Offensive liberals?

Mark Ravenhall in the Guardian is claiming that it is time that ‘liberals fought back’.,,2006078,00.html.
His specific complaint is about drama students refusing to participate in certain parts of their university courses on religious grounds. He gives three examples. Two of these are a US student who refused to watch a play involving a gay kiss and a British female student who was unhappy about exercises that involved her touching male students. In the third case:

I met a woman who has been directing a production of my play Mother Clapp’s Molly House with final-year students at a British university. It’s a less innocent play than Citizenship, and contains not just gay kissing but a great deal of enthusiastic sodomy. “It all went very well,” she said. “But unfortunately our lead boy had to pull out at the last minute. His mum is a Christian and she found a copy of the script, so he had to withdraw.”

I recognised in this the same placid acceptance I had experienced in California – an acceptance that the values of education and culture, and the authority of the teacher, must come second to religious conscience and parental authority. Liberals, so used to tolerating all beliefs and cultures, haven’t got the strength to defend the values of a liberal institution.

Ravenhall concludes: “There should be no opt-outs when it comes to culture.” I am not quite sure how inclusive this remark is meant to be. Must I go and see Ravenhall’s work or its equivalents in order to be seen as cultured? (I’m not arguing for banning such plays, but they’re not to my personal viewing taste, whether featuring straight or gay sex). Even taking him to refer solely to arts education, Ravenhall seems to be implying that if you don’t want to simulate explicit sexual acts you have no place at drama school. Such views seem to place considerable limits on who the arts are for. I am also worried by his insistence on the ‘authority of the teacher’ in such matters. If a teacher repeatedly used material that glorified male violence against women or that promoted antisemitism, for example, surely students should have the right to protest? If teacher always knows best, how much difference is there between liberalism and authoritarianism?

There is a significant point here, but Ravenhall does his argument no favours by overstating the case. Some arts courses are always going to include material that some students find offensive, whether for religious or other reasons. It is up to the university (and individual teachers) to find a reasonable balance between which of this material is necessary and what should be optional, based on general academic and professional practice. (There are parallels in other courses: should vegetarians have to do meat-based cooking or dissect animals?) It’s reasonable, for example, to insist that art students must be willing to study the nude and drama students to touch one another. I’m less convinced, however, that all art students must be prepared to study (say) the Chapman brothers or film students must study Quentin Tarentino. Putting these into optional courses seem more suitable to me. Within such courses, it might be entirely reasonable to have any amount of X-rated violent and sexual content, as seems appropriate. (I suspect Mother Clapp’s Molly House may have been in such an optional course).

In compulsory courses, however, it seems to me that teachers should be very careful about introducing extremely controversial material. For example, for one seminar on the treatment of Jews in medieval England, I found a picture from a talk that I’d once been to, which was argued to be the oldest medieval caricature of a Jew (i.e. one showing the ugly hook-nosed stereotype). I considered including the image on the handout that I was going to give the students. Then I reconsidered. I wasn’t sure I would have the time to discuss the image in detail, to explain its context. Simply as a picture on the handout it was ugly, potentially offensive without being enlightening. I decided to omit it: for a different kind of class in the future I might well use the image.

Talk about how the liberals needing to fight more fiercely in culture wars, as Ravenhall does, seems to me to be missing the point. You need to think very hard about the educational purpose of controversial material and whether it will actually achieve this purpose. It is important that students’ views are broadened by their time at university, but it’s not going to be done by simply alienating and dismissing those with non-liberal views. How can liberals convert conservatives, after all, if potential converts are not made freely welcome into the liberal church?


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