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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Extreme views in the classroom

The Chronicle of Higher Ed reports that Frazier Glenn Cross, Jr., the white supremacist suspected in the shootings of three people earlier this week, was invited two years ago to speak in a class on "New Religions" at Missouri State University. (H/T: My colleague Tom Baker). The professor issued a statement yesterday defending the choice, saying he wanted to educate his students on white supremacist views (and their dangers) and that the students would not believe the true nature of these views just by reading a textbook or hearing the professor lecture about them. According to the article, it went about as you would expect--Cross yelled at the students, used racial slurs, and praised violence, and apparently the students yelled back at him. It sounded like a productive exchange.

I do not think there is any question that it is appropriate to present Cross' views in a classroom setting. And the alternative proposed by the ADL in the story--inviting experts who have studied the subject firsthand--are not sufficient. If the point is to get students to engage with and understand these views, then hearing them characterized and filtered through an expert (no doubt, since this is the ADL, an expert who believes these views are harmful and should be suppressed) is not a substitute for engaging with the primary materials. One can question whether white supremacy is a new religion, but I will defer to the instructor on that. The broader point is there are situations in which it is appropriate to present, in unfiltered fashion, even the worst and most offensive political, religious, etc., ideas.

There is a nice question about inviting him to speak in the classroom, as opposed to having students read his writings or hear his speeches--there were more than enough available on the internet (maybe this is what the ADL rep meant in the story by "multimedia tools," although that is such an inanely empty phrase). And this issue is more pedagogical than political. Some of this is my general objection to the use of guest speakers in the classroom. But some is the question of whether having him address the students directly was necessary to the pedagogical goal. They can experience and understand these views first-hand without having to experience him first-hand. Having him shout at the students (and having them shout back) shows that he is crazy and not to be taken seriously, but it does not really show his ideas or thoughts or require them to wrestle and deconstruct them, which is supposed to be the goal. It is the difference between a cable tv shoutfest and an academic discussion.

And I wonder if the visceral responses about "endorsing" and "providing a platform" goes away if students were reading his writing rather than seeing him in-person.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 16, 2014 at 11:24 AM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

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