to_do_to_s.html

Which brings me to ‘charm school”.

After serving as an army doc for two years in ’68 – ’70, a time when we had 500,000 men in Vietnam, I left with little respect for its leadership. I was stateside at one of the Army’s premier hospitals, which was a plum assignment (because the army was very short of neurologists). This meant that 2 year docs who’d served their first year in Vietnam got their choice of assignment when returning stateside. So I saw plenty of them. NOT ONE thought we were winning over there, despite what the top brass said to the press and the president.

So who would have thought that 25 years later I’d be friendly with a retired Major General, George Baker. Never say never. He was a very intelligent man, an orthopedic surgeon, who’d been chief at Walter Reed and found retirement boring, so he practiced at my hospital. He told me about something he called charm school. It was where newly promoted Generals were sent for training. They were told to toe the straight and narrow sexually and in other matters, and that if a planeload of them went down, the army would have no trouble at all filling their shoes.

I’ve done some alumni interviews for some excellent candidates for Princeton, none of whom were accepted. It would be no problem at all to expel the protestors if physically disruptive or destructive, and replace them. They certainly should NOT be expelled for what they say or think, just how they act. The Princeton acceptance rate is under 10%.

Now that everyone is neatly characterized by racial status, it would be interesting to see the breakdown by race of the occupants of Nassau Hall, also their majors. I seriously doubt that the group most discriminated against in admissions (the Asians) took much part. I doubt that many science majors were involved.


The Battle for the Soul of Smith College

The following letter to the Smith college newspaper “The Sophian” appeared in the current issue. Disclaimer: our neice went there, I’ve played chamber music with one of the Physics profs there, I’m currently studying a math book with an emeritus Smith prof who wrote it, I’ve audited a course there, I may take piano lessons from a retired music prof there. It’s a great institution with plenty of intelligent articulate undergraduates. Wendy Kaminer is a Smith Alumna. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.

Chris Pyle

Mount Holyoke Professor

Thanks to The Sophian for publishing a transcript of what Wendy Kaminer actually said in New York. Now it is perfectly clear she is not a racist, but used the “n-word,” unexpurgated, to make a point about those caring souls who, in their effort to protect the sensibilities of students, violate free speech. The hyperventilating that followed Kaminer’s uncensored prose proves her point conclusively.

Imagine that Mark Twain had been invited to read some of his writings on campus, but that Kaminer’s critics discovered that he had used the “n-word” liberally in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” What should the college do? Disinvite him? Ask him to tone down his remarks because they might traumatize someone? Post “trigger warnings” all over campus?

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.

Unnoticed in last month’s kerfuffle was Kaminer’s provocative suggestion: “colleges and universities should . . . fire almost all of the student life administrators.” Why? Because they are the primary source of the patronizing idea that college students, especially women, are psychologically delicate souls, easily wounded by unvarnished prose. It is the duty of student life deans to create “safe spaces” for all students, free from words and ideas that might traumatize them (or anyone else).

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.

Kaminer is not the only critic of these well-meaning deans. The American Association of University Professors rejects the “presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged” is both “infantilizing and anti-intellectual.” The American Library Association, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American Civil Liberties Union oppose content warnings for much the same reason that Smith professors once opposed Joe McCarthy’s censors who, when they weren’t removing books from libraries, stamped them with warning labels.

“When labeling is an attempt to prejudice attitudes,” the AAUP warns, it is a censor’s tool…If ‘The House of Mirth’ or ‘Anna Karenina’ carried a warning about suicide, students might overlook the other questions about wealth, love, deception and existential anxiety that are what those books are actually about.” The AAUP additionally says, “Trigger warnings also signal an expected response to the content (e.g. dismay, distress, disapproval) and eliminate the element of surprise and spontaneity that can enrich the reading experience and provide critical insight.”

When President McCartney’s committee meets, it will struggle over nothing less than the soul of the college. Will Smith continue to be a liberal arts college for strong women, or will it become a therapeutic shelter for the easily offended?

Professor Chris Pyle