Let’s be clear: White people making the N-word their prerogative is not cool. Do it and you’re hitching yourself to a racist ideology and an ocean of blood that still stains this country. But let’s be clear about something else: It is the job of educators to help everyone understand the ugly past and its shameful connections to the present. Ducking that responsibility is educational malpractice.
Harvard University gets to decide who it admits and whose admission to rescind. And Kyle Kashuv, a survivor of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, may well deserve their scorn (and yours and mine) for the revelation of his racist e-rants from the past two years. But I cannot help being skeptical of the very powerful and historically culpable piously condemning the culpability of a weak-minded teenager’s somewhat private foray into racism.
Harvard impulse is understandable but wrong
I suppose the idea that anything is private anymore — and certainly anything anywhere on social media — is a dubious one. Still, I cannot help remembering the words of Milan Kundera in his book “Testaments Betrayed.” Exposing private statements — the pettiness and ugliness in which most all of us engage some of the time on some level — is worse than anything any of us say to each other in those circumstances.
I have never used the N-word in private, but when I was 14 and 15 and 16, my friends and I uttered a shameful amount of misogyny with each other. If we had social media back then, some of us would surely have been dumb enough to leave an electronic record of our pathetic sexual entitlement. I do not now excuse myself for it but it was private and so it is for me — and those friends of mine — to judge ourselves and each other and grow out of it, and that is as it should be.
Social media has given young people the tools to squander their own privacy — and given universities (not just Harvard) and employers the ability to invade what used to be private. I doubt anything can be done about that, but it is a damn shame.
Lessons from a GOP congressman: My black dad taught me how to handle white supremacist rhetoric
It is not unreasonable to say Harvard acted responsibly to maintain a school culture that promotes tolerance and diversity and rejects racism and ignorance. Students of color do not always feel welcomed or comfortable at elite institutions. Students of mine who have gone on to attend elite colleges have experienced the kind of ugliness expressed by Kashuv and have felt insufficiently respected and protected by the college community. The impulse to keep him out is understandable.
And is it such a tragedy that this young man lost this opportunity because he once felt entitled to somewhat privately, and quite stupidly, reduce some of his black peers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to the subhuman category to which their ancestors had been consigned?
Maybe this sends the right message about casual racist expression — to make the results not so casual. Compare Kashuv’s ordeal with the suffering of a single minute of a single day for the ancestors of those students he demeaned and degraded. Not even close. You don’t need much empathy to put this in perspective, and half a brain will do. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from responsibility or consequence.
Accept challenge of Kashuv’s imperfect past
Kashuv may not deserve a Harvard education. But if Harvard were really an elite school — not just elite on paper — it would have honored his admission offer. It would have accepted the challenge of his imperfect past. Instead, Harvard has exposed itself as just another educational institution that controls its output by limiting its input.
When California used to have high school exit exam, some of my colleagues and I would joke about requiring our students to pass it before we let them in. That way, we could be pretty sure they wouldn’t make us look bad when it was time for them to matriculate out.
Free speech:How to handle a kid who won’t say the pledge. First, don’t tell him to leave America.
But we were being ironic. Our students were underserved and at-risk. We were pretty dedicated to them, and we understood that it was our mission to get them to accomplish much more than they might have without us. That is what we believed and still believe all teachers and all schools are supposed to do.
Send us misfits and knuckleheads, gangbangers and ex-gangbangers, chronic truants; send us the angry combative students who assaulted their last teacher; send us the intellectually challenged and the emotionally battered children — and we will work our behinds off to get results.
I’d educate a student who used the N-word
I have had rival gang members in the same class, and I saw that as an opportunity to impose some sanity — to help those guys see that their enemy might not be whom they thought they were. I have had students who disliked students of other ethnicities, and I appreciated the chance to help them get along. It isn’t easy, but it’s my job. If I had a white student who felt entitled to use the N-word to refer to his African-American peers, I would appreciate that opportunity, too.
Those of us who want our country and our world to be better than it is should know that won’t happen as long as we will only enlighten those whose values we share. No child or young adult ought to be considered beyond hope, at least not by an educator. I haven’t been successful at helping to transform every young person I’ve taught, but I’ve always tried, and I’ve never asked anyone to make a student go away because that student was a problem or because that student had offended me or another student.
In Kashuv, Harvard accepted a student who met its academic criteria but lacked the values it promotes. That was an opportunity — a teachable moment — that Harvard should have embraced.
The great weakness of educators is wanting to educate the students who need us the least. Harvard just showed that weakness. It has some of the best students in the world, but rescinding Kashuv’s admission suggests it is not among the best educators in the world.
Larry Strauss, a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and the author of more than a dozen books, most recently “Students First and Other Lies” and, on audio, “Now’s the Time” (narrated by Kim Fields). Follow him on Twitter: @LarryStrauss