Female Student Claims 'Hostile Learning Environment' for Prof Assigning 'White Male' Authors

P. Gardner Goldsmith | June 4, 2019
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What does one do when a student at University of Utah complains that the reading assignments in her economics class are too "male"? Raise the Social Justice Banner! The intellectual pirates are on the prowl!

It starts with a bias, in this case "ormalcy bias.

It’s the phenomenon of people becoming accustomed to something, then thinking that nothing different ever could have existed. It happens within generations, and its particularly noticeable over multiple generations. Hence, for example, Brits alive today have grown up within an environment that included their messed up, inefficient, grossly mismanaged, and unethical National Health System. It’s a terrible system, yet many Brits can’t imagine a UK without it.

The same happens to language. 

As a result, a story about a 22-year old female University of Utah student accusing her male professor of a “hostile learning environment” for his choices of reading assignments might inspire some observers to focus on the assignments. And while that’s part of the analysis, the larger point about the term itself might merit exploration.

So here’s the story.

According to Christian Snyder, of TheCollegeFix:

A 22-year old female University of Utah student reported her business professor to campus administrators for, among other things, assigning too many historical texts written by influential male economists of the past.

She, the student, didn’t think certain texts were necessary to teach the subject. Because, of course, as a student, there to learn about the subject, she already knew and understood it. QED.

'I believe it to no longer be necessary when teaching the foundations of our country’s economic system and those who helped build [its] ideals to be presented in conjunction with their sexist beliefs that have already planted their roots within our global and local communities,' the student stated in her complaint, filed in December 2018 and recently obtained by The College Fix.

Besides splitting infinitives more often than nuclear scientists have split the atom, she explained in her complaint that the authors of said readings embraced sexist beliefs (one wonders if she’s a Marxist, since Marx actually called “patriarchal relations” “idyllic”). She also says this is “No longer necessary”. If one accepts her accusation of sexism within the works, does her statement mean that she thinks there might have been a time when sexism was “necessary”?

Evidently, that’s not something we’re supposed to notice. She wants us to focus on the “hostility” of the professor. She says that, although the professor didn’t outright endorse those “sexist” attitudes, he didn’t disavow them.

She also didn’t like the fact that the professor told the class he would move to Tahiti to date beautiful women and relax when robots took over the bulk of the human workload.

To this student, that joke not only objectified women, it placed them lower on the scale of respect than animals. See, this professor is a vegan, and, according to the complainant, his statements about women (he said he’d be enjoying their hand-fed grapes in Tahiti come the robot apocalypse), must be serious, taken as paternalistic, and “hostile”.

So what is one to make of this kind of complaint?

The students appears to display a profound anti-male bias and deep ignorance of the process of understanding economics, a field which, though explored mostly by men, is gender-neutral and merely observes human behavior, the allocation of resources, supply, demand, and how living standards are improved. She seems overly sensitive to mere absurdist humor, and she seems to feel that she knows more – as a student – than the professor who was hired to teach the subject.

But she has a right to complain. She could complain about the amount of reading, or the length of time of the class, or the temperature in the lecture hall. She’s paying to attend the school, so she can offer her complaints.

The trouble is that the terminology is overblown. A professor is not “hostile” or “hostile to learning” if someone in the class disagrees with his outlook on economics or he offers flip comments. He is not “hostile” if he assigns readings on economics written by males, even if those males were “sexist”, which is a matter of debate and can be addressed by looking at the work of each economist. Economics is the same for men and women. It’s the study of human action within a world of scarce resources. It analizes how human beings not only manage those resources, but how they create new resources through the competitive market process, discovering new ways to improve the lives of people, and experimenting in the market to reveal what works and what doesn’t. Chromosomal variation has nothing to do with it.

The overblown rhetorical attack is the most troubling aspect of this. It reflects a widespread trend in the West of "postmodernist labeling", using dark, negative terminology to frame not only the debate, but the language we use. Once one accepts that a “learning environment” or “work environment” can be “hostile”, he or she has already lost ground.

The only way the environment could be “hostile” is if a personal attack were occurring. It’s certainly possible that a professor could be a rotten teacher, and thus create an environment that is not conducive to learning, but use of the term “hostile” is troublesome and problematic – and is also widespread, and probably too ingrained in the zeitgeist to easily combat. 

It's important to realize the left's war of words works towards the destruction of the language and the use of rhetorically charged, prejudicial terminology that demonizes before allowing debate.