Ethics Dunce, Weenie Of The Month, And, To Be Blunt, An Incompetent Teacher: Lewis & Clark College Professor William Pritchard


There is no excuse for this. It is simply abject cowardice and an abdication of duty.

Professor Pritchard was teaching his class about the use of blackface in theater and film, and showed a clip of Laurence Olivier iportraying the tragic hero in “Othello.” (Pritchard called Olivier’s facial covering “blackface,” apparently. I do not. It is called “make-up.”) Some students who are apparently fully-indoctrinated social justice warriors incapable of examining any issue from multiple perspectives—college is supposed to remedy that deficiency—were offended by the topic, and demanded that their instructor write “a well written apology, two pages in length or longer,” and that he read it aloud.

Seldom has “Bite me!” been more appropriate as a response in an academic setting. You might want to take a Dramamine before reading on.

Mentioning the Olivier film (which was discussed on Ethics Alarms here), the letter, composed by one student and signed by eleven others, states,

…After this was shown to us, our professor asked if Othello being played by a white man took away from the performance. Our answer was yes, because the actor was in blackface, an inherently racist performance from its origins. Blackface – and any other practice that alters one’s appearance, poise, and vernacular to the stereotype of a group of people, especially of race – dehumanizes the identity of marginalized people into a stereotype one can wear as a costume. Whitewashing (which includes blackface and yellowface) profits off a group’s oppression, but never has to experience the consequences of living that identity. Makeup can be washed off, but POC have to live with the violence that comes with being part of a marginalized group….[The professor] then facilitated an argument as to whether or not whitewashing was acceptable, and this made the students – especially students of color – very uncomfortable. When we said that Lawrence Olivier in blackface was not acceptable, our professor played devil’s advocate, and this made the students of color incredibly uncomfortable because it was shocking and felt aggressive that our professor was making room to excuse blackface …Some students were shaken for the rest of the day, and days to follow. Our professor asked us to compare two hypothetical actors – a Black man and a white man – both in the role of Othello. He asked, if the Black man had a poorer performance than the white man in this role, wouldn’t it be acceptable for the white man to play Othello? He was asking us if a white man could do a better job of playing a Black character than a Black man,”

For the record, the position here, as an ethicist, lawyer but mostly as a stage director with some reputation for being innovative, any race and any gender can play any role, and if he or she is the artist with the talents to ensure the best performance, in the sole judgment of the director, should. Going on…

The professor then led these children into a discussion of an average person portraying someone with autism or a typical male actor playing a trans-woman, sparking this reaction as expressed in the letter:

When our professor commented, ‘That’s the whole point of acting. You’re supposed to transform,’ he minimized the stories of those communities and gaslit us into questioning if we were overreacting. We were rightfully upset that this was being facilitated in an academic setting by an authority figure. From his response, it became clear that he was making room for the argument that sometimes there are excuses to do blackface, other forms of whitewashing, and applauding dehumanizing caricatures.

The monstrosity closed by demanding that Pritchard attend a racial bias training workshop in addition to writing an apology letter and reading it aloud to his class. For me, a letter from my law school ethics class making a similar demand would be indistinguishable from a demand that I place my head under a pile driver while being costumed as the Burger King.

There is a wrenching scene in the Sixties film “Up the Down Staircase” set up when a sensitive, withdrawn female high school student pens a love letter to her English teacher. The teacher, played by the superb British actor Brian Bedford, calls her into his office and coldly critiques the letter’s grammar, style, and punctuation, humiliating her. Yet the students’ letter to Pritchard demanded as direct and thorough a dissection, and feelings be damned. A mindset such as theirs precludes education. Making a substantive argument, even as a devil’s advocate, is not “gaslighting.” Expressing an opinion that the listener does not hold and supporting that opinion is called debate. Furthermore, the belief that politically-based positions cannot be debated is antithetical to intellectual growth as well as civil discourse. he letter is primarily an appeal to emotion, arguing that if what the students heard “upset” them, then what they heard was, by definition, inappropriate for a professor to say. This delusion as well must be banished at the college level (and be exterminated earlier)

