St. John’s University Reportedly Fires Professor For Reading Racial Slur In Mark Twain Passage

Mark Twain once said that “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.” Professor Hannah Berliner Fischthal may have cause to question that pearl of wisdom after she was sacked by St. John’s University after reading a Twain passage using the n-word. While adjunct instructor explained to the class that the word would be used in the context of the work and hoped it would not offend anyone, she was still fired.  This is not the first such controversy over academic freedom at St. John’s.

We have been discussing such controversies as more schools fired or discipline faculty despite their use of the words for academic purposes.  We have seen such investigations and terminations involving professors for the use of the “n-word” in classes or tests at GeorgetownDuquesneJohn MarshallAugsbergChicagoDePaulPrincetonKansas, and other schools.

This incident involves the reading a passage containing the N-word from Twain’s anti-slavery novel “Pudd’nhead Wilson” in her “Literature of Satire” class.  The work is a poignant satire of racism and satire. Published in 1894, the work focuses on a light-skinned slave named Roxy who has a baby boy at the same time as the master’s wife. She decides to spare her child the cruelty of slavery and the risk of being sold by switching the babies.  Roxy’s son, however, grows up to be a cruel and spoiled man while the master’s biological child grows up humble and true.

Ironically, Twain wrote about how Southerners were shielded from such discussions and the realities of slavery:

In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind — and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.

Twain wrote passionately against slavery like a dormant virus in our species. In his essay The Lowest Animal (1896), he wrote:

“Man is the only Slave. And he is the only animal who enslaves. He has always been a slave in one form or another and has always held other slaves in bondage under him in one way or another. In our day, he is always some man’s slave for wages and does that man’s work, and this slave has other slaves under him for minor wages, and they do his work. The higher animals are the only ones who exclusively do their own work and provide their own living.”

In works like  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), Twain found ways to return to the subject: “The blunting effects of slavery upon the slaveholder’s moral perceptions are known and conceded the world over; and a privileged class, an aristocracy, is but a band of slaveholders under another name.”

Fishcthal explained to the class that “Mark Twain was one of the first American writers to use actual dialect. His use of the ‘N-word’ is used only in dialogues as it could have actually been spoken in the south before the civil war, when the story takes place.”

However, after the class, a student objected to the reference and Fishcthal reached out to apologize for any offense and arranged a private discussion online about the incident. She wrote “I apologize if I made anyone uncomfortable in the class by using a slur when quoting from and discussing the text. Please do share your thoughts.” That was not enough.  While two students defended her, four objected and a complaint was filed.

Many academics view reading original texts like this one to be important to understanding the language and context of writings. That has long been protected as a matter of academic freedom, a position that I support. Faculty like Fischthal warn about the appearance of such language and recognize how offensive the term is. The action taken against Fischthal suggests that this type of decision is no longer left to the professor as a matter of academic freedom.

On March 3, Fischthal was called into a meeting about the class and was also confronted about commenting on a Black student’s hair. (Fischthal insisted that she did not comment on the hair but rather the fact that the student’s head being wrapped up during class). She said she was also criticized for discussing the experience of her family in the Holocaust.

She was then fired on April 29th.

The university however is quoted in denying that the reading itself was the reason for the termination. Brian Browne, a spokesman for St. John’s told the media that “If your assertion is that she was fired for reading aloud from a Mark Twain novel, that is incorrect.” However, it did not explain the basis for the termination. We have seen in past cases where universities confronted on such issues find collateral justifications for termination like a failure to properly respond to an inquiry or failure to take adequate steps to resolve such disputes.

The case has been taken up by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

One concern is that this is not the first such controversy for the university. Last year, the school fired adjunct history professor Richard Taylor, 46, who has also accused the school of not explaining the basis for the termination. Taylor was the subject of a complaint tied to his class (“History 1000: Emergence of a Global Society”) about the Columbian Exchange, the transfer of technology, ideas, food crops, disease, and populations between the New World and the Old World, West Africa, and the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries.

