Liberal Education

"I'm Not Going to Be Reading This Anymore": Student Resistance to Problematic Texts

A key element of a liberal education is engagement with “classic” texts, texts that often present views in conflict with our commitment to diversity and inclusion. This article will ask, although not necessarily answer, a number of important questions: Do classic texts perpetuate long-refuted and harmful ideas? Can a racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise problematic text still be considered a “Great Book?” To what extent does the inclusion of a text in a syllabus imply endorsement by the professor? Should students have the right to refuse to engage with texts they find offensive? How should professors address student resistance?

When students say “No”

When University of Illinois at Chicago English professor Lennard J. Davis assigned Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) in a graduate seminar, one of his students handed him the book and said, “You keep it. I’m not going to be reading it anymore.”1 The student objected to the novella’s colonial-era portrayal of Africans. Davis himself termed it “a racist classic,” which is perhaps a contradiction in terms. The student refused to read the text (actually re-read, since she had encountered it multiple times in her academic career), and Davis was forced to rethink his syllabus.

More recently, Timothy McNair, a graduate student in Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music refused to sing Howard Hanson’s “Song of Democracy” (1957) in a university concert, a requirement in a chorale course taught by Donald Nally. The assigned song contained lyrics based on the poetry of Walt Whitman. McNair did not object to the actual lyrics, but rather other statements by Whitman, such as the poet’s prediction that, “The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated.”2 When McNair emailed Nally to say that he would not sing the song, Nally informed him that he could not pass without doing so. McNair stopped attending class and ultimately received a failing grade.3

McNair filed a complaint with the local chapter of the NAACP. Dean Toni-Marie Montgomery responded, “The expectation of Northwestern University and the Bienen School of Music is that our students complete the work assigned to them by their professors.”4 In McNair’s view, the problem was the lack of discussion about the song’s problematic context. He claimed that he would have performed the song if there had been “an honest discussion” about Whitman’s views.5 The controversy has divided both students and faculty at Northwestern and beyond.

In another case, Christina Axson-Flynn, a theater student at the University of Utah, refused to read from scripts containing profanity, on the grounds that swearing went against her Mormon faith. When her professors insisted that she read her parts as written, she dropped out of the program. She argued that this requirement by a state institution violated her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion. According to her attorney, University of Minnesota law professor Michael Paulsen, public universities “cannot, as a requirement to curriculum, require students to utter words or engage in acts that violate their most deeply held religious principles.”6 David Dynak, chair of Utah’s theater department, replied, “What we’re trying to do is prepare actors who could audition for something unlike them. She’s not playing herself—we’re seeing a character created by a playwright in a specific context, and that’s the essence of our art form.”7

Axson-Flynn sued. The district court dismissed her lawsuit, finding no violation of her constitutional rights, but the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, holding that a violation may have occurred and ordering a trial.8 Before the trial commenced, the parties reached a settlement. The University of Utah agreed to implement a new policy allowing students to apply for exemptions to curricular requirement based on religious objections.9

These cases present different issues, but each one turns on the student’s subjective feelings of offense. In the first case, the professor took those feelings seriously, while the faculty and administration in the other two cases were more dismissive; this explains why the students in those cases felt the need to lodge external complaints against their institutions. Although I am not suggesting that a student’s resistance to a text always merits an accommodation by the professor, the professor should certainly take resistance seriously and respond in a respectful manner.

The value and danger of problematic texts

Heart of Darkness, the book at issue in Davis’ class, is a perfect illustration of these competing assumptions at work. Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe famously skewered this book in a 1975 lecture entitled “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Achebe argues that Conrad’s Africa is “‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.”10 Achebe then goes through the physical descriptions of Africans in the novel and concludes that black people horrify Conrad. This horror, in Achebe’s view, does not arise because of the dissimilarities between the races (though Conrad takes great pains to point them out), but rather the similarities, which make the kinship between Africans and Europeans clear.

Achebe’s case against Heart of Darkness reads like a criminal indictment. He digs deeply into the text to find patterns and exceptions, wrestling with Conrad’s famously-opaque language. By the end of the address, Achebe’s verdict is clear: “Conrad was a bloody racist.”11 He later edited out that mild profanity from the published version, but it now stands as the most famous line ever produced by the prolific novelist, poet, and critic.