But Pritchard had neither the skill, integrity, courage or fortitude to explain any of that, or counter the many other fallacies in the letter. Instead, he read an apology to the students as they demanded. Pritchard began by arguing that the Olivier “Othello” was far from the worst instance of blackface in Hollywood, and asserted that the class has “an obligation to understand the scale and the historical dimensions of the things we condemn” as scholars and citizens. He then groveled:

I was, I suppose, trying to consider and understand the reasons that led Olivier to make these artistic choices. I now see why many of you took that as my “making room to excuse blackface.” I was mostly interested in the broader question of authenticity in casting. Under what circumstances does an actor need to actually “be” some aspect of the character they play? (This is, as you know, a central issue in Othello itself – recall Iago’s declaration, “I am not what I am” – and in Shakespeare more broadly, as when Viola says “I am not that I play,” or when Hamlet distinguishes between “the actions that a man might play” and “that within which passeth show.”) Does the actor playing Shylock need to be Jewish? How elderly does the actor playing Lear need to be (the text stipulates “[f]ourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less”)? The point I was trying to convey is that there are problems with the authenticity model of casting as well. Still, as I noted in class, there are huge asymmetries and structural inequalities in our systems of race and gender, and there are important reasons why opening up traditionally “white” roles to actors of color should not therefore lead to white actors gobbling up the relatively few lead roles that have traditionally been available to people of color.

In sharing with you the story of the professor at Michigan who ran afoul of his students by showing them the entirety of Olivier’s “Othello,” I was trying to acknowledge that I had made a mistake in the previous class. I agree that it would have been far better for me to have admitted that directly and openly. I guess I was still hoping at that point that I hadn’t messed up in the way that other professor had, but it’s clear to me now that I messed up in my own way.

Let me take a brief “throwing up in my mouth” break. OK, done; next Pritchard assented to attending the workshops the student demanded—you know, to have his racist brain washed…

Indeed, I see an increasing need for me to do so, as certain courses that I teach engage directly with issues of race,” he wrote. “I am aware that there is a gulf between how I am inclined to think and talk about race and how my students do, and I am eager to find ways to bridge that gulf. I certainly never want to do what your letter informs me I have done, which is to make ‘students of color feel unwelcome and dehumanized. Hopefully those workshops, and conversations with you as well, can help me to avoid doing so in the future.

Pritchard needs to be fired. Now. No professor can be effective if he or she agrees that the students can dictate what the professor can teach and how it can be taught. Indeed, no leader or supervisor in any setting can continue once authority has been ceded like that.

How a professor should best deal with students who write such a letter is another matter, but responding as Pritchard did is clearly wrong, incompetent and irresponsible. As the dead-eyed soldiers of extreme ideology continue to require capitulation without reason based on intimidation and assertions of infallibility, the dwindling number of Americans who possess principles and perspective as well as influence and authority must not emulate Pritchard and his destructive tribe of weenies.

Democracy depends on it.

Oh…I forgot to mention that the students were not satisfied with Pritchard’s grovel. Of course they weren’t.

24 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce, Weenie Of The Month, And, To Be Blunt, An Incompetent Teacher: Lewis & Clark College Professor William Pritchard

  1. I could, and perhaps will in the future, write something erudite and argumentative about this case. Right now, however, I am left with a three word response: Oh, bloody hell.

  2. This stuff is pure power play games. I’m surprised the alleged students haven’t insisted their alleged professor wear his underwear on the outside of his clothes and read the letter while hopping on one foot.

    Robert Sarver, lead owner of the Phoenix NBA franchise, is evidently being “investigated” for daring to to say the word “nigger.” In what context? He asked the black coach of the team why a black member of an opposing team was allowed to call one of the black Phoenix players a nigger? That’s right. And now people are militating for him to be required to sell his billion dollar asset.