He taught the class for five years and in this class he showed a series of 42 PowerPoint slides that ended with a discussion of slavery and a prompt (Slide 46) asking “Do The Positives Outweigh The Negatives?” — a prompt that Taylor says that he routinely used as the end of powerpoint sections.

That led to a letter campaign calling for his termination, including one letter that objected that “It is outrageous that in 2020, our Black students are endangered by disgusting rhetoric used by a Professor, an individual who has a responsibility to adhere to the mission of our university to uphold a global community, to speak of slavery as if there was ‘good’ to come from it.”

Taylor was later and fired and, like Fischthal, objected to the lack of due and fair process from the school. He is now suing.

On the use of the n-word, schools seem to be treated this issue as a strict liability offense rather than a matter for academic freedom. The problem with such cases is that, unless the school explores the intent and context of a lesson, there is little due process afforded to professor. As Twain himself noted “All generalizations are false, including this one.”

60 thoughts on “St. John’s University Reportedly Fires Professor For Reading Racial Slur In Mark Twain Passage”

  1. A U.S. Space Force special unit commander was fired from his post last week after he discussed the infiltration of Marxist ideology into the U.S. military on a podcast, Military.com reported on Saturday.

    Lt Col. Matthew Lohmeier, a commander of 11th Space Warning Squadron at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado was released on Friday by the head of Space Operations Command Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, “over a loss of confidence in his ability to lead.”

    “My intent never has been to engage in partisan politics. I have written a book about a particular political ideology (Marxism) in the hope that our Defense Department might return to being politically non-partisan in the future as it has honorably done throughout history,” Lohmeier said.

    Lohmeier’s career specialty is in identifying incoming threats to U.S. national security.

    It would appear the Lt. Col.’s leadership in exposing the serious national security threat cultural Marxism is having on our country and our military is antithetical to the type of leadership desired by the Biden administration.
    https://thefederalist.com/2021/05/17/space-force-commander-fired-for-condemning-marxism-in-u-s-military/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=the_federalist_daily_briefing_2021_05_17&utm_term=2021-05-17

    1. Olly, do you think the likes of Anonymous the Stupid, Bugs or Jeff care or could even understand the danger? They know nothing about domestic or foreign affairs. They only know talking points based on an unstable ideology.

      1. SF,
        As far as I can tell, the only thing they care to understand is how to attack Trump, Republicans and conservatives. And since the Space Force was created by the Trump administration, that’s like putting garlic around the SF neck.

  2. “STAND UP AND DON’T RUN WHEN DOGS ATTACK”

    Dog trainers and animal behavior consultants teach people to stand up, to not run and to stay upright during an dog attack.

    Americans need to stand up, to not run and to stay upright when being attacked with accusations of being racist by envious minorities, and their incoherent and confused allies.

    Noticing differences, holding opinions, favoring particular entities and rejecting others, literally discriminating, are fully constitutional acts, while property damage, harassment and bodily injury are illegal.

    When envious people attempt to deny constitutional rights and freedoms of belief, thought, opinion, speech, assembly/segregation, etc., stand up, don’t run and stay upright as you explain to them American freedom, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

    The Constitution provides freedom, not success, acceptance or the absence of rejection.

    Every person is assisted or burdened by their own God-given characteristics, including skin color.

    Every person must cope and adapt in life.

  3. JFeldman reacting to Turley’s sober commentary:

    “There are no such things as “schools,” “colleges,” and “universities” anymore. There are only Leftist Indoctrination Entities (“LIEs”).”

    I wonder if Turley would agree with your take away from his post? I wonder what his reaction would be if you stood up in his class and made such a pronouncement? I wonder if he would thank you for your opinion and call on the next student with his arm in the air? I wonder if instead he would tell you that you are being ridiculous and that is not at all what he is saying?

    We will never really know whether Turley agrees with JFeldman’s opinion that he teaches law at one of these “Leftist Indoctrination Entities,” but here is what we do know- that Turley will not correct the impression that he does support JFeldman’s idea of “LIE’s” because he remains silent in the face of it and thus permits it to take root.

