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December 1993


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Jesse Kalin <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 21 Dec 1993 11:57:42 -0400
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One thing I found particularly interesting in the Iowa policy (as reported
in the "Chronicle for Higher Education", eg.) was the provision made for,
in the case of a particular screening/assignment, alternative coursework
or, when that could not be arranged with the instructor, penalty free
withdrawal from the course.  When such materials were substantial in the
course, this had to be stated at the beginning so students could be warned
and not enroll.
There are several principles involved or relevant here. (1) Subject
matter/course integrity, with its allied principle of the instructor's
academic freedom; and (2) some notion of a student right of informed
consent (there are other issues involved, too, such as the relationship
between something's being offensive and some party's taking offense, but
I'll put those aside).
(2) derives from some version of "treat no one solely as a means but also
as an end", the notion of persons as autonomous moral agents due respect,
and forms of political theory in which consent in some form is the ground
of authority and the guarantor of self-protection.    (2) is now a formal
requirement in the behaviorial and natural sciences.  Any experiment using
human subjects must pass an institutional review board which raises this
issue and requires (as full as possible) information to the subject about
what the experiment involves.  Any experiment requiring deception is in
conflict with the principle of informed consent and here scientific
knowledge is in conflict with the moral requirements of respect and
autonomy.  Sometimes decption is approved (in which case the subjects will
still think they are giving informed consent) and sometimes it isn't.
One can construe the Iowa principles as taking the notion of informed
consent as having serious application to college and university education
(I know, there are probably more immediate political sources for the
policy, etc.  The question here is can such a policy be justified.) and I
think it has great force when seen in these terms.  A fundamental
underpinning value of liberal arts education is autonomy and
autonomy--self-responsibility--is one of its fundamental goals (again, all
of this is quite different from the appeals to consumerism in education
that many have made [or decried] in these cases).  For these reasons, I
dislike giving students material they don't know the nature of--thus, I
provide the ratings letters (including 'X' or 'NC') when available or they
would be that, with an indication of reason.  For either "Taxi Driver" or
"Love and Anarchy" I have said they involve violence, and for "Cook,
Thief..." and De Palma's "Scarface" I have said there is a particularly
high level of violence in the language, etc.
But there is a real tension between this principle and the nature of
liberal arts education itself.  Education is not a commodity.  We seek to
change people--how they think and feel--and you cannot give true informed
consent to being changed in a way you don't yet know or understand.  (A
good introductory philosophy course, eg., might carry a warning
label--"After this course--if you pay attention and it works--things are
going to be much less clear and harder to get answers to.")  Now in general
people are free to "retract their consent" and get out--they can drop
college--though not exactly without penalty, since you don't get your money
The conflict between (1) and (2) seems to me to be deepened because I think
the integrity of a number of disciplines requires consideration of
offending, sexual explicit, homoerotic, violent, and repulsive
materials--this includes the fields of film, literature, art history, and
probably moral and political philosophy.  No graduate program could acceed
to the rule that a student could be free to choose their courses or the
material of study, nor could any undergraduate program, though the
necessity of considering material of this kind is probably not strong.  No
college or university can acceed to student choice--without penality--to
courses for a degree.  The excuse provisions of the Iowa principles begin
to point in this direction.
Jesse Kalin, Vassar College