    This goes back to the Papa John’s Pizza founder being driven out of his company for saying “nigger,” not as a slur but during a discussion about various people’s attitudes. He acquiesced. These power mongers must be confronted rather than emboldened. If not using “the N-word” is a serious offense, these power mongers have already won.

    • I had never really understood how the Chinese Red Guard worked. Why were students making their teachers do ridiculous things, and why were the teachers doing them?

      I guess now I know.

  3. “Some students were shaken for the rest of the day, and days to follow.”

    Sheesh!! No unit of measure could determine the depths to which committed snowFLAKES will plummet in order to demonstrate their feelz.

  4. The professor exposed the irrationality of the student’s position, and instead of changing their minds, they cried. I am tempted to argue for a rule that anyone who cries like this and tries to censor others should be immediately expelled from a university.

  5. Fee paying students are ‘customers’ and as such can ask for or even demand whatever they want: just as can my fee paying clients, or customers of the baker. Whether or not such demands are met is up to the college, the professor and the baker. On any vaguely rational planet the value of any qualification from this college should plummet, the professor should be unemployable, no student of quality should have any interest in attending, and the bread should rot on the shelves. Such adjustments in the market of course take time, but surely this college and the professor should soon be laughing stocks? To those who care and can : spread the word. Students from this college are unemployable. This is what ‘discrimination’ is for, fair or not.

  6. I am sorry. I just couldn’t (and can’t) bring myself to read what he said — I just skipped over that part of the post.

    I’ve seen and read too many of these things. They’re disgusting and depressing.

    And no, of course they didn’t accept it — they never do. The whole point is to ruin this person and destroy his career, and he has become complicit in it. His only chance is to stand up to them,. I think.

  7. Wow. Just… wow. [inhales through the nose; exhales through mouth] There’s a difference between evoking a character from another background as a stereotype versus evoking them as a person, with flaws and virtues like any other person. That said, any given portrayal can incorporate elements of both, and which is which can be quite subjective and contextual.

    Nevertheless, there is more of use I have to say on this, and I’ll put my Visionary Vocabularies on the line to do so.

    Collaborative problem-solving method:
    1. Understand one’s own values
    We value people being able to discuss ideas freely, without other people silencing them because their feelings are hurt. We value being able to partake of literature and culture without it being censored by people who don’t want anyone to see it or get ideas from it. We fear dogma, the overregulated mode of stagnation, which places restrictions on thought and therefore prevents change that is necessary for human survival, improvement, and self-actualization. We also fear corruption: the overregulated mode of conflict, which gives unbalanced power to those who would decide what can and cannot be read, contemplated or communicated.

    2. Understand others’ values
    The people who are offended by Olivier as Othello value control over their own image, representation, and reputation. That’s something they’ve not had much of, nor for very long. The groups of people to whom they are represented have a great deal of direct and indirect influence over their individual and collective lives. Those who are offended by Olivier as Othello value having that self-representation in culture in the first place, and also being able to protect it by condemning and shunning those outside their group who would borrow traits that represent them.

    They fear various forms of stagnation and corruption as a result of having their public image as a culture distorted: the decadence of sloppy thinkers who believe whatever simple prejudice comes easiest to them, the dogma of bigotry, the turmoil of those who would assert dominance through violence, and the corruption of those who would wield laws, infrastructure, and bureaucracy as weapons of oppression against them.

    (Side note: Few of them are aware of or confident in constructive ways to address those liabilities, so they may tend to use the same destructive tradeoffs to fight back, particularly dogma to stop the thoughts that they think may lead to oppression. That’s fairly normal for humans. Hurt people hurt people, as they say.)

    3. Frame the situation constructively
    This is where brainstorming with more stakeholders helps, but speaking just from my own experience I’d say there are many more effective and less objectionable ways to make sure a people is represented and treated fairly while still leaving room for free and even frivolous speech.

