The “F--- YOU, REPUBLICANS” professor at the University of Iowa isn’t the only one lashing out in anger at conservative students.
Scott Denham, a professor of German at Davidson College recently wrote in a letter to the editor of the Davidsonian that he hoped a student would be “leaving soon.” The student, Bobby DesPain, is a columnist for the newspaper and a senior at Davidson.
DesPain had written an opinion piece asserting that President Obama has failed to demonstrate leadership, with sentences such as “Instead of leadership, the United States has a presidency of phrases and bumper stickers and a Nobel Peace Prize.” He faults the president for taking frequent vacations and for sending American troops to Libya seemingly “as an afterthought.”
Professor Denham wrote in response, “This last belch of his [DesPain’s] tops most of the others I’ve read over the years on the stench-o-meter of silliness. It’s a real-time smear; tea-partyish, Murdochian propaganda.
Denham employed praeteritio - the inclusion of something by pretending to omit it – when he wrote, “I could say: ‘what an idiot,’ or something similar. But I won’t, since that’s not nice.” He closed with “let’s just hope he doesn’t scare off all the smart prospies. We’d hate for Davidson to attract more of this sort of illogical thinker, regardless of politics.”
DesPain, in turn, responded in a new column:
[Professor Denham] does not seek to refute any of my points nor offer any semblance of an argument. Denham instead attacks me. Instead of substance, he offers condescension. Instead of debate, he seeks to silence. Instead of displaying any form of intellectual or moral capital, he reveals his depravity.
If Denham can only muster up enough intellect for derision, what can his peers expect in terms of scholarship? Deans, Faculty, are you comfortable hiring and working beside a man who believes such a letter is appropriate? If confronted with an ideological position unique from his own, Denham can only say, “You suck,” what can the student body expect to learn from him?”
The student chastised the professor’s letter for being “neither mature nor scholarly,” qualities the College boasts of its faculty members. DesPain said that in responding to Denham, he wasn’t trying to settle a score but to raise questions about Davidson’s standards for rational debate.
The administration has thus far issued no public statements criticizing Professor Denham's letter attacking the student.
It would be nice if Davidson were to take this opportunity to remind the community of its standards for civil discourse. Bobby DesPain is not asking for an apology and he is graduating next month. He does, however, seem justified in asking the College whether this is an appropriate tone for a professor to take toward a student who was expressing an opinion.
Colleges should both model and instill in students a discipline of analytical thinking, thoughtful exchange of ideas, and good character. Such discipline requires us to fight selfish instincts and to separate ourselves from our cherished ideas so as to gain humility and openness to correction that allow for the possibility that we could be wrong. It also resists both ad hominem and praeteritio rhetoric.