Sticks and Stones: A Passe Saying

The childhood phrase (and song) “Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones but Words Will Never Hurt Me” has never been more wrong. There are many examples including in the field of education and in contemporary politics. Let me reference two. I am sure readers have many examples of their own.

Recently, the President of Mount St. Mary’s University talked about the need for his institution to improve its retention rate and one approach he suggested was to dismiss floundering students in the first few weeks of the semester (or at some time during the first year). The point, he said, was to insure that students did not incur needless debt. He referred to these students, in language that has been verified, as “bunnies” that needed to be drowned or to have a “Glock” put to their heads. Seriously. Only worse than this word was the Board’s effort to support their leader, citing his “British wit” as if that were a suitable excuse.

Words and phrases just referenced are hurtful but they are more than that. They message that vulnerable students are “bad” for an institution and need to be eradicated. These are words that hurt. True, they are not real sticks and stones but they break spirits and diminish pride and self-respect of students and perhaps faculty and administrators too. They are the emotional equivalent of sticks and stones.

Another example is the way in which commentators (among others) are referencing the student protesters on campus. They have no problem saying that these college students are coddled and privileged. Somehow, the critics assume that these words are not seen by or hurtful to the students (or others in education). But, these criticisms send the message that these students need to park their rights at the door when they enter the academy. The criticism is demeaning. When students perceive discrimination and feel unwelcomed and then complain, that does not mean they need to be quieted; listening to them is not coddling. As the president of Muhlenberg recently remarked, it is key to “speak out and listen in.”

There will be those who say let freedom of speech reign — even mean speech and hurtful speech. We just need to toughen up. To be sure, both speech examples referenced here are protected speech by the First Amenment. The President of Mount St. Mary’s University can say what he wants; he is free to do so. The folks who think students are coddled and child revolutionists are free to say and write what they want.

But, because one can speak badly of others does not mean one should do so.

That is where the phraseology of the saying “Sticks and Stones” sends us down the wrong pathway. Yes, real sticks and stones can break bones. But, it is equally true that words can be damaging and hurtful — and psychological wounds are harder to heal than many physical wounds. The gift of the First Amendment is that we are free to speak. The gift of restraint and the value of civility are qualities that make us an empathetic and compassionate people. The latter is equally powerful.

Written by

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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