    To start with, I would work to demonstrate how free thought and speech is not just a lofty ideal that amounts to nothing more than allowing people to troll with impunity. Skilled use of speech can counteract damage done by other speech. (It’s also the second most effective method for doing so, deeds being the first.) In other words, I would demonstrate how to compellingly refute bigotry through public discussion and deconstruction rather than banishing it by fiat, which only makes it stronger. We can deal with caricatures by introducing more data points in the public consciousness to paint a balanced picture of people on average. I would hope that might allay concerns about a white human playing Othello. If one portrayal suffers a critical lack of nuance, people can just wince and move on.

    That brings us to the second idea. I suggest that people collaborate to identify some values, concepts, and styles of their own cultures that they would encourage other people to learn and perhaps adopt. That way key aspects of their cultures will be more widely represented, and normalized rather than othered. This in turn will establish common cultural ground that facilitates respect and communication. Furthermore, it’s unrealistic to expect both representation and respect without permitting imitation; that just leads to sour grapes. Few people are going to accept culture they can’t contribute to. If you can’t join ’em, ostracize ’em. This point is a bit shakier due to the danger of leaving behind the voice of marginalized stakeholders even as their values are partially copied and spread, but I think it has some potential. At the very least better cultural literacy should help us tell the difference between a stereotype and a faithful representation of a person.

    Thirdly, we need better foundational education in general across the board. The more people are able to recognize, appreciate, and learn skills across contexts, the more they’ll see they have in common and the better they’ll be able to work together across cultural paradigms. It will also help people move into contexts where they want to be represented (and which probably welcome their representation).

    (Now that I write these ideas, it occurs to me that my toolbox of concepts can actually help with their implementation as well.)

    You can apply the above method in a real conversation by incorporating it into the below method:

    Deconstruction method:
    1. Make them comfortable
    After listening, go through the items in the “2. Understand others’ values” step above, so they know you’re taking them seriously. Make sure to confirm that they’re satisfied it’s a decent description. (Maybe stop before the side note.)

    2. Make them think
    Now introduce the ideas in “1. Understand one’s own values.” This is where they see that there really are other values at stake, not just indefensible ignorance and selfishness.

    3. Make them choose
    Here’s where you present the most constructive options in “3. Frame the situation constructively” that you can think of, and invite people to revise them or add their own.

    (If you think that’s good, want to help me go pro?)

  8. … He was asking us if a white man could do a better job of playing a Black character than a Black man …

    He wasn’t asking them that. He was asking whether – mutatis mutandis – it could turn out that some particular white man could bring out better than some particular black man, through portrayal of actions and speech, the personal qualities that go with Shakespearean tragedy: of being someone who only reached his heights from being what he is, yet falls from those same personal qualities – a fall that practically every other person would therefore avoid, not having those qualities. The blackness of Othello is there, and may well feed into it, but the same could be said of the Danishness of Hamlet without necessitating an echt gloomy Dane for the part. I couldn’t say whether Laurence Olivier* would necessarily have played Othello better than Paul Robeson, but I can say that few actors, white or black, could have done it better than either.

    * I don’t know if he had been knighted when he played Othello.

    Pritchard needs to be fired.

    Codswallop. He needs to extricate himself from a predicament. If you need him to be fired, don’t hide behind projection. Are you turning into the sort of person who makes out he is having a cat or dog neutered for its own good?

    • He’s a bad teacher, P.M. Any teacher who agrees to let the students dictate that they only be “taught” what confirms their own biases is in the wrong profession, and isn’t astute enough to recognize it.

      • That is utterly correct and utterly beside the point. He, himself, has no need whatsoever to get out. Others need that. For you to conflate the two is projection, which could only ever even be arguable if – like neutering – you really did make out that getting out would be for his own good.

