Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Holiday Placemats for Social Justice

By Rick Hess — December 18, 2015 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

So, an entirely sincere question: Do my liberal friends understand why things like Harvard’s “holiday placemats for social justice” drive some of us around the bend? Do they think this stuff is at all problematic? It’s honestly tough for me to tell. If you missed the deal, Campus Reform has a nice summary here. It reports:

The Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at Harvard University distributed what it is calling “Holiday Placemats for Social Justice” on campus to help freshmen students navigate difficult conversations when they return home for Christmas break.

The placemat [. . .] offers students tips for talking to their family members about controversial topics such as “Black Murders in the Street,” “House Master Title,” and “Islamophobia/Refugees.” The placemat, divided into four possible topics of conversation, provides students with a series of sample questions they may encounter when they return home to their families along with an acceptable response to each question.

Under the topic “Black Murders in the Street,” students are advised to prepare answers to the question: “Why didn’t they just listen to the officer? If they had just obeyed the law this wouldn’t have happened.”

Students are advised to say to their families: “Do you think the response would be the same if it was a white person being pulled over? In many incidents that result in the death of a black body in the street, these victims are not breaking the law and are unarmed.”

To prepare for discussion of the topic of “House Master Title,” students should prepare answers to the question: “Why did they change the name? What does a housemaster have to do with slavery? It’s not related to that at all.”

When responding, the placemat suggests students say: “For some, the term master, used to describe stewardship of a group of people (such as a house), is reminiscent of slave masters and the legacy of slavery. The title, ‘House Master,’ is no longer actively associated with its historical antecedents nor is it used to address House Masters. Given the name is offensive to groups of people, it doesn’t seem onerous to change it. The mastery of a subject is an understandable use of the word. However, within our cultural and historical context, implying mastery of people feels both inappropriate and ill-founded.”

The placemat implies that they should be prepared to defend the motives of black student activists at other universities.

“Why are Black students complaining? Shouldn’t they be happy to be in college?” the placemat puts forward as a possible question.

When answering, the placemat recommends students acknowledge their privilege rather than criticize the experience of students of color.

“When I hear students expressing their experiences of racism on campus I don’t hear complaining,” the placemat suggests as a response. “Instead I hear young people uplifting a situation that I may not experience. If non-Black students get the privilege of that safe environment, I believe that same privilege should be given to all students.”

First off, I don’t know anybody who actually asks or answers questions this way. I’m struck that those who’ve taken to instruct Harvard’s freshmen on civil conversation apparently think that these students’ families are composed of clueless clods and that students will be well served by patronizing their loved ones. That said, I’m not sure how smart a young Harvardian will sound while talking in grammatically challenged soundbites about incidents that “result in the death of a black body” or about “uplifting a situation.”

More significantly, nothing here seems calculated to facilitate difficult conversations. Instead, it seems like a set of pre-packaged talking points designed (however clumsily) to indoctrinate and to stifle honest disagreement. The astonishing thing, at least to me, is less the shameless one-sided orthodoxy than the sense that it never occurred to the university officials responsible, yet again, that anyone might have an issue with their efforts. I mean, it’s not like events this fall have failed to suggest that there are diverse opinions on these questions.

Are Harvard’s administrators really this insulated? Do they really not know anyone who feels differently on these questions? Are they actually convinced that anyone who thinks differently than they do is a racist, xenophobic Islamophobe in desperate need of some none-too-subtle reeducation? Do they believe that we’re well past the time for discussing these questions, and that there really is only one right way to “converse” about them? I’m honestly curious.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.