It’s hard not to wonder if the Butler University bookstore will have the class supplies needed for a fall course called “Trumpism & U.S. Democracy”—gas masks, Maalox to counteract chemical agents, cobblestones of a nice throwing weight?
It’s a legitimate question, considering that the School of Communication class was originally billed as planning to “discuss, and possibly engage in, strategies for resistance” to Trump’s “sexism, white supremacy, xenophobia, nativism, and imperialism,” according to the 57-word course description by Professor Ann Savage. A revised description issued after parents got wind of the course and complained moderates the language, but clearly leaves open the possibility of protest attendance and participation.
How exactly does one grade participation in a protest? Do broken civilian car windows count less than those of police cars? Does being arrested on national media count more than on local newscasts? And is there extra credit for being tased?
Some People Love the Idea
When the course came to light during Butler’s graduation week this month, response was quick on social media, today’s venue of choice for the airing of grievances.
“We have a daughter who is getting ready to graduate from Butler on Saturday,” one mother posted on the Butler Facebook page. “We used to be proud to tell people that fact…We don’t pay you THOUSANDS of dollars to teach our children to act out when things don’t go their way. Are you going to teach them to throw a temper tantrum when they don’t get the job they want?”
But as ever, other parents demonstrated their willingness to stand with disorder, another check writer posting: “Proud Bulldog mom. Proud of President (James) Danko. Proud of the community at Butler. Proud of Dr. Savage. Proud that bulldogs don’t back down in the face of criticism. Proud to send you another $57,000 for another year of education for my oldest daughter.”
It was an unusual outburst for this quiet liberal arts school of just over 4,000 undergraduates nestled among ivy-covered brick bungalows near the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
The university quickly took down the initial course description, posting a much-altered version. Gone were references to Trump’s campaign boorishness and plans to take part in protests. Now the class is expected to explore “the rise of Donald Trump as a political and social phenomenon,” and “instill disciplinary diversity” by hosting guest lectures from other Butler faculty. Note that “disciplinary diversity” is not necessarily the same as actual diversity.
Same Academic Decrepitude, Different Day
University Provost Kathryn Morris said in a release that the course “falls under the auspices of academic freedom,” as would a course supporting the president. Students would never be forced to demonstrate, she wrote. But neither will they be chained to their desks. Students might visit “ongoing responses to Trump’s presidency and campaign” as “participant observers.”
This seems to leave room for some vigorous class activities, possibly qualifying for Physical Education credit. Butler is saying participation is voluntary, but wasn’t that model rejected in the case of school prayer? Something about kids feeling ostracized and marginalized. Besides, the university seems to be suggesting the real problem was how the course was described, not what the kids will be doing. The school plans to “review its practice of accepting preliminary course descriptions.”
But it isn’t clear how asking Savage to be more discreet in her phrasing addresses the real issue: a faculty member who has mistaken her own political views for academic scholarship. (Not that this is at all surprising.) And why is it left to parents to sound the alarm? Is the campus that ideologically homogeneous? Or are those who might privately oppose this cowed into silence?
Trouble on campuses around the country suggests there is ample reason to be cowed. A conservative speaker was chased off campus at Middlebury College in Vermont, and a faculty escort injured in the melee. At the University of California-Berkeley last month, right-wing activist and writer Ann Coulter chose to cancel an appearance rather than submit to a security-conscious schedule the school demanded.
Fisticuffs on campus are also losing the connection to unwelcome conservative speakers. Also at Berkeley, Trump supporters and resisters styling themselves “antifas” (for antifascists) came to blows simply because neither will tolerate the other’s presence.
In the aftermath of the Middlebury fracas, thinkers as disparate as Princeton conservative Robert George and Harvard liberal Cornel West joined in statements defending free speech, especially on campus. To Butler’s credit, the argument over Savage’s fall offering has been civil.
And the class? All 17 seats are filled. But parents haven’t seen next year’s schedule and may not relish the thought of coughing up bail money on top of tuition.
Drop and Add ends on September 6. We’ll know more then.