A 25-year-old graduate student at Northwestern University is making headlines this week in a dispute with his music professor. For his final exam, Timothy McNair "is required to perform three songs at a June 8 concert as part of his music class," a Chicago television station reports. "One of them contains the writings of American poet Walt Whitman." But the student says he won't perform anything that includes the words of "one of the most historically racist poets of U.S. history" who "called African Americans baboons" and favored suppressing voting rights. Nothing offends him in the particular song he is being asked to sing save the identity of the artist.
The song isn't racist. Just the guy who wrote its words. (This surprises a lot of people about Whitman. But it's definitely true. Here's a treatment of Whitman's racial attitudes and their complicated relationship with his work.)
The debate I've followed has focused on whether it would be right to fail the student, as his professor has allegedly threatened, or if he should be permitted to sing something different for the exam. I'll leave that question to folks more familiar with the major, the assignment and its purpose. But I would respectfully suggest that McNair is taking a stand and jeopardizing his academic standing for a terribly flawed idea that would make the world a worse place were it widely accepted.