Just a joke among Friends

In the New York Times on March 23, Ginia Bellafante wrote about a firing at Friends Seminary, a private school in Lower Manhattan. The story she tells isn’t as interesting as it would have been had it not come in a flood of similar stories. A professor commits an error in judgment and is fired.

She tells the story in a mostly straightforward manner. It’s not a hard story to tell. Ben Frisch, midway through his fourth decade of teaching at Friends Seminary made a Nazi joke in class. He was:

was seeking to demonstrate an obtuse angle in an 11th grade math class. Straightening his arm and pointing it outward, he mimicked the Nazi salute and said, “Heil Hitler.”

Ms. Bellafante continues:

No one believed he had suddenly become a Third Reich sympathizer, but at the same time not everyone found his professed effort at comedy particularly whimsical.

So the administration fired him and the students protested and Mr. Frisch is taking legal action to get his job back. It’s a tragic story [1] for the participants and it takes the wounds, both personal and institutional, a long time to heal, but the story itself is simple and increasingly common.

That isn’t what drew my attention to it. It is this paragraph in an otherwise straightforward account of a private school personnel action that caught my attention.

The danger of any educational institution rooted in progressive values but dependent on big money is the default to political correctness as a substitute for a broader liberalism — the promotion of economic equity. You cannot rail against an unfair tax system when you rely on those who benefit from it, but you can patrol offensive speech and innuendo in the name of moral compassion; you can reward unease and grievance as rectitude.

I find that sentiment unremarkable except perhaps for the grace and the economy of language it employs and I was nodding my head as I read along when suddenly it occurred to me that this is an editorial paragraph by Ms. Belafonte right in the middle of the story. So I went back and read it again.

belafonte 1Please note that she makes her case twice in this brief paragraph. The first is quite general: “The danger of any education…” It defines “a broader liberalism” as the promotion of economic equity. It contrasts the values implicit in “big money” [2] and “progressive values.”

Then, in the second part of the paragraph, she begins a more personal, more strident tone. “You cannot rail,” she says, “…but you can patrol.” “Railing” would risk offense to the economic base of the school. “Patrolling” the behavior of students and faculty within the school can look “progressive,” she says, and is much safer. That’s a pretty snarky thing to say and it gets a good deal worse in the second part of the paragraph.

Having begun, “you cannot rail…but you can patrol,” she goes on to talk about just what you can patrol and how you can justify it. “You can patrol offensive speech and innuendo…” Offensive speech and innuendo sound like pretty small potatoes compared to “an unfair tax system” and I think that is just the contrast she is looking for. Furthermore you can do your patrolling “in the name of” moral compassion—this is not at all the same as doing it as an act of moral compassion. Her use of “in the name of” signals the way the actions were spun, not the actual reasons for those actions. “In the name of” functions as a charge of hypocrisy.

“You can reward unease and grievance as rectitude” is a slur on both the parents who are complaining and on the seminary which is upgrading those common complaints to first class; they become “rectitude.” [3] The parents are feeling only unease and grievance, but they are wealthy parents, after all,  so even such feelings need to be catered to.

All in all, the political correctness of the Friends Seminary is seen as a cover for the belafonte 2political critique they don’t have the guts to make. Ms. Belafonte’s charge is that they have progressive values, but they can’t risk offending wealthy donors, so instead they go over the actions of the faculty with a fine tooth comb to see if anything has been done or said that could be prosecuted on grounds of moral rectitude.

Had this analysis appeared in an editorial column, I would have liked it. I would have nodded my head just as I did reading the news story. But coming as it does in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable account of an event at a private school in New York, it explodes like a grenade.

I don’t know any more about Friends Seminary than I learned in reading this piece so I am in no position to say anything further. I do think that the charge Ms. Belafonte makes—not the specific one about Friends Seminary, but the general one about progressive institutions dependent on wealthy donors—is a good description of a difficult dilemma. A school like that can keep its integrity or its donor pool. Not both. Compromises can be made in a lot of cases, but sometimes such a school in forced to go one way or the other.

I wish Ben Frisch good luck. I hope he is able to clamp down on his spontaneousness in class. I hope he is able to accept the friction that comes with allowing himself to be a source of division and dissent within the school. I hope he is able to continue giving the students the compassion and attention that seems to have marked his career there.

[1] I’ve had similar moments in my career in college teaching and I’ll have to say that the student protests are by far the most fun part.
[2] “Big money” is not what the development office at Friends Seminary calls its generous donors, I am quite sure, and the use of that expression by the writer plants her own ideological flag in the ground.
[3] Bellafante’s use of “as” in that sentence does the work of saying that the parents actions do not have “rectitude” (a marvelously stuffy word) but they are treated as if they do. I think left to her own devices, Bellafante would have called it self-righteousness, which is not nearly as stuffy and more in keeping with the other characterizations she makes.




About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Education, Living My Life, Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Just a joke among Friends

  1. thinkydoug says:

    Oh dear. This is all pretty disturbing, and even more so for those of us who make a living speaking off the cuff and trying to be interesting/funny/dynamic. I’m not a teacher, but I do know what it’s like to have to speak to a classroom full of people for hours and the thought of having to police my every word and thought is terrifying.

    I live in a corporate world, which, when I began, meant I had to be careful or the HR boogyman (usually women, actually) would come take you away. But now schools have become far more cloistered environments and teachers must be scared if not shitless then at least stiff. No one wants a stiff teacher. I don’t.

    Your comment, “I hope he is able to clamp down on his spontaneousness in class” would drive me right out of teaching in a heartbeat. This is no way to teach or learn.

    • hessd says:

      It is absolutely NO WAY to teach or learn, but it is hard not to want to keep your job and it is hard, too, to stay away from the line where real engagement with the issues and with the students merges with the controversial and the possibly objectionable. I have made a lot of mistakes at that line.

      • thinkydoug says:

        I certainly haven’t spent as many hours in front of a class as you, nor do I talk politics in my classes, but I do try to be funny, which is nearly as dangerous. Worse, I try to be funny on the fly, which is a recipe for disaster in the corporate world. I know of at least one occasion that required a sit-down apology with a colleague because she had an odd expression and I asked if she was unclear about something or had gas. Yes, seriously.

  2. Avon says:

    Our author, hessd, needs to look carefully (because the NYTimes doesn’t make it conspicuous) before complaining that editorializing is in that article by Ginia Bellafante (which hessd mis-spells).
    Ginia Bellafante writes a regular weekly column called “Big City,” not news articles. She actually was and always is “left to her own devices” in that way. I too am irritated or even angry if news stories editorialize, but the NYTimes launched an explicit, intense effort 5-10 years ago to label clearly which items are news and which are Editorials or op-ed opinions, “analysis,” “commentary,” or what, and they’ve very consistently done so.
    Catch is, you gotta know that the header “Big City” indicates the thoughts of this particular columnist. (I think she actually reported the facts scrupulously well this time; I know many of them personally myself.)
    Among those facts: it’s a Quaker school, and Quakers value personal integrity and everyone’s equality above almost all else – just about everything that tiny sect has ever done is known because of exactly that. Ginia Bellafante, and I, think that’s key to her whole piece.

    • hessd says:

      Thanks to Avon for pointing out the “Big City” is an opinion column. That solves the mystery of why there was a substantial wad of personal opinion in the middle of what seemed to me to be, otherwise, a straightforward account of an event in New York. I do disagree with you, Avon, about the New York Times keeping the news and the opinions separate. The New York Times has moved a good part of its editorial thrust into the headlines. I think that is an appropriate, although regrettable, response to a candidate and then a President who communicates in Tweets. I with they had begun earlier.

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