Not surprisingly, the Smith College School for Social Work is coming in for ridicule for renaming its Office of Field Education to avoid what it termed “negative associations.”
The graduate program’s April 28 email announcement linked the change to Smith’s “Toward Racial Justice Plan,” a document it said “calls us to reflect on our past and present to build a more just and inclusive future.”
Not only is that a noble goal, it’s an urgent one. We applaud institutions that work to eliminate bias and inequity. In this case, though, we think Smith – in copying a California university’s move – went after a language problem that didn’t exist.
In January, the University of Southern California was lampooned by conservative opinion-writers who leap on any chance to assail something “woke.” Those campaigns are for the most part coded criticism of anything perceived to be Black. The people who run the Smith grad program surely knew their announcement would come in for the same derision, as it already has.
It would be wrong not to act on a principle out of fear someone will make fun of you.
But in putting its reputation on the line, Smith feeds a narrative it should have avoided, inadvertently giving cultural wars critics an opening that overlooks the important service graduates of this nationally known program deliver, on the ground, to countless people in desperate need of someone who listens and counsels.
The word “field” has been scrubbed from the program’s website, though it still comes up in Google indexing. In its email, the program parroted language from USC’s announcement. USC said this: “Language can be powerful, and phrases such as ‘going into the field’ or ‘field work’ may have connotations for descendants of slavery and immigrant workers that are not benign.”
Smith said this: “We recognize that language is powerful and that phrases such as ‘going into the field’ or ‘field work’ may hold negative associations.”
It’s not quite plagiarism, but Smith clearly tips a hat to USC, though for some reason it stops short of making clear the negative association is slavery. Is “slavery” seen as a triggering word at Smith?
Let’s hope not.
The college wants, and deserves, different headlines, as it received in 2021 when it eliminated the use of loans in financial aid packages. And as it got in 2022, when it committed to using only renewable energy by 2030.
As of Friday afternoon, MassLive’s coverage of Smith’s distancing from the word “field” had prompted more than 2,600 comments on the website’s Facebook page.
One commenter, Dorcas Bethel, wrote: “I am a descendant of slaves and I had no issue with the term ‘field work’ when I went to social work graduate study. It was challenging unpaid labor. I like the new language but the justification for implementation is spurious. If you want to rename the office then just do so. I believe that as social workers we need to move past the cosmetic changes wokeism encourages.”
This comment came in from another social worker, Julia Sophia: “This performative virtual signaling is obnoxious,” she wrote. “If they want to make real changes for BIPOC, maybe they should focus on advocating for unions and higher wages, paid internships, and lowering the ridiculous price for licensure exams which would ensure that those who are not wealthy can attain education and licensure.”
Here and there, we found comments in muted support of the program’s decision. But most were disappointed by Smith, or worse. We give them the last words:
· “We use field so often in our profession and no one has ever found it offensive ever. Faculty, students, other healthcare professionals. If we start eliminating words that people find offensive there will be no words left!”
· “Phew, I’m so glad we moved past that troubling term. Maybe I’ll go for a walk in the farm open area thingy tomorrow.”
· “It’s only ‘racist’ because they want it to be. The rest of us understand the English language.”
· “Just stop … you can’t erase history just because you don’t like it. Also there’s nothing shameful about doing fieldwork or working in a field.”
Kiernan Majerus-Collins posted that he wished liberal institutions “would stop giving right-wingers material to make us look bad. Liberals (at least the kind I know) aren’t the language police. We’re the folks who believe in free speech, and who will fight like hell against the fascists banning books.”
And this, from Eric Peloquin: “This is what Malcolm Muggeridge was talking about when he spoke of those who would become ‘educated into imbecility.’”