Over the past year, Reed College in Portland, OR., has been a hotbed of protests by an outraged activist group who want to silence speech and stifle debate. Among their grievances? A nearly 40-year-old Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Steve Martin.
During the past academic year, Reedies Against Racism (RAR) took over Humanities 110, a required course for all freshmen students. The class’s primary goal, according to Reed College, is “to engage in original, open-ended, critical inquiry.” Students read and discuss great works of literature from Egypt, Greece and other ancient non-European civilizations.
According to The Atlantic, that kind of free and open discourse in which students were encouraged to interact with great works of literature and share differing opinions was unacceptable to RAR. During the fall of last year, they begin staging sit-ins during Humanities 110 sessions, holding cardboard signs decrying the class as racist and Eurocentric.
That’s where the “King Tut” sketch comes in. Martin’s sketch mocks the monetization of Egyptian culture that the traveling exhibit of the young pharaoh’s tomb represented. The professor showed the clip to spark discussion. RAR condemned the sketch as racist.
Protesters showed up with cardboard signs and sat in the front of the lecture hall during every Humanities 110 class of the 2016 academic year. Sometimes, they took over the class to lecture freshmen about white oppression.
One professor, who suffers from PTSD, begged them not to interfere, but they showed up anyway and accused her of being racist. In fact, they’ve accused anyone who has questioned their methods or opinions of being a racist or white supremacist—without providing any evidence of those accusations. “Asking for people to display their trauma so that you feel sufficiently satisfied is a form of violence,” one activist said.
Instead of a robust discussion where differing ideas are examined and challenged, RAR wanted Humanities 110 to focus on indoctrinating students with one particular worldview.
The school has caved to many of RAR’s demands, even inviting the group to participate in a reevaluation of the course’s curriculum. RAR stopped showing up to those meetings when they got tired of being “forced to sit in hours of fruitless meetings listening to full-grown adults cry about Aristotle,” according to a statement they released
Surprisingly, even though RAR members make up only a small percentage of the student body, students who disagree with them are scared to speak out. RAR has harassed students and even engaged in cyberbullying.
This academic year, though, pushback has started. When the activist group tried to take over the first Humanities 110 class of the semester, insisting their harassment campaign was “just as important as the work of the faculty,” the professor abruptly cancelled the class.
Freshmen, new to the college and not yet intimidated by RAR’s tactics, were furious. Two days later, an African-American student confronted the protestors at the front of the class. “This is a classroom! This is not the place! Right now we are trying to learn! We’re the freshman students!” he said. The room burst into applause.
Condemnation came from freshmen on social media as well, as students demanded academic freedom. They even held a meeting to discuss the protests that around 150 freshmen attended.
Activists have stepped up their tactics, using “noise parades” and holding up signs accusing professors by name of being white supremacists. But freshmen are following lecturers to other classrooms or even outside to ensure the class can continue.
Free speech and academic freedom are being stifled at colleges and universities across the country. If more students like the Reed freshmen are bold enough to take on student groups and administrations, they just might be able to turn the tide.
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