    1. Jeff, Congratulations!! You made a comment on Turley’s blog without a reference to Fox News.
      Next you will be admitting that Biden is well on his way to being our worst President ever.
      But in all fairness he is just a puppet so not actually responsible for the many acts of destruction.

      1. Paul,

        I did what you asked. Why don’t you respond to what I have said in my post? Otherwise, I will presume that you agree with my comments.

      2. Jeff, yes you did and I thank you. Although I don’t think you did it for me nor will it be your M.O. in the future.
        But in all fairness you make some valid points. Turley should acknowledge that he is a part of the entity that he is assailing.
        But to deny that the majority of
        ” instruction” in our universities today have a liberal bias is either willfull blindness or an outright lie.
        But I also have to admit that I am seeing a part of your admonishments of Turley as an attempt to make him more accountable. Which I have no problem with.
        I just think that .any on ” your side” view civil discourse as a zero sum game.
        To quote Krauthammer, Republicans think that Democrats are wrong. Democrats think Republicans are evil.
        If we can’t get past that, we are in bigger trouble than can be imagined.
        Be well

        1. Paul,

          Thanks for you well wishes. I don’t deny that universities are liberal. There is a very good reason- education renders people more liberal. I did not say more intelligent but educated. Trump voters are disproportionately high-school educated. Sad, but true. The more educated one becomes, the more liberal and secular as well.

          You would be wrong to suppose that “the corruption of our youth” is a recent trend. It has been complained about by the older generation for over 250 years, to wit:

          “Every old man complains of the growing depravity of the world, of the petulance and insolence of the rising generation. He recounts the decency and regularity of former times, and celebrates the discipline and sobriety of the age in which his youth was passed; a happy age which is now no more to be expected, since confusion has broken in upon the world, and thrown down all the boundaries of civility and reverence.”

          Samuel Johnson: Rambler #50 (1750).

          1. I definitely don’t think that a college diploma is a measurement of intelligence. Especially if your degree is in the likes of gender studies. I do agree that every previous generation thought the subsequent generation was nuts. I know my father thought I was nuts. But I feel the ” generation gap” of the millennials, gen Z and gen x if I have those correctly is much wider than the previous gaps. I attribute this to the fact that the Vietnam era children are now academia’s leaders. The fact that Bernardine Dohrn’s son is now the D.A. of San Francisco is mind boggling. She was a leader of the Weather Underground. A domestic terrorist group that was responsible for murders. And I do not believe in
            ” the sins of the fathers” but this gentleman’s jurisprudence reflects his upbringing. But it is California so I should not be surprised.
            I will be very interested to see if Soros sponsored D.A. of Philly Krazner survives his upcoming election.
            And finally on the generation gap.Saw that the LGBTQ community is marching in support of the Palestinians. What lunacy. Do they understand what being thrown off of a building feels like? I would bet most of those people are college graduates.
            I know I jumped around a lot. Sorry.

            1. Paul,

              I’m not as liberal as most people here suppose I am. I do not believe that conservatives are “evil,” for I am not religious. Liberals and conservatives have much more in common than they don’t. I also believe that there is a little bit of Trump in all of us which we must guard against constantly.

              I have said that I do not take issue with most of Turley’s opinions. He is far more fair-minded and reasonable than 90% of the Trumpist views expressed here. I just fault his hypocrisy in keeping silent about matters which are inimical to his financial interests. I make my comments almost exclusively about him because I am not interested in having a debate with most of the people here. I realize that Turley does not read this blog, but maybe someone who is close to him does or someone who may have an opportunity to interview him will, and they will confront him with my concerns as well as others on this blog so that they can hold him accountable. It’s a long shot to be sure, but it’s important.

              As a lawyer, I want the facts, but we’ll never know all the facts about Turley. We’ll never know whether the reason Turley works for Fox is because he has been spurned by the mainstream media. Perhaps, Fox simply offered him more money. I do believe- unlike you- that Fox prime time is not a journalistic endeavor. Fox is talk radio with Hannity, Ingraham, Mark Levin, etc., all of whom host opinionated talk radio shows. There is no way that Turley could sit through one of their monologues on their respective shows without blushing from the outright lies and utter distortions. And yet he ignores it all and makes his paid appearances on their programs thereby implicitly legitimating their polarizing views. Turley decries constantly our “age of rage,” as well he should, yet works for a network which contributes to it more than any other (in my opinion). This hypocrisy is what I intend to expose.

