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Nick Sandmann and Nathan Phillips


This article is not an excuse; it is an explanation. It does not ask you to ignore, but to consider carefully before you deplore. It does not ask you to turn a blind eye to white privilege, racism, sexism, class bias or any other form of inappropriate behavior. It is not a plea for silence. It is a call to temper judgment with adult wisdom and discernment.

Several weeks ago, all the talk was of a distressing standoff between Nick Sandmann, a MAGA hat-wearing Covington Catholic High School student from Kentucky and Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Native American elder from the Omaha tribe. As of this writing, the facts of this incident are in litigious dispute. In our heart of hearts, though, we know tomorrow will bring new concerns. Perhaps it will be another student who flies a Confederate flag in a dorm window, or some white kid who thinks it's funny to don blackface or speak with a stereotypical Asian accent. Maybe it will be an anti-Semitic slogan, an insult to a hijab-wearing Muslim or genitalia scrawled on a bathroom wall. We will be angry, but it's not a bad idea to go slowly before rushing to judgment.

Let me repeat: I do not call upon college professors to condone, overlook or minimize hateful and hurtful actions. We should, however, consider how hard it is to determine whether those who commit unspeakable wrongs are misguided or actively evil. I believe in evil. In 39 years of teaching, I have encountered students who I am certain will not improve humanity through their presence on this planet. Luckily, they are a mere handful among the thousands I've taught. Yet evil intent is not cut from the same cloth as the untold reckless and immature actions I've witnessed from otherwise decent young folks.

Please indulge me in a story. I was a high school teacher before I became a college professor. The kids in my Vermont district lacked two essentials: money and community support. What they had, though, was an extraordinary group of teachers. I later served with better educated and more erudite faculties, but my high school colleagues were, by far, the most creative and compassionate. It is not hyperbole to say that we loved our students -- even those who made us wonder why we hadn't taken up plumbing instead of education. We cared so much that teaching seldom ended when classes did.

I liked to spend after-hours time with members of the boys' basketball team. I will never forget the night we played St. Johnsbury Academy. They slaughtered us on their way to the state championship, thanks to Henry Van "Bruce" Dalrymple. He was so good that he was a high school all-American who went on to a fine college career at Georgia Tech and a brief stay in the National Basketball Association. The next day, all of the chatter was about Dalrymple, a rare African American in one of the whitest states in the Union. But there were no N-bombs in the gym; the team was in awe of Dalrymple's prowess.

Or so I thought, until one player remarked, "He was incredible, even though he can jump higher because of his extra leg muscles." I immediately blurted out, "What in the name of maple syrup are you talking about?" (Those were not my exact words.) As it transpired, each player believed that African Americans were born with extra calf tendons. "Guys," I implored, "that's simply not true. Where did you get such an idea?" Each insisted it was "common knowledge" and were surprised I didn't know that.

I taught history, so they weren't wrong to distrust my knowledge of the human body, but I challenged them to test their assumption on a popular biology teacher and tell me what he said. The next day, hangdog expressions appeared when I asked, "What did Mr. N tell you?" The captain sheepishly replied, "He said we were a bunch of knuckleheads, showed us a diagram and said he had never before heard such utter nonsense."

Were these kids racist, or simply parroting malarkey they picked up somewhere? The latter, I'm sure. Our school had just one student of color, a mixed-race, special-needs youngster. Team members were woefully ill informed and genuinely humbled to discover how idiotic they had been. I told them that life was about accumulating knowledge, and I remarked something to the effect of, "Don't feel stupid. You're only stupid if you choose to hold on to something you know is false." That lesson was probably one of my best. Thanks to Facebook, lots of former students -- high school and undergraduate -- tell me I taught them things that weren't in any formal lesson plan.

But this is not a good-on-me story. The events I described happened before the internet expanded our capacity to transmit information and misinformation -- which is to say, it's worse now. Think of students you had as first years and how much they changed by the time they were seniors. They entered college just 11 weeks or so removed from high school. Do you have any idea what they experienced there? Those who look down from the ivory tower and think all they must do is transmit facts really should take up plumbing. Good professors play major roles in helping students clarify their values and morals. They do so by exposing students to new ideas, new perspectives and new dilemmas. They are also frequently the ones that correct what students thought was true but isn't.

Do not interpret my remarks as any sort of "liberal" agenda. It is a professor's job to offer tools, not sermons. It is, however, fair game to insist that students act upon evidence and consider consequences. Do you remember what you were like between ages 18 and 22? You were legally an adult, but raise your hand if that was true in name only. How much did you not know? How much did you change because of professors, advisers and other elders? What did you need back then -- a mentor or a judge?

Nick Sandmann is still a kid. I have no idea whether he is a good one, a bad one or was just being a jerk. To me, the most distressing part of the standoff has been adult inaction and CYA action. Where were his teachers and chaperones? How did they allow a minor to become a racial lightning rod? Call me crazy, but wouldn't it have been a good idea to seek real reconciliation between Sandmann and Phillips before issuing what sounds like a statement that a PR firm wrote or filing lawsuits against The Washington Post and CNN?

Change the frame. Are some college students nasty people? I'm sure of it. No one should ignore incidents that cause personal or social harm, so let us hold fast to our roles as educators. While young people have the right to assume any political identify they wish, we as professors have a duty to help them realize that certain behaviors and postures cross the border between bravado and incivility. We are often the voice of reason that goads young people to consider deeply how to present, speak and act.

But we must also be careful before assuming the mantle of the scold, inquisitor or hangman. There is a world of difference between a young person who is a monster and one who has simply been an ass.

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