A Moderow Moment: Education should be offensive – Freeport Journal-Standard

If you’re like me, you were once accused of using an offensive phrase in class. This was when I was substituting at the high school. I was calling the class to attention and while the class meandered to their seats, one student looked shocked and asked me “what did you call us?” I repeated and this student replied, with a painfully confused face: “I don’t know what that means, but it sounds offensive. I’m offended.” I rolled my eyes, laughed, and started class. 

The phrase was “alright folks.” 

Having served as an educator in various settings for over a decade, it wasn’t the first time I had been accused of being offensive. Simply telling a student why their work received the grade it did has been dubbed offensive a time or two. In one case, it was another teacher who labeled me offensive. 

Previous column: A Moderow Moment: The shared experience we’re supposed to ignore

I was teaching a high school history class, the details of which escape me. It had something to do with organized religion in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century. The class had an aide who between classes pulled me aside. She asked if I knew how offensive what I was teaching was. I asked her what she meant. She said that some students might belong to that specific religious tradition so they might take offense to that part of history. 

This aide wasn’t arguing that what I was teaching was factually inaccurate. Indeed, it was directly from the book and supported by independent sources. The argument was that some students might find it offensive and that’s why I should either skip it or significantly alter the lesson. 

More: A Moderow Moment: The consent of the governed

There are two points to draw from these examples. 

1. There is a difference between taking personal offense and something that is offensive. If I say the U.S. engaged in genocide, nearly wiping out the indigenous people of the continent and have yet to come close to adequate regret and compensation for it, I find that personally offensive. And I should. To an independent observer, that statement might be neutral, but I find it offensive because I’m horrified that genocide is a recent part of my cultural history. It’s important that I’m offended by it because it’s verifiable and acknowledging it through offense is the first step to counteracting this cultural travesty. 

Contrariwise, if I said indigenous people are naturally inferior in intelligence and physicality, that’s intrinsically offensive. The offense comes from inaccuracy based on ignorance, racism and hate (pseudo-synonyms, I realize). This is what most people mean when we say “offensive,” but all too often it is misapplied to the earlier example. 

2. Education shouldn’t be scared of what might be considered personally offensive. Specifically, education shouldn’t sacrifice adherence to empirical fact and conveying a holistic paradigm to avoid ruffling the feathers of some finicky birds. 

I’m personally offended by many chapters of history. I’m offended by some classic works of literature. I’m offended by P.E. because I was always the short kid and was regularly embarrassed in that class. None of those represent a reason to not engage in those disciplines. 

Being offended because you’re embarrassed, you don’t understand, or you disagree, are separate from being offended because something is inaccurate and intentionally hateful or neglectful of a particular life experience. 

Obviously, schools should not be promoting hate. That doesn’t mean schools shouldn’t be offensive. Taking offense to something, specifically personal offense to empirical fact, should be the beginning of growth and justifying personal views with the real world. Taking offense should be a learning experience. What better place for a learning experience than school? 

Follow Adam Moderow on Twitter at @adamoderow.