Schools Should Teach Distinctions
My letter to the Carmel Pine Cone was the lead letter in the November 5-11 edition. It’s about a local issue involving a teacher who thought it was important to teach her students using the text of Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I learned about the MLK letter relatively late in my life, at about age 31, when my wife told me she used it in her English composition class at Santa Clara University.
The editor added a punctuation error that was partly my fault because I should have use an exclamation mark rather than a period. He replaced my period with a question mark. Here’s my letter as it should have read:
Thank you for reporting on the Pacific Grove Unified School District cracking down on a teacher who had the temerity to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She was quoting from his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which I recommend to all of your readers. Because King himself used the n-word, this teacher must have thought that it was alright for her to use it. How dare she accurately quote an historical document!
We residents of Pacific Grove and of other adjacent areas had a spirited discussion of the issue on Nextdoor on Saturday, October 23. While the person who started the discussion seemed to see it as obvious that one should not quote the whole of King’s relevant sentence, many of us disagreed. There’s a huge difference between using the word to put someone down and quoting someone who used the word to explain his hurt and anger at the word’s use. One of the main things educators can teach us is to make crucial distinctions. It’s too bad that the Pacific Grove Unified School District, which is in the business of education, does not seem able to master what seems to be a simple distinction.
The editor had the guts to write an editorial on the same page as my letter in which he quoted from the relevant passage of the King letter.
A friend on Facebook pointed me to a very nice lesson on line about the distinction between mentioning a word and using a word.
Nov 6 2021 at 8:30am
Good letter! This issue has gotten way out of hand and in some states the voters have reacted (Virginia being the prime example this past week). Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’ also uses the same n-word. Currently I am re-watching HBO’s “The Wire” which is the best serial drama ever made for TV (yes, there are ‘Soprano’ fans who will disagree with this, but I think David Simon’s show better captures the societal problems of the early aughts). Because so much of it centers around the Baltimore drug trade, the largely Black casts frequently use the n-word in every day conversation. In this context it is appropriate, just as it was in Twain’s novel, and King’s letter.
The ‘Woke Police’ better wake up and move on.
Nov 8 2021 at 10:21am
It also would have been appropriate in your comment, for the same reason as the teacher, as you are quoting Twain or The Wire.
Yet, you chose not to use it. Interesting. I wonder if you worry that econlib’s filter won’t make the distinction? That would be my worry.
Nov 6 2021 at 10:17am
You thought it was OK to quote the letter because you respect the maturity of your fellow citizens and their ability to understand context. Apparently others don’t share that respect.
Nov 6 2021 at 8:21pm
Thank you for putting a link to that letter from Dr. Martin Luther King. Wow that is something powerful. Argument on many different fronts pointing out injustice and hypocrasy and inertia of putative allies- those not directly suffering daily indignities and injustice..
Absolutely this should be taught in school as part of US history as well as how to write really good arguments- preferably not from jail cells.
Nov 7 2021 at 4:12am
Seconded, thank you for the link. Great writing is always timely! This was the first time I’ve ever read the whole piece, and I was particularly struck by two medical metaphors:
“This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration.”
“all too many other [white ministers] have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”
Not sure why those lines grabbed me so much, but they did.
Nov 7 2021 at 7:29pm
《Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.》
Can I cancel King, because he ate my chicken brethren?
《when you see the vast majority of your
twenty million Negro60 billion annually slaughtered factory-farmed animal brothers smothering in an airtight cage》
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