There is some controversy among literary scholars about Achebe’s conclusion, but not the rigorous textual analysis he uses to reach it.12 In fact, Achebe’s skillful explication undermines his case to a certain extent. Heart of Darkness is a complex and challenging text, open to multiple interpretations. I happen to agree that Conrad was a “bloody racist,” but he was also a brilliant writer, and Heart of Darkness is a strident denunciation of European imperialism. In indicting Conrad, Achebe has to work with the man’s brilliance as well as his bigotry, neither of which is self-evident in a cursory reading of the novella. Achebe serves as a perfect model for how to engage critically with a challenging text. If we expunge Conrad from our syllabi, we deny our students the opportunity to follow Achebe’s lead.

In my Disability and the Law course I use a problematic text, the 1927 Supreme Court decision Buck v. Bell. That opinion was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., one of the most respected jurists in the Court’s history. Writing for the majority, Holmes voted to uphold a Virginia statute that allowed for the forced sterilization of “mental defectives.”13 Carrie Buck, who had given birth after being raped by a member of her foster family, would not be allowed to bear any more children. In Holmes’ famous words, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”14

I do not assign Buck v. Bell because it is a great work of legal and moral reasoning, for it clearly is not. Indeed, the decision caused considerable embarrassment for American prosecutors when defendants at the Nuremburg trials cited it as a legal precedent justifying Nazi eugenics practices.15 But the opinion does have pedagogical value. Ugly ideas exist in the real world, and we do our students no favors by pretending otherwise. Moreover, the decision demonstrates that an otherwise thoughtful intellectual like Holmes is capable of seriously flawed thinking.

Buck v. Bell always strikes a nerve with my students. They regularly conduct unassigned outside research to learn more about the tragic life of Carrie Buck and the historical context surrounding her case. This gives them the ability to attack Holmes’s opinion on a number of fronts: morally, legally, scientifically, and factually. This case demonstrates that the best way to learn about justice is to study injustice.

A liberal education should prepare students to engage in what Holmes called the “free trade in ideas” within “the competition of the marketplace.”16 This is vital to a functioning democracy. By engaging in intellectual warfare with the likes of Joseph Conrad and Oliver Wendell Holmes in our classrooms, our students will be well equipped to advance their universities’ missions when they get out into the real world.17

Best practices for engaging with problematic texts

The first thing I do when assigning a text—any text, whether problematic or not—is to explain why I have assigned it. This is a basic constructivist pedagogical technique that provides a framework for students to engage with that text.18 It also gives me a chance to offer a frank assessment of the text’s relative worth in comparison to others I chose not to assign. This makes it clear that I am not necessarily endorsing the ideas in a text and encourages students to voice their own objections to those ideas.

Looking back at the examples I cited at the beginning, Davis seems to have followed this strategy when he assigned Heart of Darkness. Axson-Flynn’s professors appear to have explained their reasoning for asking her to read plays including profanity, but only after she objected. And according to McNair, Nally never explained why he asked students to sing “Song of Democracy” instead of something else.

In addition to justifying the inclusion of a text, professors can also assign a “counter-text,” one that expresses ideas in contrast to the problematic text. If I were assigning Heart of Darkness, I would also ask students to read Achebe’s criticism of it. Disabled Rights by Jacqueline Vauhgn Switzer, the primary textbook in my Disability and the Law course, contains an extended attack on Buck v. Bell.19 When assigning a counter-text, I am also sure to explain why. This is, of course, a common pedagogical technique of providing students with two competing points of view and asking them to reach their own conclusion. With a text like Buck v. Bell, though, I do not want it to appear as if I am presenting two points of view that hold equal validity; I make it clear that Switzer is right and Holmes is wrong.

A third strategy I use is to devise assignments that explicitly ask students to critique the problematic text. This makes it clear that I do not endorse the text. For example, as was relatively common in those days, Justice Pierce Butler dissented from the majority decision in Buck v. Bell but did not write an opinion explaining why.20 I therefore ask students in my Disability and the Law class to write that dissenting opinion. If I were assigning Heart of Darkness, I might ask the students to write a paper addressing the novella’s portrayal of Africans.

