Walkout at Milton Academy

One of us, Harvey Silverglate, recently got “cancelled,” in a sense, for publicly mentioning a notorious term, often used as a slur. In one of those great ironies that characterize our historical moment, the impugned utterance was contained in a lecture on the importance of free speech in academia.

The situation unfolded on April 27th at Milton Academy, a prestigious private high school in Massachusetts. A student group, the Public Issues Board, had sponsored a multi-day series of panels and lectures on subjects of the students’ choosing. Silverglate was invited to give a talk on free speech and academic freedom, a subject in which he specializes.

Milton Academy Campus / Youtube

Approximately two-thirds of the way into the lecture, Silverglate held up before the audience two books. One was entitled The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, which Silverglate co-authored in 1998. The book focused largely on the struggles to protect free speech in higher education. The other book was authored by a Harvard Law School professor, Randall Kennedy (the co-author of this article). The title of that book is Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, published in 2002 and recently updated.

As soon as Silverglate pronounced the name of Kennedy’s book, an audible murmur was heard from the audience. Silverglate tried to explain why it was essential that he pronounce the actual title of the book, rather than the frequent substitution, “the n-word.” He intended to point out that if one followed the fashionable rule that the infamous n-word could never be appropriately uttered in full under any circumstances, one would have to leave gaps in the writings and performances of, among others, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty, Mark Twain, Richard Pryor, and Lenny Bruce. But amidst the clamor, a substantial part of the audience walked out, although a few students did remain after the lecture to discuss or debate points with Silverglate.

Though we come from different perspectives, we have collaborated on this essay because of what the walk-out tells us about the dangers that free speech and academic freedom face even in purportedly sophisticated, broad-minded, intellectually adventurous settings. The articulation of “nigger” did not arise out of the blue. It arose in the context of a high-school program focused on freedom of expression featuring remarks by a speaker who had been invited no doubt because of his reputation as a free speech “absolutist.” If controversial opinions regarding what words and ideas may be aired are ruled out of place at a free-speech assembly at Milton Academy, we know that we have entered a perilous cultural moment in which debate is overwhelmed by unquestioning persecutions of perceived heresies.

We probably would have let this matter rest, were it not for the fact that days after Silverglate’s address, the Public Issues Board sent out an email to the entire student body, apologizing for Silverglate’s purported infraction. “As members of the Milton community,” read the email, “we know not to use the ‘n-word’ due to its repugnant history and connotation. Thus, it was shocking and uncomfortable to hear the word voiced multiple times by Mr. Silverglate.”

One student forwarded that email to Silverglate, who in turn, on May 23rd, sent an email to Milton’s head of the upper school, David Ball. Silverglate requested of Mr. Ball that he be allowed to circulate to the entire student body his response to the disapproval expressed by his hosts, and his defense of having quoted the full and accurate title of Kennedy’s book. When no response was forthcoming, Silverglate sent Mr. Ball a reminder on June 10th. It is now August, and, as of this writing, still there has been no response.

The lessons taught by this sad tale are sobering. One is that it is apparently acceptable for students to signal their disagreement with a speaker by walking out of an assembly rather than subjecting his or her ideas to the testing that vigorous dialogue allows. We know that practices from higher education have permeated the K-12 world, and that today a third of college students believe that it is sometimes or always acceptable to shout down speakers, or to try to prevent them from speaking on campus. Another 13 percent believe that is it sometimes or always acceptable to block other students from attending a campus speech.

Another lesson is that the educational authorities at a storied academic institution are so afraid of offending the sensibilities of censors that they would rather discourteously ignore a guest speaker’s request to respond to a mistaken charge than permit the airing of a full debate. What happened at Milton is hardly an attractive display of diversity, inclusion, or equity.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/08/08/walkout-at-milton-academy/
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The only way to de-sacrilize “nigger” is to say “nigger” frequently.

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So a smarmy guy who talks about smarmy books with smarmy topics for smarmy people went to a smarmy school and the smarmy kids turned out to be too damned smarmy.

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I think that approach was tried. Something tells me it didn’t work. Your comment sort of proves that.

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Not enough and not by the many that are needed.

