by Dr. Virginia Lamothe – Belmont University
To teach is, in itself, an act of social justice.
On Monday, March 20, Stanley Fish wrote in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education that the University is no place for free speech. His essay was in part a response to the recent violence at Middlebury College following a lecture by Charles Murray, and partly in response to a statement of principles protecting free speech put forth by the faculty of the University of Minnesota last year. “Neither free speech – speech uttered by anyone who has something to say – nor political speech – speech intended to nudge students in one direction or the other – is a legitimate part of the academic scene.” In his essay, Professor Fish puts forth arguments by Thurgood Marshall and legal language from cases such as Pickering v. Board of Education, a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that in the absence of proof of an educator knowingly or recklessly made false statements, the educator had a right to speak on issues of public importance without being dismissed. But I would argue that Professor Fish is forgetting the most important aspect of an education: to teach is, in itself, an act of social justice.
Voices are not the only elements of “free speech.” As the saying goes, actions speak louder. In Fish’s “Darwinian” landscape of the University, ideas are to be interrogated and understood, but not “lead to joining a party or marching down Main Street.” My experience as a college educator has shown me otherwise. We don’t always stop at the interrogation of ideas. For example, when a violent racist remark was made on social media by a former Belmont student, many members of the faculty, myself included, came together at the center of the campus, and we bowed our heads in prayer. When a young Latina woman was struggling to pay her tuition and purchase her required textbooks, a professor informed her of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and completed a recommendation for her. That student won the scholarship. The professor’s actions were not merely an act of kindness and empathy, but also an act of defiance against a United States’ President who would dare to call people of Hispanic descent “bad hombres.” Even at an “expensive” school, there are faculty and staff who do not let the manicured gardens and marble pillars blind them from watching ever-present poverty stalk the hallways. I have seen warm coats gathered for the inner-city poor and for members of the student community alike – quietly, yet not in secret. When an LGBTIQA group wobbled on its first footing in a school that had only recently distanced itself from the Tennessee Baptist Convention and their discriminatory views of homosexuality, a professor reached for their wallet and printed hundreds of “I am an Ally” and “Safe Space” stickers with a picture of a bridge in honor of the group’s name and mission: Bridge Builders. These 1200 stickers were handed out to faculty, staff, and students. This way professors could simultaneously express their views and meet their students’ needs for a safety and acceptance in the learning environment.
Professor Fish is forgetting the fundamental laws of a University community: we speak, we teach, and we act.
But there are some things we must not forget lest we misunderstand our vocation as educators. This is not the first time Professor Fish has written about his myth of free speech. Many have argued against these views since the 1990’s, and they will do so again here. More importantly, as educators we must remember it is our teaching that forms our students as people. Fish may be correct in stating that Universities are in the business of education, but professors are in the business of young adult lives. I have seen a young woman who lost most of her left hand in a horrific car accident learn more about herself than she did about music history in a lecture about jazz legend Django Reinhart and leading guitarist Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath and other musicians with “broken hands.” I have seen a young veteran win an award for writing about his experiences in a war that he did not choose, but yet chose to fight. The words we teach and debate do not disappear into the ether of the classroom. Rather, they form bones where there are none, identities where they are challenged, and faith where it is lost in these young people. Professor Fish is forgetting the fundamental laws of a University community: we speak, we teach, and we act. We act with our feet, with our money, with our gifts, with our folded hands, and our open arms. I may not have the rhetorical elegance of Professor Fish, but I have a teacher’s heart. To put it simply, I teach, therefore, I act.