              1. Jeff, I also hate hypocrisy. I will even say that in certain circumstances I hate hypocrites more than liars. But Fox does not lie or distort as much as cnn and msnbc. I am not going to engage in a back and forth lie for lie distortion for distortion debate. But I do think that you are correct in one fact. Levin, Hannity Ingraham etc. are
                OPINION hosts. They do not represent themselves as hard news the way that Tapper, Blitzer etc. do.
                To me that is a big difference. Maybe Turley just finds himself agreeing with the Fox conservative point of view. The hypocrisy would come in if he took a bigger paycheck from the likes of cnn or msnbc. Also keep in mind that in my opinion Turley’s credentials are far superior to anyone on the previously stated networks. I admit I am not an avid viewer of those networks but I don’t think they have anyone who has testified in front of Congress numerous times if at all.
                I also find that a after repeated topic on Turley’s blog is free speech. Which I hold dear. I am still waiting for the first liberal to be banned from Twitter. I am still waiting for the first liberal to be fired from their job for stating a left wing position. I appreciate Turley fight the good fight. I admit I am somewhat jealous of the Left. It would be a far easier world for me to live in if I had virtually of academia, all of Hollywood, virtually all of print media, all of Silicon Valley and all of network news echoing my views daily.

                1. Paul:

                  “I am not going to engage in a back and forth lie for lie distortion for distortion debate.”

                  I agree it would be a waste of time. We would have to watch together MSNBC vs FOX coverage of the same controversy and analyze every statement by each network to compare whether one was more disingenuous than the other. That ain’t gonna happen so we will just have to agree to disagree.

                  I acknowledge that CNN and MSNBC are liberally biased because they are secular. They are not constrained by religion. Conservatives are by and large religious, and they wish to retain their traditional beliefs. If they had their way, for instance, they would want to teach our high school children Creationism along with Evolutionism. But we cannot progress as a technologically advanced civilization unless we dispose of such nonsense. Progressives will not accept matters simply because they are traditional like heterosexual marriage. They will not accept the Bible as a justification. Science and reason are displacing religion which accounts for the fact that conservatism is waning in America. Conservatives are waging a losing battle, but Trumpism has put up a good fight by lying unabashedly which is what it will take if it hopes to win this culture war.

              2. As a lawyer, I want the facts, but we’ll never know all the facts about Turley.

                Silberman, your problem is not the absence of facts. Your problem is the facts you have don’t support your absurd allegations. If there is a little bit of Trump in all of us, rest assured, yours is being overwhelmed by the Schiff in you. This hypocrisy is what you are exposing.

                1. Olly to Jeff: “If there is a little bit of Trump in all of us, rest assured, yours is being overwhelmed by the Schiff in you. “

                  LOL

                2. Olly,

                  Unless you want me to ignore your comments completely, I implore you to be specific. Be more like Paul! As of now, you are on probation.

              3. “I realize that Turley does not read this blog, but maybe someone who is close to him does or someone who may have an opportunity to interview him will, and they will confront him with my concerns as well as others on this blog so that they can hold him accountable. “

                Why would any intelligent person do that, Jeff? You have demonstrated such partisanship that you are an unreliable source. You complain about his choice of material when it is a legal blog and he picks out material that has interesting legal ramifications with emphasis on those involving freedom of speech. So far your complaints are shallow not demonstrating any legal acumen common to those that would have that type of interest. You couldn’t even make a legal case for those things you wanted him to discuss. For the most part, they were not ripe and essentially run-of-the-mill.

                Why would anyone who knew Turley consider taking a serial libeler’s opinion? I believe you have libeled him attacking his reputation without concern for the facts. Unlike aliases and the nature of this type of blog, he is a known individual where his ability to provide for his family is largely based on his reputation. You have libeled him and you could reasonably be sued. I doubt he would end up with much money because you don’t sound successful enough to pay out any award that would be due.

