The Art of the Rebuke

Thomas Doherty wonders if today’s atmosphere on college campuses encourages, or even tolerates, the kind of unsparing reprimand from a professor that might be needed for a student’s growth.

July 18, 2017

A couple months ago, I got in the mail something that members of the graduating class of 2017 will start receiving soon, namely the alumni magazine from my undergraduate institution. In a moment of nostalgia some years back, I made a small donation and now have a correspondence for life with Gonzaga University, a small liberal arts college in Spokane, Wash., run by the Jesuits. In its commitment to a broad liberal arts education, Gonzaga is a lot like the place I have spent most of my academic career, Brandeis University -- though with different religious holidays.

Anyway, the latest edition of the Gonzaga magazine contained some sad tidings. A professor I remembered quite well, Reverend Frank Costello, S.J., had passed away. When I did the subtraction and figured out how old he was when he taught me, I was little startled to learn that he was two decades younger than I am now -- and of course he seemed as old as Methuselah to my classmates and me. Father Costello exemplified the best in old-school Jesuit rigor, the kind of man who took both of his vocations -- as priest and professor -- seriously. And he did not suffer foolishness gladly.

I learned just how ungladly during the first semester of my freshman year. I forget the class and the book we were talking about, but during the discussion of the assigned text, some guileless freshman raised his hand and said, “I haven’t finished the book yet, but I think --”

At which point Father Costello cut him off and said, “If you haven’t finished the book yet, then you should remain silent and listen to those of us who have.”

That guileless freshman was me. It was a public dressing-down, and I didn’t feel good about it, but I remember that from then on I tended to come to class a lot better prepared -- and if I wasn’t, I kept my mouth shut. To my credit (if I do say so myself) I was old enough to receive the rebuke not in a spirit of resentment -- which probably would have been my response a couple of years earlier -- but as the adult I was becoming. I took it to heart as fair warning. I wasn’t in high school anymore; this was a university seminar, not a place of unconditional love and support. I was in the big leagues.

Father Costello was not a mean-spirited man, and he delivered the rebuke matter-of-factly because he had been coping with similarly guileless freshmen throughout his teaching career. At the same time, in laying down the law, he wasn’t particularly concerned with my feelings or the post-traumatic emotional stress that may have been triggered by his remarks.

If you are over a certain age, you may remember a similar moment from your own education -- a sharp reprimand from a teacher, a coach, a boss -- and if, like me, you were of a certain age, you responded not with petulance but by trying to get your act together.

You can probably see where I am going with this. I wonder if the current atmosphere on American college campuses encourages or even tolerates the kind of unsparing rebuke from a professor that many of us remember as necessary and salutary. Lately, throughout higher education, the face-off between intellectual rigor and emotional sensitivity has tilted decisively toward the second half of the equation.

Traditionally, American universities have always celebrated and nurtured the first half: smarts over sentiment. They prided themselves on sharpening the critical intelligence and cultivating a free-floating exchange of ideas. At Brandeis, that dedication is emblazoned in the school motto: “Truth even unto its innermost parts.” The key word there is “even” -- as in, even if it is unpleasant, even if it challenges your preconceptions, even if it really hurts your feelings and even if it makes you feel spatially unsafe.

Such stern principles were not unique to Brandeis. The mottos and mission statements of most American universities expressed a clear-eyed commitment to the life of the mind, not a doe-eyed celebration of the emotions, still less the elevation of personal feelings as a moral absolute, the trump card that defeats all other arguments: “That offends me.” Presidents, provosts, deans and faculty members dedicated themselves to open inquiry, spirited debate and, as per the Declaration of Independence, a decent respect for the opinions of others. They understood in their bones that the corruption of a culture begins with the corruption of public discourse -- and they believed that the university was the designated custodian of critical thinking, congenial dialogue and, on occasion, the speaking of unpleasant and unpopular truths.

As anyone with cable news access or a Twitter feed knows, the American university is not in particularly good odor right now on matters of tolerance and free expression. Neither is the present generation of undergraduates, who tend to be portrayed as waspish scolds or delicate snowflakes. While the bad reputation of both is partly a news-media construct, there is enough on-the-ground confirmation to make anyone committed to the values embedded in the Brandeis motto a bit apprehensive. Some of the surrender to rigor and the accommodation to sensitivity is merely silly, such as the infantilizing “trigger warnings” that junior faculty feel compelled to put on their syllabi by way of CYA: (“Students who have been whipped by their father may be disturbed by certain passages in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”).

Some of it, however, is more sinister and corrosive, manifesting itself in a refusal to engage minority opinions or hear out the people who express them. The mobs of know-nothings at Middlebury College, where a controversial social scientist was shouted down and his faculty escort assaulted, and at Evergreen State College, where a biology professor has been hounded out of his classroom for objecting to exclusionary practices based on race, are two recent, and sadly not atypical, examples.

For what it is worth, I have never confronted in my own students any of the fierce anti-intellectualism that seems to be have afflicted at least some of their peers. But lately I have begun to encounter a new degree of trepidation -- and maybe the whiff of fear -- in the classroom.

For years, I’ve been teaching the 1939 MGM epic Gone With the Wind. Of course, the film is a hallucination in Technicolor, awash in offensive stereotypes and Confederate revisionism. Still, as perhaps the most popular film in the classical Hollywood canon, it warrants attention in the undergraduate curriculum. Besides, I’ve always found GWTW a surefire catalyst for animated discussion and impassioned essays.

After the students have absorbed the nearly four-hour tour through David O. Selznick and Margaret Mitchell’s version of the Old South, I focus on two scenes calculated to raise the classroom temperature: one highlighting the issue of race, the other of gender. The first features Hattie McDaniel, who plays the slave/servant Mammy, in dialogue with Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. I explain that the critical reaction to McDaniel’s character tends to divide along two lines: first, that Mammy is a racist and offensive caricature, period; and second, that McDaniel so powerfully controls her screen space that the performance undercuts the demeaning role she is required to play.

The second clip unspools the famous scene where Rhett claims his then-lawful prerogative as a husband, overpowering a struggling Scarlett O’Hara and carrying her upstairs to the marriage bed and a presumably coerced consummation. But the next morning, Scarlett is aglow in postcoital satisfaction. What gives?

As a teacher, all I want is for the students to look at the film, engage the questions and venture an opinion. In the past, they have always done so. Yet the last time I taught the film and asked for reactions, I got silence -- a nervous, queasy silence. They seemed afraid to talk lest they say the wrong thing and offend -- another student? A campus consensus?

They certainly weren’t afraid of me. I would never snap at a student for venturing an opinion. But, in the future, I think perhaps I should rebuke them for being so sensitive -- even if it might hurt their feelings.


Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top