Speak if You Can – If Not, Stay Silent

November 25, 2011

Learning, Political Theory


Over a month ago an article appeared on the front page of nytimes.com titled “Stutterer Speaks Up in Class; His Professor Says Keep Quiet” which can be read by clicking here.  The first thing that caught my attention about this article was that in takes place in Randolph New Jersey – specifically County College of Morris (CCM).  I went to Randolph high school, and a fair amount of students I know are now attending CCM so I knew that was going to be a good read.

CCM is often called Harvard on the hill

The article overall is about a 16 year old, Philip, who has a “profound stutter that makes talking difficult, and talking quickly impossible.” He actively participated in a history class (which is unusual for someone with a stutter) where his professor, Elizabeth Snyder, denied him the right to speak in class.  One lecture, his hand was raised for 75 minutes, and she refused to call on him.  She told him to stop talking in class due to the fact that his “speaking is disruptive” and she would prefer it if he “kept a sheet of paper on your desk and wrote down the answers” to her questions.  She also “sent him an e-mail asking that he pose questions before or after class, ‘so we do not infringe on other students’ time.'”

Students in his class mentioned that yes it did take a lot of time for Philip to ask questions, but they were on topic, and they did contribute to class discussion.  Should the teacher have ignored a student with his hand raised?  Is this situation something that Mill would agree or disagree with?

I’m trying to decide how Mill would judge Philip’s position.  One important quote by Mill which has been mentioned several times in this class follows:  “But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race.”  Yes the teacher was silencing Philip in class, but he was encouraged to talk to her before and after class and write down his answers so that class could continue in a timely matter so technically his opinion was not silenced. The teacher no longer encouraged him to talk in class, but that does not mean that she did not care about what he had to say – only that it took too long for him to make a point which she did not have time for. However, I feel that Mill would disagree with the professor’s actions because she was silencing his right to speak in public – sending e-mails and writing down his responses is not equal to participating in class and communicating with others. Mill emphasizes the importance of open communication and learning from others the different opinions that we all have which Philip was not allowed to share.

Another point raised in this article is equality and the right of one person versus the good of the whole. Once again, Philip was not allowed to speak due to the fact that it took too much time which impeded the learning of everyone present in the class. The article mentions “that society does not recognize [stuttering] as a disability, and touches on an age-old pedagogical — and social — theme: the balance between the needs of an individual and the good of a group.” I would agree that there is an inequality between how we as a society treat those with a physical disability compared to those with a stutter – the article even mentions how “the same people who accept a delay in a bus ride to load a disabled passenger are often less patient with those who struggle to speak clearly.”

I do not know anyone with a stutter, but I can understand how frustrating it can be to try to understand what someone is saying just by trying to communicate with people with a thick accent or in a different language. I do not think people realize how a stutter is genetic, and a person cannot help how they speak – I know I never really thought about it before writing this post. Even the movie, The King’s Speech illustrates the difficulties and struggles of having a speech impediment, but I never realized that people still have stutters today.

For a solution to the question of inequality in the classroom, I feel that the professor should have a one comment per student limit if she really did not want to have Philip taking up too much time. It is unfair to tell one student to stop participating in class, and I hope Randolph stops making front page news for disappointing behavior.

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9 Comments on “Speak if You Can – If Not, Stay Silent”

  1. ymsyed Says:

    I find it absolutely outrageous that a teacher would essentially punish a student over something which he or she does not have any control. Phillip did not choose to have a stutter, and in my opinion, society should help him overcome any hardships that he may face rather than stopping him from speak.

    I also believe that Mill’s arguments in “On Liberty” do not support Professor Snyder’s actions. Although Phillip may take a little bit more time than others when he speaks, he is not bringing any sort of harm to his fellow students or professor. It is–if anything at all–just an inconvenience. In the text, Mill argues that the only condition under which freedom of expression can be suppressed is if it causes some sort of harms to others. This is clearly not such a case.

  2. walirajat Says:

    Thank you for your post! During my time in High School, I faced a similar situation where one of my best friends had a stutter and would often find it extremely difficult to communicate his ideas in a clear and concise manner. There were always going to be a bunch of class bullies who would take his inability to articulate properly as a sign of immense weakness and mock him. However what amazed and inspired me the most was his ability to stand up to the bullies and hold his own ground.

    It almost felt as if that every time he was put down by anyone because of his stuttering or told he cannot address the school during the morning assembly, he would be inspired to work hard on his speech. I often found him coming earlier than others to school and just practicing out aloud various prose and poetry. Fast forward to the present and the stutter has almost gone and my friend is now working at a non profit organization as a motivational speaker. This is called coming full circle.

    Many individuals are born with disabilities, some more obvious than the others. moving forward, as compassionate human beings, it is essential for all of us to be mindful and respectful of each other and realize that our words and actions have profound impact on people. If we have nothing supportive/positive/encouraging to say, we should just stay silent.

  3. Danielle Studenberg Says:

    I completely disagree with the professor, Elizabeth Snyder, and her actions during class. It’s outrageous that she would treat a student with such disrespect and not even acknowledge them during class. If I were in the student’s place I would have brought this problem up much sooner to the school. Snyder treated the student as if they did not belong in class and had some sort of learning disability, which is not the case at all. A stutter is hardly something to be concerned about and those with disabilities have as much of a right to learn and ask questions as anyone else.