It’s like the use of “trannie”, even the mention of the falsity of the trannie madness. I started talking about this on a FB group of UUs. UUs have this bizarre tolerance for trannies, even though trannie madness destroys children. I started talking about the falseness of trannie idiocy, and this gave cover to others.

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If you think this is the end of it, you are naive. The question is whether he has the backbone to put up with the incoming storm.

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Yes it is. If I can’t stand the way you drop F bombs all the time, or make disparaging remarks about something I hold dear, then I am entitled to get up and walk out. I have as much right to walk out on you because I don’t like what it is you are saying as you have to say it.

This article goes overboard in the other direction.

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What are “UUs” - “uber uglies”?

But that’s not what happened here. No one, in the audience or outside, was being called “nigger” by the speakers. The book was a book ABOUT the use of the word “nigger”, and it’s difficult to see how one can have discussion about the use of a particular word without being able to SAY that word.

Nor was the word “nigger” being thrown about the same way some people (including some not-very-funny comedians) pepper their language with “fuck”. I don’t care for such use, and for several reasons I tend to tune out people who use “fuck” indiscriminately (and to look for comedians on network TV, where they have to be clean). But I would say the same thing as in the previous paragraph if the book under discussion was a book about the word “fuck”.

Context matters. This school (which I’d never heard of until today) is playing along with fascists who says that context doesn’t matter. Which makes this school akin to Hogwart’s, and the lecturers said “Voldemort”.

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It bothers me that some people are so niggardly about the use of the word “nigger” in academic contexts.

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That’s not what is claimed, the speaker apparently did not only use the term only once in reading out the title.

I don’t know, I was not there, but if he was just throwing it about like the C or F word just for shock effect, I too would have walked out.

Just like you should be free to say what you want and not have the government sensor you, it does not mean that what you say might not have consequences, I might take offense and strike you in the mouth.

That and the rest of the article around cancel culture I too have a problem with, I just don’t extend it to an insistence that you can say what you want, and I have to sit and take it.

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This is the real problem. That adults have no issue with the fact that their high school and college babies are so fragile that they can’t hear specific words or ideas without joining mass exits to demonstrate their virtue and their obedience to the current woke hysteria running through our schools. That adults are willing to go along with this nonsense and not be embarrassed is disheartening.

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Unitarian Universalists, I imagine.

Does that include transgenderism, sexual promiscuity, the ramblings of a religious cult, drug taking, reckless driving?

Sorry, but I raised my kids along the lines of if they feel uncomfortable in a situation - leave. If this classifies them as babies in your eyes, so be it. I see it as strength.

Simple survival rule which has worked out well for them so far.

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Would Quillette be willing to publish Silverglate’s email to Ball if he was willing to provide it for public consumption? Would be curious to see what it said.

Also, totally fine with students walking out. It may very well be to their ultimate detriment as students/intellectuals, but that’s how the marketplace of ideas works. Consumers choose to buy/not buy for all sorts of reasons, some rational and some not.

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Of course, Larkin wrote this at a time when the disparaging of parents (and the use of the F word) was a heresy. Today, it’s so commonplace it’s passé.

Sure, but at the same time you wouldn’t try to shout down a speaker with whom you disagreed. Personally, I find a really good dispute during the Q & A is often the best bit.

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And how much does Milton Academy charge annually to brainwash its elite young charges?

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‘Walking out’ is different that ‘shouting down’. The former allows the event to continue, the latter seeks to shout it down– this is why the former is legitimate while the latter is not.

While Mr. Lebowski is correct in stating that context matters, his comment seems a bit of a red herring. He argues that the students didn’t have cause to walk out, while Mr. Pragmatist argues that the students exercised a right. One is of course entitled to exercise a right regardless of cause.

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If you taught your children to flee when hearing opposing points of view then I think you have created the opposite of strong children. You could have just as well warned them that there may quite possibly be people in the world with whom they might disagree and that listening thoughtfully to other people’s perspectives might be helpful not just to get along in the world but also to sharpen their own values. I’m glad you responded to me rather than run away. Discussions like this help us solidify and/or question our thinking on these matters. I believe we should teach our children how to do that rather than hide.

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