Third-rail books in the classroom

High school teachers often wish they enjoyed the academic freedom of university professors.  But apparently even the latter find their careers in jeopardy if they teach controversial books (“The Risk in Teaching ‘Huckleberry Finn,’” Commentary, Feb. 1).

An acclaimed professor at Augsburg University in Minnesota found that out when one of his students quoted a sentence that included the n-word from James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.”  In a discussion that followed, the professor raised the question if it was appropriate High school teachers often wish they enjoyed the academic freedom of university to use the author’s word in an academic context.  What followed was hard to believe.  After some students complained, the professor issued an apology.  But that was not enough.  He was suspended from teaching pending an investigation.

The main reason that tenure exists in higher education is to protect teachers from being penalized for exploring taboo subjects.  Yet time and again, they find themselves in peril if they dare do so.  As a result, students are deprived of the opportunity to develop critical thinking.  Instead, they are fed only bowdlerized material.

In high school, of course, teachers have no freedom whatsoever to assign books that are not on an approved list.  The U.S. Supreme Court made that clear in 2010 in Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of Tipp City Exempted Village School District when it held that only school boards can determine the curriculum.  So maybe teachers and professors are not that different after all.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

2 Replies to “Third-rail books in the classroom”

  1. Looks like the university opted for the politically expedient approach. Hopefully, the university will end up losing a lawsuit, paying the professor backpay, and paying the professor’s legal expenses.


  2. Labor Lawyer: If professors can’t conduct a discussion about controversial issues, how are students going to develop critical thinking skills? Higher education is becoming a farce.


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