    I believe that Mill definitely would not approve of Snyder’s actions. They are imposing on the student’s freedom of expression because he was not allowed to speak in class. Even writing down questions and showing them before/after class to his teacher is denying everyone else their right to “the marketplace of ideas.”

    It is a good thought to have Snyder set a limit to number of questions asked per class if she is concerned about timing. This would let students voice their opinions yet still keep her class on track.

  4. jeanchaw Says:

    Discrimination has plagued our country since it’s founding. Prejudice in any form should not be tolerated. When I read this blog it infuriated me that a teacher would silence a student due to a disability and I believe Elizabeth Snyder should be banned from teaching. Mill would agree with me because silencing that student not only deprived him of learning but it deprived the whole class. Making him ask questions before or after class takes away the other students’ opportunity to hear the question and learn from it.

    The argument that a stutter is not a disability is outrageous. The professor made this students stutter even more of a disability by completely silencing him in class. A stutter may not be the most obvious disability, but it is still a disability nonetheless. I’m very surprised that issues such as this still occur in our rapidly advancing society.

  5. bmauto21 Says:

    There is absolutely no way you can favor or deny someone with a disability without it being seen as wrong. Especially when it comes to a stutter where a persons only difficulty is speaking, there should be no favoritism towards students with or without the disability. In order to keep it fair, a professor should set up a guideline for speaking in class that is set for everyone and doesn’t single out any individual. I agree that if the professor sets a limit, for example once, where a student can speak up then it eliminates a kid with a stutter from constantly trying to engage in class conversation while also setting the same guideline for people without a stutter. John Stuart Mill would believe that this does violate a persons freedom of speech, and under any circumstances no one should be told you can not speak your mind.
    I have a friend with a stutter and while it is minor he has gone through so much abuse over it. Today people are more understanding of disabilities and that they should make the disabled feel “special” but rather treat them like anybody else. Of course stuttering is not as serious a disability as lets say someone in a wheel chair, but it still does not go unnoticed. My friend was once bullied so hard that he chose not to speak for a week and when he started to participate teachers still got frustrated with his stutter. It wasn’t until his family called the school until he was treated like everyone else in the classroom. This teacher never denied him the right to speak but made him feel awkward by expressing his frustration at the stuttering. John Stuart Mill’s would say that everyone should be allowed there freedom of speech regardless of disability, especially one as minor as stuttering.

  6. nluongo Says:

    Although the majority of the time I would agree that the actions taken of the teacher are excessive, I think that there are situations in which they are justified. For example, what if it took the student 5 minutes to ask a single question? What about 10 or 15 minutes? My point is that there is a limit to which the teacher should have to suspend the lesson to accommodate a question because then it is taking away time from the other students to learn. I believe that making a blanket statement like, “The student should always be able to ask questions regardless of the inconvenience to other students” is not the right course because then one group is being disadvantaged (the rest of the class) instead of the other (the student with the stutter).

  7. Baihan Li Says:

    Well, I think the reason why we seldom get into trouble like this is that, people with stutter don’t often speak in front of the whole class. The case of Philip is rare because we don’t have much stutter students as bold as him. Philip’s desire to participate in the class is worth appreciating. However, it induces a problem of whether his manner is appropriate. Though his classmates interviewed stated it was fine for him to raise questions in class, we can hardly assert it is the altitude of majority. In fact, imagine that we have a stutter classmate who ask so many questions that we can hardly cover our materials in class, how many of you think it is absolutely OK to have this incomplete class? Our sympathy for disability is often built with a baseline of our basic right.

    Moreover, the responsibility of the teacher is to educate the whole class. Though she is responsible for each individual, she should never ignore the good of the whole class for an individual; nor can anyone, people with disability included, overrides rights of other students while they indeed worth more care.

  8. tylerhoffman1 Says:

    The author makes some solid arguments. We both agree with Mill that silencing anyone, no matter if they are educated or uneducated is “robbing the human race”. Although, I can understand the professor’s frustration with the student, a college lecture is simply not the place for a student to be asking questions, we come to see the professor lecture, and anything else may be a waste of time/money for some students. While this situation could have been handled in a much different way, the professors intentions are good because he still wanted to hear what the student had to say. By allowing the student to email or ask questions before/after class, the professor does not silence the student, which is exactly what Mill’s would want. Unfortunately, not everyone has a fair chance at participating in various spheres in the world, although different accommodations can be made on a case by case basis.

  9. emilyloz Says:

    I do not agree with the way the teacher handled the situation. If the student wasn’t embarrassed enough by the disability, I can only imagine the level of embarrassment afterwards. I would have stopped asking questions entirely, because I would have felt like an inconvenience. Once in high school, a girl called me stupid because I asked so many questions in math. After that, I didn’t ask a single question during class because I didn’t want to have to deal with every huff and puff the girl would make every time I raised my hand. I know that my situation is a lot less severe, but I believe that everyone functions and learns differently, and their learning should not be suppressed by teachers or classmates. Disabilities are all around us, and the best type of teachers are those who are able to work with them and are able to make accommodations suitable for every student.

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