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Diversity and Constructive Criticism

Back in the day (circa 1890), I handed in a 6-page essay to my 10th grade teacher. About 6 days later, I went to pick up my paper. And guess what happened ? He tore up the paper right before my very eyes and remarked as follows :

“The paper you turned is entirely unacceptable because it is way beneath your intellectual abilities and talent. Go write another that is indicative of your genuine talent and submit it.”

Well, guess what ? I did exactly that. I took my skinny butt home and wrote another paper, which I submitted. I earned a grade of “A-plus” on that paper.

Now, what makes the story that I have just told rather interesting is that the professor is white and I, of course, was his skinny black student. But, alas, it never crossed my mind that the professor’s behavior towards me was racist in anyway. Quite the contrary, I took his reaction to the initial paper that I turned in, as well as his charge to submit a more satisfactory paper that measured up to my intellectual abilities, to be a profound instance of his very positive belief in my intellectual talent.

Fast forward to nowadays. Alas, I cannot imagine nowadays a white professor behaving in such a manner towards a black student ; for it would be taken as a given by all sorts of people that the professor’s behavior is racist. It is that very reaction puzzles me. For the professor thought that I was smart—and not stupid. And he thought that my first paper fell way below the intellectual abilities of which I am capable. What part of that assessment is racist ? It might be that what makes the teacher’s behavior racist is the manner in which the professor behaves towards the black student. I guess that what the white professor should say is something like the following to a black student :

“I am so sorry to inform you that the paper you submitted was way below your abilities. I would very much appreciate it if you would submit another paper.”

There you have it : a profound display of respect on the part of the white professor towards the black student.

Alas, the point here is that sometimes a sense of outrage over what a person has done is none other than a tremendous form of disappointment that, in fact, is also a deep, deep affirmation of the person’s abilities. That high school teacher mightily believed in me and was profoundly disappointed in the quality of the essay that I had turned in. That is why he tore up the original essay that I had submitted.

Of course, we live a very different world nowadays. And so no doubt my teacher’s behavior would be mightily out of place nowadays. Yet, an immutable truth is that nothing whatsoever can substitute for genuine constructive criticism. And while it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between malicious criticism and constructive criticism, it is usually very, very clear whether a person is doing one rather than the other. My 10th grade teacher was clear : Go write an essay that measures up to your substantial intellectual abilities. And while it is certainly true that he did not have to tear up the original paper that I turned in, it is also the case that his doing so did not detract one iota from the reality that he gave me the opportunity to write another paper because he was ever convinced that I could a paper that was much better than the one that I had submitted.

Thus, a most intriguing question that present itself is the following : It is the case nowadays that affirmative action on college campuses genuinely allows for the constructive criticism of a black student by a white professor. Unfortunately, it is far from obvious that the question gets an affirmative answer even if we concede that the white professor thinks very well of the black student. Why is that ? My answer is that it has become increasingly difficult for white professors to engage in the kind of constructive criticism that is needed by blacks who attend college with an impoverished academic background without the white professors being open to the charge of racism.

It is obvious that genuine praise is ever so preferable above all else. However, surely constructive criticism is a very, very, very close second ; for genuine constructive criticism is unequivocally tied to a belief in the intellectual abilities of the person being criticized.

The reality is that affirmative action has been around for at least 40-years. But it has simply not been the success that, back-in-the-day, folks thought that it would be. Here is why. In effect, the charge of racism on college campuses has become none other than a very powerful tool for silencing whites and thus eliminating constructive criticism on the part of white professors. No white professor in 2014 could say to a black student anything resembling what my white high school teacher said to me. And that reality has a negative psychological impact that no one acknowledges. There is no better spring board in life than experiencing genuine belief on the part of others that one very much has the intellectual wherewithal to be successful. Alas, constructive criticism that, ever so sincerely and genuinely, points to the heights that a student is capable of reaching is absolutely essential to a student’s realizing intellectual heights. Insisting that such criticism of a black student by a white professor is racism has easily done blacks far more harm than good. And the proof of this is the reality that, aside from the usual obligatory lip service, there is little if any evidence on college campuses that non-black students‑‑be they Indian or Arabic or Asian or white, and so on—have a deep and profound respect for the intellectual wherewithal of blacks.

© Laurence Thomas

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