The lead article by Marsha Dowell in this month's Journal of Nursing Education is a reminder of some very painful times. This fall many of us were glued to our public radio stations during the Senate Confirmation hearings. We listened as Anita Hill testified about sexual harassment and as Clarence Thomas countered with charges of racism. We listened as some of our most powerful senators were paralyzed in their ability to closely question the appointee regarding either his behavior or his qualifications. We listened as the votes were cast; for many women, the vote was a replay of the court decisions of the 1970s and the overwhelming feeling that sexual harassment continues to be considered, as Dowell points out, a trivial matter.
Dowell's article was submitted for publication about the same time that the issue of sexual harassment gained public attention. In it, she reviews its history, statutory law related to sexual harassment, litigation in education, and the impact on nursing education and educational administration. The article should serve, at the very least, as a guideline for what we as educators can do to create a climate in which sexual harassment of any form is simply not tolerated, in which students would feel free to report any incidents, and in which the negative effects of incidents that do occur could be minimized.
This article serves another important purpose. It is an example of a highly significant contemporary issue, surfacing in the political arena and bearing considerable consequences for our lives as people and as nurses. For many years now, within the halls of academe, there is a cultural commitment to maintaining the chasm between our public and private lives, between our ideologies and our practices as teachers, nurses, and scholars, between our personal and professional acts of citizenry. In our classrooms and clinical practices, we have concerned ourselves mostly with the goal of preparing our students to deliver safe, effective nursing care in the promotion or restoration of health. We hoped to produce leaders and agents of change, often in an environment held at great distance from the concerns of everyday life. We introduced courses on planned change, leadership and issues, often in the last year, and preserved the sanctity of clinical courses for addressing narrowly defined clinical topics.
Increasingly though, the cultural assumptions guiding academic life have been challenged and our goals as educators have become broader and deeper. In our recent literature and at nursing education conferences, many nursing scholars are questioning the assumption that it is desirable or even possible to maintain the gulf that separates us from significant social concerns. Our responsibility as educators in a health profession is also becoming crystallized - we must assist our students to become active citizens and spokespersons, learning to analyze various perspectives on health and health-related social issues, developing their skill in critique, and gaining a sense of moral obligation and professional citizenry in a larger community.
Never before has there been a time of such rapid social change nor such pressing issues that may profoundly affect both our everyday lives and our lives as nurses. A single issue of virtually any news magazine could be the curriculum for a year-long "Issues" course - from sexual harassment in the workplace to the crisis in the health care system, from the highly evolved whitefly capable of rapid mutation to preserve its pesticide resistance, to reports of increased incidence of cancer among people who live along a polluted riverbed, from the heightened public awareness of the spread of HIV to the heterosexual community, to the Congressional attempt to reverse the "gag rule." What opportunities outside of the time-honored issues course do we create for students to understand, discuss, debate, and act as professional citizens to address the enormous social issues before us? How many of us could find the time in our content-packed curriculum, or the courage to face head-on the issues that surfaced during the Thomas hearings, or the recent Pennsylvania election that placed health care squarely on the 1992 political agenda? How can we help students learn to actively participate in the public discourse so necessary for social change?