Saturday, April 6, 2013

Jesus Stomping

As a professor, I'm rather intolerant of attempts to infringe upon the academic freedom of faculty. So what, then, to make of the "Jesus Stomping" incident at another university. First, from what I have read in the media, the assignment was taken completely out of the original context in which it was developed and that context was so important that it should never have appeared in a widely dispersed textbook. The purported original author of the assignment was a faculty member at a Catholic university. Being a Catholic university, the paradox of the difference between Jesus of Nazareth and a piece of paper with the name "Jesus" would have been obvious to the students. And, again purportedly, the largely Catholic population of students would rarely actually stomp on the paper, that being the point, and the process would have ended there, morphing into a discussion of words as symbols. It presumably could transition into a discussion of the fact that, in Christianity, the Bible is the uniquely inspired word of God, but a copy of the Bible is not a holy relic. It is the ideas in the Bible that are Holy, not the pieces of paper on which they are printed. In this context, I can totally understand the intent of the original development of the assignment. I was an undergraduate at Jesuit-affiliated Georgetown University, and an assignment like this wouldn't have seemed out of place to me.

But at secular, public university like Florida Atlantic University, there would not have been the Christian "canopy" over the entire process. Students would have every reason to wonder why the word "Jesus" was chosen. Why not "Barack Obama" or "Gandhi" or "Eleanor Roosevelt"? The possibility that there would be more "stomping" on "Jesus" than at a religious university should have been anticipated. There is already an intense suspicion by many Christian students that the American academy treats religious Christians with less respect than the faithful of Islam, Buddhism, and so forth. Entire infrastructures of American military and diplomatic power have been upended over alleged mistreatment of the Koran. This assignment easily fed the narrative that American public institutions can feel uniquely free to insult Christianity.

Does this mean that I think that the instructor should be disciplined or fired? No, not unless there a) is some parallel evidence that the instructor chose the assignment specifically for the purpose of harassing Christian students, or b) the instructor stubbornly insists that there's nothing here that needs re-thinking. I have not seen any evidence of this, and indeed the instructor says that he is a devout Christian . Christians, of all people, should understand repentance and practice forgiveness. People make mistakes, and the mistakes of a college professor are in full public view. Should the assignment be discontinued? Yes.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that an assignment such as this has the potential to go beyond simply having students leave their comfort zone to becoming  personally insulting to Christian students. I understand the point of the former. I have lectures and assignments that are designed to have students look at the world in a different way. Academic freedom should be a steadfast defender of that right. I have a colleague who teaches a course that requires reading both Karl Marx and Ayn Rand. Just because some students are libertarians or Christian socialists shouldn't be a reason to delete Marx or Rand. Academic freedom also means that my colleague should be free to teach both Marx and Rand, not only if students are not fans but also regardless of which blogger or opinion columnist or politician gets their nose out of joint. But if I found that a student was personally insulted by my lectures or an assignment, I would feel terrible and would try to find a different way to make the same point in a less offensive way in the future. Maybe this isn't always possible. I know people whose relatives have been murdered by Hitler and others by Stalin, but that doesn't mean we can sanitize World War II. But with rights come responsibilities, and no professor should believe that (s)he has the right to insult students for his/her own personal agenda.

Now, there are many unanswered questions that need to be addressed on a different part of this story. Those questions involve the treatment of the student who protested the assignment. I'm not going to take a position here on what actually happened, because there appears to be so much dispute. But any student should have the right to convey concerns about an assignment to a higher authority without fear of reprisals. That is a value as important as academic freedom. To me, this is the really important part of the story that I will be following.

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