Now even after doing these things, students may still object to a text. What do we do then? If we allow students to opt out of texts that offend them, we run the risk of producing cloistered graduates who never gain the skills to confront differing viewpoints. On the other hand, forcing students to engage repeatedly with texts that demean them could be a form of harassment.

Student objections to a text provide an opportunity for professors to closely examine their course, as Davis did. If all my texts were written by dead white males, my syllabus needs updating. But if my assigned readings already express a wide range of experiences and viewpoints, I may, after an honest and open dialogue with the student, be right to stick with the assigned text, provided I offer ample opportunity for the student to articulate his or her problems with it.

After all this, a student may still refuse to engage with a text, leaving me to either assign an alternative or penalize the student. A number of factors would influence that decision, including the centrality of the text to the course’s topic and the student’s personal circumstances (e.g., a recent victim of sexual assault or a hate crime). If I finally conclude that the student must complete the assignment, we both will need to have the courage of our convictions. When Davis assigned Heart of Darkness, his objecting student was willing to accept a failing grade. The Bienen School of Music at Northwestern and the theater department at Utah both stood by their syllabi in the face of external complaints (although the administration at Utah eventually capitulated after a lengthy litigation process).

Many of the “classic” texts we assign in our classes express ideas that are at odds with contemporary morality. While I strongly favor adding previously ignored voices to our curricula, that does not mean we should discard every writer who expresses ideas we no longer find palatable. But neither should we swallow long-discredited ideas. Problematic texts provide an opportunity to engage in a mature dialogue with our students about how these texts fit into their education and to prepare them to participate as democratic citizens in the marketplace of ideas. It is our job to help our students solve these problematic texts.

To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the author’s name on the subject line.

Notes

1. Lennard J. Davis, “The Value of Teaching from a Racist Classic,” Chronicle Review, May 19, 2006, B9.

2. Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. 2 (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1915), 283.

3. Stacy Patton, “Northwestern U. Student Jeopardizes Degree by Refusing to Perform Whitman,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 25, 2013, http://chronicle.com/article/Northwestern-U-Graduate/140531/.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Mindy Sink, “Lawsuit Against the University of Utah Cites Collision of Religious and Speech Rights,” New York Times, May 8, 2004, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/08/national/08religion.html.

7. Ibid.

8. Axson-Flynn v. Johnson, 356 F.3d 1277 (10th Cir. 2004).

9. Angie Welling, “U., Axson-Flynn Settle Civil Rights Suit,” Deseret (UT) News, July 15, 2004, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/595077344/U-Axson-Flynn-settle-civil-....

10. Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Massachusetts Review 18 (1977), 783.

11. Ibid., 790.

12. Patrick Brantlinger, “Heart of Darkness: Anti-Imperialism, Racism, or Impressionism?” Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, 1899, ed. Ross C. Murfin, 2nd ed. (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996), 277–98.

13. Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200, 205 (1927).

14. Ibid., 207.

15. Paul A. Lombardo, Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 236–49.

16. Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919) (Holmes, J, dissenting).

17. The mission of my institution calls explicitly for students to take on these harmful ideas: “As a Sinsinawa Dominican-sponsored institution, Dominican University prepares students to pursue truth, to give compassionate service and to participate in the creation of a more just and humane world” (emphasis added). “University Mission and History,” Dominican University, accessed September 25, 2014, http://www.dom.edu/about/mission. Most other institutional missions similarly obligate graduates to apply their learning for the betterment of the world.

18. Sharan B. Merriam, Rosemary S. Caffarella, and Lisa M. Baumgartner, Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Wiley, 2007), 44.

19. Jacqueline Vaughn Switzer, Disabled Rights: American Disability Policy and the Fight for Equality (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003), 36–38.

20. Butler’s refusal to go along with the majority in this case has been attributed to his Catholic faith. See Phillip Thompson, “Silent Protest: A Catholic Justice Dissents in Buck v. Bell,” Catholic Lawyer 43 (2004): 125–48.


Matt Hlinak is assistant provost for continuing studies and special initiatives at Dominican University.

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