More Reasons Why the New DOE/DOJ Letter Jeopardizes Higher Education
May 14, 2013
A newer edition of Anne Frank's diary has caused some stir in Northville, Michigan. The new, unedited edition of the diary contains candid descriptions of Frank's anatomy and has upset a mother in the district, who wants the school to go back to the previous version because reading the book made her daughter feel uncomfortable.
Regular Torch readers are probably wondering why I'm talking about a middle school issue, something clearly outside of FIRE's higher education purview. The answer is simple and disturbing. Under the new "blueprint" provided by the Departments of Justice and Education last week, if a college student felt similarly uncomfortable, the professor who had assigned Anne Frank's diary could face charges of sexual harassment.
Yes, you read that right. Last week, when the DOE and DOJ finished their investigation of the University of Montana, they issued a findings letter and an accompanying agreement, intended to serve as a "blueprint" for how colleges and universities nationwide address sexual misconduct. The letter warns universities that they must define sexual harassment as "any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature," including speech that is subjectively offensive to the listener. This means that if a student on a college campus reads Anne Frank's diary as part of a class assignment and is offended, the professor could be charged with sexual harassment.
Anne Frank's diary has long been considered an integral part of our literary canon, both for Frank's candid and honest descriptions of herself and her life and for her chilling descriptions of living in the Netherlands during the Holocaust. That the new "blueprint" from the DOE and DOJ could effectively keep the book (not to mention thousands of other works of literature with sexual themes) off campus because its sexual content makes someone uncomfortable is an insult to everything for which higher education is supposed to stand.
Interacting with thoughts with which we might not be comfortable is part of how we become educated—it's not as simple as metaphorically plugging ourselves into a teacher and downloading information. If implemented, DOE/DOJ letter would fundamentally jeopardize liberal education on college campuses.