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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Bad Language in the Classroom

By Nancy Flanagan — July 17, 2018 4 min read
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I remember it clearly--the time I got chewed out (by my principal) for using ‘inappropriate’ language in the classroom. I had been working with my students on a wonderful piece of music by Robert Sheldon called ‘A Lantern in the Window’ which musically depicts the terrifying journeys of enslaved people who ‘ran away’ via the Underground Railroad. The composition (which I highly recommend) includes a musical quote from the old spiritual ‘Steal Away’ --which I pointed out to my students, as both compositional technique and a way to engage listeners emotionally.

This led to a great, nuanced discussion--these were 7th and 8th graders, remember-- about why enslaved people espoused any religion, creating their own music and hopeful beliefs in an afterlife. Perhaps, I said (being careful not to critique Christianity), it was the only way to survive, trusting in an afterlife after (quote) experiencing hell on earth.

The next morning, I got one of those ‘see me’ directives in my mailbox. A child had been offended (according to his mother) by my use of the word ‘hell’ in class. I explained. The principal sighed and told me to be more careful--I should know better. The child in question, years later, was picked up by police for spray-painting expletives on a garage door, but no matter.

Teachers do have to be judicious in the use of strong language in the classroom. Not so much because of children’s tender ears, but because teachers (despite multi-pronged and sustained attacks on their competency and professionalism) still hold positions of authority. We want people in positions of authority to use clear language and express clear convictions about right and wrong. Don’t we?

It is, however, far more important for teachers to behave morally, day in and day out, than to clean up occasional borderline language--or so I think. It’s also more important for public figures--Roseanne Barr or Samantha Bee, for example--to behave ethically and act in solid, socially responsible ways than to flyspeck their language. There are differences in use of offensive language--centered around the content of the point the speaker is trying to make.

Still, I am appalled (as a teacher, especially) by the degradation of language in public discourse. Before we start selectively shaming folks, I think we should look at root causes.

What makes people think they can use rude, crude, violent and racist language? When other people use rude, crude, violent and racist language first. It’s the broken windows theory--if one person crosses a boundary, it opens a path for other people to cross the same boundary. (Same theory that sends disaffected young men with guns into a school--hey, it’s been done, there’s a pathway...)

If everyone in the country hears the leader of the free world brag, on tape, about trying to sexually lure a woman even though ‘she was married,’ then grab her by her genitals--we’re in a whole new ballpark of broken windows. When those metaphoric windows are already smashed, and found acceptable by a wide range of people, including religious leaders, it makes life thorny for people working with children in positions of authority to be both role models and boundary-creators.

It’s no wonder Roseanne was surprised to be called out--it probably seemed like a social boundary that had been crossed so often and so long ago that calling Valerie Jarrett an ape was just part of the norm. What made it different was that the person in charge of doing something about it--the person with power, for a change--accurately saw it as racist. And fired her.

There is a self-determined hierarchy of what is loathsome and disgusting, and what is edgy-but-true--and that hierarchy varies from country to country and group to group w/in a country. There are folks in this country to whom authority is a primary motivator, who see the masculine father figure as the true arbitrator of all decisions. For them, calling a man’s daughter a ‘c*nt’ would be far more egregious than, say, describing an entire poor African nation as a ‘sh*thole.’

For others, caring for all humans equally might be a far more important goal than respecting traditions and authority--to them, calling a powerful woman who happens to have dark skin an ‘ape’ would be worse, because it degrades an entire class of people. The two examples are qualitatively different and interpreted differently by people whose righteousness meters are different.

This is a great example of how we can use Jonathon Haidt’s “Righteous Mind” moral foundations theory. In Haidt’s fascinating work, conservatives tend to have stronger approval of loyalty, purity and traditional authority--liberals are more concerned with fairness and caring for their fellow humans.

Teachers who take their moral obligations to students seriously probably need to consider all these strands of developing an ethical persona and practice. It’s not just about what you say. It’s about what you mean.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.


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