Censoring Santayana’s dangerous idea

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

  • George Santayana (The Life of Reason, vol. 1: Reason in Common Sense)

Last year a seventh grade kid approached me about a problem he had with the Texas history text. He pointed to a photograph of a Ku Klux Klansman, pointy-hood and all. It was a photo probably from the 1920s, in no way flattering to the Klansman, and it accompanied a couple of paragraphs explaining the resurrection of the Klan in that era. The book explained what some did to fight the Klan (not enough, but that’s a topic for another time).

“That’s racist, Mister!”

I asked him why he thought the photograph was racist.

“That’s a Klansman! They killed people!”

Yes, it’s a Klansman, and yes, Klansmen killed people unjustly. That’s part of history, a part of history we need to remember to prevent it from happening again. I explained that the photo did not endorse the Klan in any way, and that section of the book actually spoke against their actions.

You’re a racist, Mister! That picture is racist and should be cut out!”

Our conversation had taken an inexplicable (to me) turn, away from the content of the photo or the book, into uncharted realms of inanity.

“Why don’t you take your complaint to the principal, and tell your parents about it,” I said. “I think this is a conversation you and I should have with your parents present.”

Of course, the student did nothing I asked. Within a week I had a handful of other students complaining about the picture. Some of those conversations were better, but not much. Students had a difficult time understanding how reading about racism was not practicing racism. Learning about the mistakes of the past in order to avoid them, was the same as making the mistakes, the students argued.

This occurred shortly after several parents in another Texas school district had complained about the use of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it contains a slang term for “negro” now considered particularly offensive when used by whites. The complaining parents were black. Never mind that this great American novel’s point is that racism is wrong, slavery an abomination to a just God, and that Jim is much greater a man than those who held him captive in slavery.

I worry that too many people lack enough education in history to make rational decisions about what should be considered “good to read” and what should genuinely be kept out of curricula.

Case in point: A janitor and student at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) was investigated for creating a “hostile work environment,” and one of his offenses appears to have been his reading of a history of a defeat of the Ku Klux Klan in South Bend, Indiana. It is unclear from details we have, but it appears complainants could not tell the difference between reading the history of a Klan defeat, and reading a book promoting the Klan.

Should we worry? I’d like your opinions, and experiences if you have any; details of the Indianapolis case below the fold.

Keith Sampson is a custodian and long-time student at IUPUI. Last fall he was working in accused of racial harassment of a co-worker. The shop steward warned Sampson against his behavior, and the campus’s Affirmative Action Officer Lillian Charleson investigated. Charleston wrote a letter to Sampson on November 25 finding he had harassed his colleague by “repeatedly reading the book, Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan, by Todd Tucker in the presence of Black employees.”

Now, that is understandable, if the book advocates Klan action. From everything I’ve been able to learn about the book, it is a straight up history of a riot in South Bend, Indiana, in 1925, in which the Klan’s hold on local politics was broken, an incident which began the decline of the Klan in the area.

We don’t know the character or actions of Mr. Sampson from the details we have; but how in the world could anyone cite this book as part of a hostile work environment? It’s history. It’s good news for anti-racists.

What in the world is really going on here?

Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post Writers’ Group wrote a column released on March 7 (here from the Houston Chronicle’s edition of today, March 9). Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars wrote about it earlier today. David Hoppe wrote about it earlier for Nuvo, Indianapolis’s alternative newspaper.

The good news is that Sampson has a letter saying he won’t face disciplinary action, and the IUPUI Affirmative Action office’s spokesman, Richard C. Schneider, agrees that it’s quite alright to read even controversial books at IUPUI.

But beyond that? Watch that space. I asked Schneider whether the Affirmative Action Office was defending Klan action by railing against an anti-Klan book, and he set me straight that the office has pulled back criticisms of the book and reading it:

The office of Affirmative Action at IUPUI investigated a claim of a hostile work environment filed by a co-worker of Mr. Sampson, who is an employee as well as a student at IUPUI.

Investigation of claims of uncivil behavior, discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace are taken very seriously and investigated by the Office of Affirmative Action at IUPUI.

Position of the Office of Affirmative Action:

· Mr. Sampson is free to read whatever book he wishes to during work breaks or other appropriate times at work.
· Co-workers requesting the investigation perceived that Mr. Sampson was engaged in conduct for the purpose of creating a hostile atmosphere of antagonism.
· Mr. Sampson believes that he should be permitted to read whatever book he chooses, whether or not the subject matter is of concern to his co-workers.

The Office of Affirmative Action was unable to draw any final conclusion concerning what was intended by the conduct of Mr. Sampson. Because there was no final conclusion, no adverse disciplinary action has been or will be taken in connection with the circumstances at hand.

A letter sent to Mr. Sampson by the Office of Affirmative Action in November 2007 referred to a book Mr. Sampson brought with him to read during work breaks, “Notre Dame vs the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Klu Klux Klan.” Regrettably, that has focused attention on the book he was reading, rather than the conduct of Mr. Sampson which his co-workers believed to be deliberately hostile.

A second letter was sent to Mr. Sampson in February 2008 withdrawing the first letter. It sets forth the position of the Office of Affirmative Action that is cited above.

I’m scratching my head. Is it racist to show a picture that makes a Klansman look like a buffoon? Is it racist to read Huck Finn, a book that makes racism look stupid and anti-American? Is it racist to read a book detailing how the Klan got its butt kicked in 1925?If the answer to any of those question is “yes,” then how can we spread the better part of American culture, the part that informs us how and why such racism is stupid and counterproductive?

Having students who misunderstand Huck Finn and Texas history makes me more sensitive than necessary to this story, perhaps. I hope so. I am still concerned.