                You say, “As a lawyer”, but you don’t act like one. Why should we trust anything you say?

              4. Jeff doesn’t think Fox is a good news network. That is opinion, but it appears CNN is a lot worse.

                PART 1: CNN Director ADMITS Network Engaged in ‘Propaganda’ to Remove Trump from Presidency … ‘Our Focus Was to Get Trump Out of Office’ … ‘I Came to CNN Because I Wanted to Be a Part of That’

                https://www.projectveritas.com/news/part-1-cnn-director-admits-network-engaged-in-propaganda-to-remove-trump/

                Jeff mentions opinion shows that are separated from the news. Perhaps he doesn’t realize that. Nor does he realize that though Fox leans right Chris Wallace who also has an opinion show is on the left. Leftists are permitted on Fox News and get a much better shake than those leaning in the opposite direction get on the left’s MSM.

                Jeff just can’t stand diversity, that is he can’t stand diverse opinions. He has closed his door to any knowledge that conflicts with what he wishes to believe. That is a sign of a dead intellect.

  4. All right I get it but surely professors realize by now that using that word in any context is not going to end well. I’m not saying that censorship is right, I’m saying that right now, with the climate being what it is, maybe professors could refrain from using that word verbally in class. Is it bowing to the mob? I don’t know but insisting on reading passages like that out loud really seems almost like a deliberate provocation. There’s a jiujitsu guy named Kurt Osiander who used to conclude his videos by saying “One more time for all the stupid people” and it really seems like in this particular kind of situation, the professor needs to address the issue early on in the class and explain Twain’s stance on slavery and explain that that word is going to occur in the literature rather than leaving it to students to figure it out for themselves because they don’t ever seem to figure it out for themselves.

  5. This firing is totally ridiculous and uncalled for. It is a perfect example of political correctness going too far. One has to be aware of the difference of using a word and mentioning a word. Too bad the administration at St. John’s cannot tell the difference.

  6. I have ‘splained to you before. And I shall ‘splain to you again. There are no such things as “schools,” “colleges,” and “universities” anymore. There are only Leftist Indoctrination Entities (“LIEs”). Thinking is prohibited. Any instructor who attempts to teach students to actually think will be fired by the LIE that employed that instructor. That’s the principle at work in this story and in the countless others that will follow until all instructors fall into line. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “One [such story] is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad of instances and applications?”

    And while they’re at it, I’m surprised that they haven’t banned the movie Trading Places, one of the best comedies to emerge from Hollywood, which creatively borrows from the racial switching concept in Pudd’nhead Wilson. We can’t have such a comedy that makes you think now, especially since it’s really an anti-racist picture, can we?

    1. Lefties Indoctrination Entities are Re-Education Camps.

      LIEs are RECs.
      _____________

      Racism is irrefutably constitutional. Discrimination is the first step of freedom. If Americans cannot discriminate, Americans cannot be free.

      Communists (liberals, progressives, socialists, democrats, RINOs) erroneously and speciously conflate violence with these freedoms, discrimination and racism, understanding that property damage, bodily injury, etc., are illegal.

      Racism is a ubiquitous physical axiom.

      1. Physical axioms presented by a rabid, egomaniacal and narcissistic “teacher”: You’ll never be white. I’ll never be white. And white is supreme.

        1. Wait!

          Only actual Americans are virulent racists, right?
          ________________________________________

          Black “Teacher”:

          “Here you go, Mexican racist.”

          “You’re always gonna be a Mexican.”

          “You’ll never be white, ya know that, right?”

          “You’ll never be white, which is what you really wanna be.”

          “You wanna be white.”

          “You wanna be white so bad…”

  7. I wonder why white people don’t collapse emotionally when words like Cracker, Redneck, Honky and the like are used?

    Maybe we are made of sterner and smarter stuff.

    Keep it up and white supremacy will look valid.

    Is that really their goal? Is that really what they want? Or are they really stupid enough not to know that that is what they are going to get? Full on tribalism.

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