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Like a Lamb to the slaughter
February 18, 2003
by Tresa McBee

Cut the kids some slack. They've been taught to whine.

They've also been allowed to escape critical thinking. Consequently, Martha Lamb will probably have a hard time securing another teaching job.

Lamb is a former contract professor in the School of Social Work at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who got caught in America's campus sensitivity crossfire. Last week, she resigned a month after the first day of a graduate-level course she was teaching entitled "Social Work and Practice with Couples."

According to The Herald-Sun, which covers Chapel Hill, Lamb attempted to relate her experiences as a student in the 1960s, which, remember, was the turbulent decade during which the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed. Lamb was a student at UNC, in the South, during tumultuous, racially charged years.

Lamb, who is white, told her students that some people in the 1960s -- not Lamb herself and not in 2003 -- had said the acronym NAACP stood for "Niggers Ain't Acting Like Colored People." She then followed that up by saying such comments are not common today.

Which students apparently didn't hear or didn't understand, because, as The Herald-Sun put it, they "immediately felt uncomfortable" and complained to school officials. Discussions between Lamb and administrators, students and officials, and Lamb, students and mediators followed to no avail. "She used some insensitive, hurtful, disparaging words," said Jack Richman, dean of the school. "... I had hoped they would be able to come to some sort of understanding that she was trying to do something pedagogical that went awry."

Lamb's students, Richman told The Herald-Sun, were thrown so far outside their comfy cocoon of comfort that they couldn't absorb anything Lamb said thereafter. Of the 16 students, six of whom are black, 10 left immediately. The other six switched after mediation failed. As Richman noted, UNC's racial harassment policy requires teachers to provide a comfortable learning environment -- although exactly where that's stated is unclear.

The policy also states that it "shall not be used to bring frivolous or malicious charges against students, employees or agents" and that the "totality of circumstances" will be considered. But those parts of campus codes don't get much consideration when students cry discomfort. College campuses exist if for no other reason than to coddle kids in a student-centered universe they've come to expect.

Understand: There's no defense for real discrimination or racism or behavior that creates a truly hostile environment such as sexual harassment. Lamb, however, did none of those things. She used her experiences during a period when her students weren't alive to explain how things used to be.

Which doesn't matter. When students are surrounded by what amounts to speech codes; when they're taught that certain words are always red flags for the most repressive "ism" of the day; and when they're not taught to think critically in order to understand context, we create environments where constructive discourse is squelched and careers ruined.

Before Lamb resigned, she e-mailed an apology to her former students in which she said, in part, "I realize a quotation was used the first day of my class that contained offensive words, and I certainly apologize for its use. I expect we shall all be devoting additional energy to 'getting it right' in addressing cultural differences openly and celebrating our rich diversity in the future."

Getting it right? By whose definition?

For pointing out that UNC reflected the same racism in the 1960s as elsewhere throughout the country and saying attitudes had changed on campus, Lamb herself ran into charges of racism. There's no doubt she used jarring language, but she was describing jarring attitudes of a jarring time. Perhaps she could have said it better, but the fact that students can't recognize true offense is absurd. But, then, so is much of what occurs in college classrooms, where inculcation, not education, is the goal.

So go easy on the kids. We make them fragile these days. And when they crumble, they take others with them.

© Northwest Arkansas Times. Tresa McBee writes for the Northwest Arkansas Times and can be reached at tresam@nwarktimes.com.

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