          • Don’t answer this for me, and indeed don’t feel obliged to post a reply, as I only intend it as food for thought, in the hope that you will thereby infer that you have a blind spot in this area: by what measure would quitting benefit him? You could make the same claim that Stalin “needed” to quit for his own good – yet riding the tiger served him better (yes, I know the circumstances are not the same; the very fact that the argument fits such disparate things illustrates the point).

            As I see it, if Pritchard were to quit, that would make him worse off by any measure of him, personally. Yet you keep re-iterating things like “wrong profession” that take the focus off him, and completely fail to address the point. He could be the very worst dog catcher in the world, say, yet if he could get and keep that post, even in an underhanded way, it could serve him well. All the true statements against that rest on the – very sound – interests of others. All I am asking is that you do not obscure this, particularly from yourself; that way the self-deception of the woke lies.

            What concerns me is that this transferring or projecting is what leads so many astray in, say, arguing that lock downs or vaccine mandates are for the people they are done to. It obscures the utilitarianism at play, since it gets hard to see that it is really aimed at helping others if one accepts the bait and switch from the benefit of others to that of those on the receiving end. If we condone that, we leave ourselves open to the same in other areas.

  9. I’m currently listening to a Teaching Company course on Plato’s Republic by esteemed BU professor David Roochnik. Whenever he gets to an issue that isn’t consistent with contemporary sensibilities (a not infrequent occurrence in the text), he reminds his listeners that they have a responsibility to consider the topic as presented in the text and – instead of merely rejecting it out of hand because it’s offensive – determine how/why it offends us. Not only does that help the listeners to better understand Plato, but it also helps us to better understand one’s own views on the topic.
    Similarly, when my undergraduate students are required to consider ‘uncomfortable’ viewpoints in assigned readings or classroom discussions, my guidance to them is, while they don’t have to *agree* with what is being discussed, they have a duty to *understand* that viewpoint. Rejecting without reflecting isn’t being educated – it’s perpetuating callowness.

  10. I think its bizarre how the focus of this article seems to be your perceptions and judgements of the faceless individuals from a single article. Since when is old hollywood racism a political bias that would be enriching for students? This article reads more as your gripes with private liberal universities than it does a real analysis of black face in a educational setting. The concept that a white man needs to put on black face paint to play a “black” character is inherently racist. Playing devils advocate for black face isn’t invigorating or a taste of the real world for students, it perpetuates extremely harmful stereotypes for black people that have real affects for them in professional settings. But something tells me thats an experience none of these commenters would understand. You guys continue to complain about the education at a private institute and get upset about me giving a different perspective than this echo-chamber of comments.

    • “The concept that a white man needs to put on black face paint to play a “black” character is inherently racist.”

      That’s the point: it’s not. Yours is just a “my mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with facts” opinion, that doesn’t address the essay at all. Make-up isn’t racist. If one is “triggered” by non-racist make-up, that’s the triggeree’s problem. The superficial resemblance between the white performers who donned black greasepaint to mock and ridicule blacks during the Jim Crow era and a serious, honorable actor using makeup to play the kind of famous tragic figures he excels at is trivial, and the objections to it are contrived and logically indefensible. The professor wasn;t playing devil’s advocate for blackface, because blackface wasn’t involved in Olivier’s film. He was not denigrating blacks by portraying one any more than Lon Cheney was denigrating burn victims with his make-up as the Phantom of the Opera.

      Repeating ideological cant isn’t an argument; it’s lazy and useless. You assert that a white actor, however skilled, can never play Othello (but, of course, black actors can play Hamlet, the Dane). That makes neither logical nor theatrical sense. (Unless your ambiguous sentence means that a white actor doesn’t need to wear appropriate make-up to play a character whose blackness is essential to his tragic story. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt and assuming you know how stupid that theory is.

      Do better next time.

    • snowflake wrote, “But something tells me that’s an experience none of these commenters would understand.”

      That’s a bigoted statement.

      Bigoted: obstinately or unreasonably attached to a belief, opinion, or faction, in particular prejudiced against or antagonistic toward a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular group.

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