The Art of the Rebuke

Is it time for college students to rediscover the benefits of tough love?

Thomas Doherty
Mike Lovett
Thomas Doherty

A couple months ago, I got in the mail something members of the class of 2017 are starting to receive for the first time, namely, the alumni magazine from my undergraduate institution. In a moment of nostalgia some years back, I made a small donation and now have a correspondence for life with Gonzaga University, a small liberal-arts college in Spokane, Washington, run by the Jesuits. In its commitment to a broad liberal-arts education, Gonzaga is a lot like Brandeis — though with different religious holidays.

Anyway, the latest edition of Gonzaga Magazine contained some sad tidings. A professor I remembered quite well, the Rev. Frank Costello, S.J., had passed away. When I did the subtraction and figured out how old he was when he taught me, I was a little startled to learn he was two decades younger than I am now — of course, he had seemed as old as Methuselah to my classmates and me. Father Costello exemplified the best in old-school Jesuit rigor, the kind of man who took both of his vocations — priest and professor — seriously. And he did not suffer foolishness gladly.

I learned just how ungladly during the first semester of my freshman year. I forget the class and the book we were talking about but during the discussion a guileless freshman raised his hand and said, “I haven’t finished the book yet, but I think …” — at which point, Father Costello cut him off and said, “If you haven’t finished the book yet, then you should remain silent and listen to those of us who have.”

That guileless freshman was me. It was a public dressing-down, and I didn’t feel good about it, but I remember that from then on I tended to come to class a lot better prepared — and if I wasn’t, I kept my mouth shut. To my credit (if I do say so myself), I was old enough to receive the rebuke not in a spirit of resentment — which probably would have been my response a couple of years earlier — but as the adult I was becoming. I took it to heart as fair warning. I wasn’t in high school anymore; this was a university seminar, not a place of unconditional love and support; I was in the big leagues.

Father Costello was not a mean-spirited man, and he delivered the rebuke matter-of-factly. He had coped with similarly guileless freshmen throughout his teaching career. At the same time, in laying down the law, he wasn’t particularly concerned with my feelings or the post-traumatic emotional stress his remark could have triggered.

If you are over a certain age, you may remember a similar moment from your own education — a sharp reprimand from a teacher, a coach, a boss — and, if you’re like me, you most likely responded by trying to get your act together.

You probably see where I am going with this. I wonder if the current atmosphere on American college campuses encourages or even tolerates the unsparing rebuke from a professor that many of us remember as necessary and salutary. Lately, throughout higher education, the face-off between intellectual rigor and emotional sensitivity has tilted decisively toward the second half of the equation.

Traditionally, American universities have celebrated and nurtured smarts over sentiment. They have prided themselves on sharpening critical intelligence and cultivating a free-floating exchange of ideas. At Brandeis, this dedication is emblazoned in the school motto: “Truth even unto its innermost parts.” The key word is even — as in: even if it is unpleasant, even if it challenges your preconceptions, even if it really hurts your feelings, even if it makes you feel spatially unsafe.

Such stern principles were not unique to Brandeis. The mottoes and mission statements of most American universities expressed a clear-eyed commitment to the life of the mind, not a doe-eyed celebration of the emotions, still less the elevation of personal feelings as a moral absolute by means of the trump card that defeats all arguments: “That offends me.”

As anyone with cable-news access or a Twitter feed knows, the American university is not in particularly good odor right now on matters of tolerance and free expression. Neither is the present generation of undergraduates, who tend to be portrayed as either waspish scolds or delicate snowflakes. Although the bad reputation of both is partly a news-media construct, there is enough on-the-ground confirmation to make anyone committed to the values embedded in the Brandeis motto a bit apprehensive. Some of the surrender of rigor and the accommodation to sensitivity is merely silly, such as the infantilizing “trigger warnings” that junior faculty feel compelled to put on their syllabi by way of CYA: “Students who have been whipped by their father may be disturbed by certain passages in ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’”

For what it is worth, I have never seen in my own students any of the fierce anti-intellectualism that seems to afflict at least some of their peers. But lately, I have begun to encounter a new degree of trepidation — and maybe a whiff of fear — in the classroom.

For years, I’ve taught the 1939 MGM epic “Gone With the Wind.” Of course, the film is a hallucination in Technicolor, awash in offensive stereotypes and Confederate revisionism. Still, as perhaps the most popular film in the classical Hollywood canon, it warrants attention in the undergraduate curriculum. Besides, I’ve always found GWTW a sure-fire catalyst for animated discussion and impassioned essays.

After the students have absorbed the nearly four-hour tour through David O. Selznick and Margaret Mitchell’s version of the Old South, I focus on a scene calculated to raise the classroom temperature. It features Hattie McDaniel, who plays the slave/servant Mammy, in dialogue with Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. I explain that the critical reaction to McDaniel’s character tends to divide along two lines: first, that Mammy is a racist, offensive caricature, period; and second, that McDaniel so powerfully controls her screen space that her performance undercuts the demeaning role she is required to play.

As a teacher, I want students to look at the film, engage the questions and venture an opinion. In the past, they have always done so. Yet the last time I taught the film and asked for reactions, there was silence, a nervous, queasy silence. The students seemed afraid to talk lest they say the wrong thing and … what? Offend another student? Stray from a campus consensus?

They certainly weren’t afraid of me. I would never snap at a student for venturing an opinion. But, in the future, perhaps I should rebuke them for being so sensitive — even if what I say might hurt their feelings.

Thomas Doherty is professor of American studies. A version of this article appeared in Inside Higher Ed.