Stephanie Eisner’s editorial cartoon for The Daily Texan.

In the wake of Stephanie Eisner’s exit from the University of Texas at Austin’s student newspaper The Daily Texan, some commenters have expressed concern in light of these reports over the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The basic concern involves Eisner’s punishment, as some reports suggest she was fired, for creating a cartoon featuring a woman reading to a child about the Trayvon Martin case. The very problematic cartoon misspells Martin’s name and refers to him as a “colored boy.” Commenters contend that while the view expressed may be offensive to some, the punishment denies Eisner her constitutional right to speak. What such a view fails to accept, it seems to me, is that Eisner does express her views. She offered her commentary and now she is being held responsible for her ideas. Freedom of speech does not entail freedom from responsibility.

Eisner’s critique of the “yellow journalism” involved in the news stories about the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case is effectively undermined by the fact that she misspells Martin’s first name. Thus, how well-researched is her own commentary if she misspells a principle subject’s name? The attention that Eisner draws to the racial narratives involved in the case anachronistically refer to Trayvon Martin, an African American, as “colored,” and while I don’t dispute the juxtaposition of adult and child, the fact that she refers to Martin as a “colored boy” renders this contrast racist.

Though I think that Eisner should definitely be expected to respond to her critics, I hope that she doesn’t decide to completely remove herself from journalism; after all, she is a student. Quitting would fully reflect a major limitation in constructions of good students as being lords of all the right answers. It’s a model that I think starts early in popular ideas about responsible ways of engaging young children about school. When parents ask children, “What did you learn in school today,” their question ostensibly marks an investment in the intellectual life of the child. However, I think this question comes too late in the day. A different model, one that Eisner would benefit from, would ask the child early morning questions like these: What are you thinking about this morning? What have you been thinking about lately? What do you want to learn about in school today? What kinds of questions are you going to ask so that you might come close to knowing that? These questions suggest that children should be actively engaged in education. Moreover, such questions support the pursuit of knowledge over the mere attainment of it. From this perspective, a more suitable end of the day question then involves asking the child whether or not they learned what they expected to and suggesting ways that going to the library, a museum, a farm, or a fire station might help the child further address their questions.

As it stands, students trained to think that being a good student means to tell everyone what they know are without recourse when their answers are inarticulately expressed, a-historic, ill-conceived, or just plain wrong. It’s not clear to me that Stephanie Eisner ever asked questions about representations of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case in popular culture. Eisner’s apology quoted in the Austin American-Statesman reflects on the commentary she had intended but not on the questions she asked. Students need to learn to ask clear and precise questions. Clear and precise questions reveal what you want to know and understand. Schooling should help discipline one’s ability to ask questions. Eisner’s claim that she is “not a racist” offers little consolation if she hasn’t spent time questioning why she referred to Martin as a “colored boy.” She would help herself better live out this claim if she questioned her own illustration of hate speech. It is hard to believe that someone who is “personally appalled by the killing of Trayvon Martin” would misspell his name and suggest that this dead child has been the recipient of too much sympathy and his killer too much blame. Her commentary reflects the brutal mean-spiritedness of limited questioning in racialized terms. Thus, I think it would help her to stay in school and continue pursuing journalism.

Being a student, someone truly committed to learning, is a humbling experience. Students who are taught to question are trained in humility because they are always admitting what they don’t know. A life-long learner, then, is someone who commits themselves to the practice of humility. My grandfather helped me in developing this view of learning. I don’t remember what I was poppin’ off about but whatever it was, I must have been arrogant and perhaps even agitated in expressing my views and engaging in discussion. I remember my grandfather saying to me, “you must not know your ABCs.” “What?” I said. “Of course I know my ABCs.” “Let me hear you say them,” my grandfather said. But as I set out to reciting the alphabet, my grandfather interrupted me, “See, you don’t know your ABCs,” he said:

“You got to Always Be Cool. Those are the ABCs that you clearly have not mastered.”

I remember thinking that he was right. My behavior and my arrogant recitation did not suggest that I knew even the fundamentals involved in exchanging ideas. I’ve never forgotten that lesson. So when I am really passionate about my position, I always return to the cool. This return forces me to think carefully before I speak; to be clear about what I am responding to; thinking through the implications of my ideas; to be measured in my responses. Discussing George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin requires humility and cool. Stephanie Eisner’s cartoon ignores the seriousness of Zimmerman’s actions, the loss of Martin’s life, the suffering of Martin’s friends and family. Continuing to work for the paper, in any capacity, with a serious awareness of what it means to be a student might help her in crafting future responses that more eloquently reflect views that more closely approximate who she claims to be as well as what she wants to say.

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For more posts on Trayvon Martin, see the A Heap See Page.