Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Bad Language Rampant in Schools

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Bad Language Rampant in Schools

Article excerpt

Are you concerned about bad language at school?

A New York Times article last fall exposed some bad language at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a liberal New York City private school.

Barry Sirmon, a "popular but controversial" history teacher, directed what turned out to be a very controversial joke at two black students on the first day of class. By Mr. Sirmon's admission, the gist of the joke was "I hope I'll be able to tell you two apart." He later said that he was "making jokes to try and make people comfortable." It was foolish of him not to realize that this particular joke might have the opposite effect.

What would have been a wise administrative response to this foolishness?

Here is an obvious possibility. The head of the school could have cautioned Mr. Sirmon against making classroom jokes that reasonable people might see as racist. He could have said that future jokes of this kind might put his job at risk.

The article does not report that the school's new head, Damian Fernandez, gave any such warning. Instead, Mr. Fernandez promptly fired Mr. Sirmon. In a letter to the faculty, students and parents, Mr. Fernandez wrote, "It saddens me that we have to confront such a challenging experience so early in our journey," and that "everyone should be treated with respect, dignity and compassion." He added in an interview: "It's my commitment to help establish an environment where students and faculty flourish and an environment that is nurturing to the development of our students."

This is the sort of bad language that is permeating our schools with a dense fog of euphemisms, bromides and verbosity. How could this fog be dispersed?

We could start by asking Mr. Fernandez questions that deal with ethics as well as language. Did firing Mr. Sirmon count as treating him with "respect, dignity and compassion"? Did it "help establish an environment where students and faculty flourish"? …

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