A college with which I am affiliated discovered that its alma mater was written for a blackface minstrel show in the 1900s. Although the lyrics are innocuous, the school banned the song from this year's graduation and formed a group to discuss its future use, part of a campaign to make students aware of things they take for granted. Is this a good response, or should the school focus on more important issues? Is it unethical to sing the song? -- Julia DeIuliis, Philadelphia
Sing out -- full-throated, clear-conscienced. I would be reluctant to intone words that might wound, particularly my fellow students, particularly at graduation, an event they should enjoy unambivalently. (Save for the mounting terror of repaying their massive student debt.) But if, as you note, the lyrics of this alma mater are benign ("Hail to thee ... " and the like), then dubious origins need not force the college to abjure it. "Oh! Susanna," the first song for which Stephen Foster received a cash payment (two crisp $50 bills), the one that started his career, was first performed in minstrel shows, but that is no reason to purge it from the summer-camp repertory.
Much in our culture has evolved beyond its origins. To shake hands once demonstrated that you did not hold a sword, but to extend your hand today does not imply that you suspect another is armed. There are words we use in polite society despite their murky birth: "Philistine," for example, was a sort of ethnic slur. If the alma mater currently carries no toxic connotations, you need not eschew it.
The school's response is not only ethical but also admirable. It did what a college should: cultivate in its students an alertness to the historical origins and cultural implications of things around them. This particular project may be evaluated for its efficacy -- does it achieve this worthy goal? -- but should still be praised for its intent. And if from time to time such activities drift toward minor matters, that need not prevent the school from tackling more significant issues. The persistence of murder does not compel us to ignore burglary.
I live in the Czech Republic. When my girlfriend and I visited Karlstejn Castle near Prague, we noticed a discrepancy in the ticket prices. Foreign-language tours were twice the price of tours conducted in Czech. And where prices for the former were displayed in numerals, the latter were spelled out, making them incomprehensible to most foreigners, perhaps a way to avoid complaints. Foreign-language tour guides might command higher salaries, but is it ethical to charge two different prices? To display the prices in this way? -- Richard Conaway, Ostrava
There may indeed be legitimate reasons for these prices. They could reflect actual costs, as you note. Or they could be an odd incentive to encourage visitors to learn Czech. Or they could simply offer a discount to inspire Czechs to view their own national heritage, particularly apt if public money in any way supports the castle. (Here in the U.S., many state universities charge state residents less than students from elsewhere.) But whatever the reasons, sound or capricious, prices should be clearly marked so visitors can size up the situation and decide if they want to pay. If this sort of transparency leads to complaints, so be it. Castle managers should be prepared to explain their prices (or to pour boiling oil from the battlements onto visitors who besiege them with complaints).