What say you?

Important update:  The incident has finally been removed from the personnel record of Mr. Sampson — here’s what I know of the story from Ed Brayton’s blog, back on May 5.

10 Responses to Censoring Santayana’s dangerous idea

  1. Nick Kelsier says:

    Man I wish that certain people would realize that not all students are the same and that there is such a thing is too much protection. And that treating average students like they need to be protected by policing the literature assignments to that degree is nothing more than an exercise in dumbing down the population.


  2. Thomas Adkins says:

    Sally Hawkridge: Machievelli’s “The Prince,” for example, is rarely understood as a satire.

    Could you please tell me your source for this claim? I can recall reading an introduction to this work in college, and quite remember that it argued against this work being a satire. If you have another, better, source then I would be interested in hearing about it.


    Tom Adkins


  3. […]   The Kafkaesque story is detailed here. […]


  4. […] 15, 2008 at 9:56 pm (Books, History, moodring) Read this interesting Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub  post about censorship; it seems a gentleman was on a work break and was seen reading a book about […]


  5. ilegirl says:

    I have to disagree with the above comment stating that ‘Huckleberry Finn’ is aimed at adults. In fact, this is precisely the sort of reading material that enables children’s minds to expand. It’s been a long time since I was in school, but I do recall my literature instructors discussing the concepts of irony and satire to provide context – just as they did religion for materials which included spiritual references, and history for materials which made mention of concepts that were beyond the scope of the normal history coursework. Part of education is providing context. There will always be the unfortunate few who do not care to understand and cry ‘Wolf!’. However, the younger we start this instruction, the better educated we will become.


  6. Sally Hawkridge says:

    I’m certified to teach high and middle school mathematics. I have some experience dealing with kids.

    The student’s capacity for abstract reasoning was not fully formed. This is pretty common in kids that age. The next problem is that the disturbing figure hit a little too close to home. The child has been so well trained in the message of “antiblack racism=bad” (not that that’s a bad message) that he reacted with reflexively to the image. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing that he wouldn’t have reacted in the same way to seeing images of Nazis and Hitler in a passage about WWII. These images are not HIS past, so he can use what there is of his nascent reasoning powers more effectively.

    Compounding that is a typical 7th grader’s quest to finding fault with authority figures such as parents and teachers. You shouldn’t be astonished when a student clings to the flimsiest of premises to criticize you or the school; they do this all day, every day, don’t they? Last year a student whom I had called down for some obnoxious behavior tried to tell me, “You say you’re trying to teach me right from wrong? That violates my rights!” I don’t seriously think the teenager was trying to open an reasoned debate on the 1st Amendment, do you? I gave him my best Mona Lisa smile and said, “I do that all day, every day. It’s my job. Would you like to talk it over with the principal?”

    About the Huck Finn incident, the black parents may have a point. Unlike “Tom Sawyer,” “Huck Finn” is a biting satire aimed at adults. Satire is very easy to misinterpret. Given the capacity for abstract reasoning is very much a developing skill for many middle and even high school students, as demonstrated by your 7th grader above, the proper place for this work is an advanced literature class, with a preemptive note home to the parents and lots of contextualizing for the students, including reminders of what constitures appropriate speech and behavior in this day and age. As with any satire, the great risk is that the behavior being satirized is misread as being endorsed. Machievelli’s “The Prince,” for example, is rarely understood as a satire.


  7. John Maass says:

    Many years ago I had an aquaintance who worked for Colonial Williamsburg, not as a costumed interp but as a staff person in an office cube. He was very interested in colonial history and had on his wall a big replica of an 18th century British flag. His manager came to him one day and required him to take it down. Why? Several black employees who worked nearby complained that they did not want to have to work in an office where the CONFEDERATE flag was displayed.


  8. John C says:

    You write “We don’t know the character or actions of Mr. Sampson from the details we have . . .”

    Perhaps reading a book “detailing how the Klan got its butt kicked in 1925” WOULD create a hostile work environment, if Mr. Sampson’s co-workers were racists and klan supporters.

    I agree with the theme of this article, that reading or teaching about the evils of the past does not necessarily mean that the reader or teacher is evil. I also agree that we should teach history in the schools extremely well, because (naive as I am) I believe that well-educated children become well-educated participants in society.

    I also believe that actively promoting racism or other abhorrent ideologies at work would create a “hostile work environment.”

    But while we are considering how an understanding of history allows us to understand more about past evil, with a view to preventing a revival of those same evils, we should also consider whether a definition of improper behavior at work should be based on something as vague as the creation of a “hostile work environment.”

    Just a thought . . .


  9. Emma says:

    With the Holocaust and the history of racist groups increasingly not being taught in our schools has brought about a generation ignorant of what is truly racist and unacceptable behavior. Instead of studying the past the learn moral conduct and prevent similar atrocities from ever occuring again, parents, and even some teachers, are refuting the necessity of teaching these parts of our history because of the misconception that talking about racism is racist. Now the problem has come to be that people are refuting the seriousness of these heinous acts against humanity and that historians are blowing things out of proportion.
    I’ll end my editorial with two quotes…
    “…you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” ~ John 8:32
    We learn about history to remember the truth of it.
    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” ~ George Santayana
    Let not repeat these atrocious areas of history out of ignorance.


  10. ilegirl says:

    This is both interesting and alarming. Is reading about Adolf Hitler necessarily an expression of anti-Semitism? The rational answer to such a question is No. The reason we should be reading about historical events we do not condone is to better understand the frailties of human society, and human character. Lacking these reference points, we do, as Santoyana states, we ironically run the risk of perpetuating the very isms that those complainants cited above find objectionable.


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