There seems to be a lot of this going around lately....
While I originally noted the story of Professor Steve Bitterman from Iowa’s Southwestern Community College at Dispatches From The Culture Wars, Chris Heard has been following developments closely and provides some academic perspective on the situation. For those who are not familiar with the situation, the short story is that Bitterman was fired from his teaching position for stating in a Western Civilization class that portions of the Old Testament were not to be taken literally. The longer story is, as you might suspect, somewhat more complicated.
Heard has reviewed the details to date, including a current news item in the Des Moines Register. The scenario appears to be one in which some students became upset after Bitterman challenged their long-held belief systems, complained to the administration (using the word “lawyer”) and the administration promptly fired the professor. Heard suggests there are two parallel issues here and I agree with that assessment. The first is whether Bitterman was insulting to the student during the course of the disagreement. I wholly agree with Heard that professors should take extraordinary efforts not to fall into the trap of engaging students uncivilly. (I also agree with Heard that more than once I have found it difficult not to bring the verbal hammer down on a disruptive student who has no idea what he or she is talking about). A reader responded to Heard’s take on the situation and had this to say:
But I have noted that in other classes where the atmosphere was more laissez-faire, when fundamentalist students heard statements of fact that contradicted their beliefs, they became immediately belligerent, and even threatening. Not once, but every single time, without exception — to the point that I had to steer any such conversation away from class.
While I agree with you that perhaps Bitterman should not have such an abrasive style, my own personal experience in these situations leads me to take the students’ complaints with a huge amount of skepticism.
I agree with Heard that there are not enough details of the situation available to draw a confident conclusion regarding either the chain of events or the details of what actually transpired. However, Heard’s commenter touched on bit of familiarity for me regarding trying to teach fundamentalist Christian students about the real world. So I am going to do what I probably shouldn’t do at this point and draw some tentative conclusions:
- Steve Bitterman was fired unfairly and the Southwestern Community College administration is expressing the same cowardly stance as that maintained by Olivet Nazarene University regarding Richard Colling. College and university administrations need to be very careful about “mucking” with what is being taught in the classroom. They are supposed to be hiring people on the basis of their professional background and expertise within a given field – once that’s done the administration should be exceedingly reluctant to interfere with or comment on information being taught in class;
- The students complaining are probably not very bright. Or, at least they have no concept of what education is truly about and refuse to entertain anything that might contradict their personal cherished beliefs. They probably have fundamentalist Christian backgrounds; their education to this point had probably been dominated by local pastors/ministers, possibly home or private schooling, and/or by public school teachers unwilling to challenge them due to a domineering social/political atmosphere in the community; these students were probably very rude – their expectation, like that of Christians interrupting Buddhist prayer in the Senate (or a fundamentalist Muslim Imam) is that the world (including the professor and all other students in their classes) should conform to and uphold their own beliefs, without any consideration for the fact that a) there may be other ways to look at the world or b) their beliefs are in error;
- Bitterman may or may not have been rude to students, but if he was, my bet is that the students’ own disrespect for alternative views forced the issue. Although a professor should make all efforts to react with civil discourse, knowing the fundamentalist Christian student penchant for obstinately making their views the center of attention, Bitterman was probably pushed to the breaking point. Most of us in the teaching profession have been taken to or over that boundary at some time in our careers;
The second issue Heard raises is in regard to the nature of religious criticism. One student, clearly under the impression that anyone challenging her views was acting criminally, consulted a lawyer over the issue. Incredibly, the lawyer affirmed the student’s viewpoint, suggesting it had been illegal for Bitterman to criticize her religion. Heard’s reaction is completely on target:
Wait … did I read that right? A lawyer told her it was illegal for someone to insult her because of her religious beliefs, and moreover that it was actionable? When did that happen? It’s almost as if this were scripted to prove Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris right about the silliness of religious people thinking that religious views somehow get a “pass,” that one’s religious views are exempt from critical scrutiny or from the ridicule of others. No such legal protection exists. U.S. law protects its citizens from the imposition of a governmentally-chosen, governmentally-sponsored religion, and it protects its citizens from governmental restraint on the free exercise of religion. It does not grant religious citizens some sort of shield against criticism, even harshly insulting criticism. There are many things wrong with a professor insulting a student, but as far as I know, it isn’t a criminal offense.
When I first read the media account of the incident my thoughts were exactly as Heard anticipated: this is precisely why Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens are so popular…and why I believe Harris’s particular argument (that faith is actually dangerous) has some validity. Here is a student (and her lawyer) who honestly believes that her personal belief system is superior to all others, that it should not be subject to criticism, and more to the point, that the government should not only uphold and advance her religious view, but should act to criminally prosecute anyone who would criticize those views. If that ever actually happens in this country, the guns are going to come out (that is what the Second Amendment is for, isn’t it? – guarding against tyranny?)….
Finally, allow me to offer some perspective on Bitterman’s situation from my own position as adjunct teaching faculty at a small community college in a rural, conservative community (Lassen Community College). I also have plenty of opportunity to upset conservative Christian students in my courses – I teach human evolution (not a great subject to win friends in the fundamentalist community) plus I have a component on “biblical archaeology” in my world prehistory class. While I have had belligerent Christian students in classes over the years, the fact is that I have had very few of them and really none at the confrontational level Bitterman may have experienced. One reason may be that, although my blog would seem to indicate otherwise, I maintain a respect for student’s religious viewpoints in the classroom. This doesn’t mean I allow them to dominate the discussion or don’t challenge their views with alternatives – only that I explain the difficulty of their perspectives from the standpoint of science. I also try to turn their arguments into a lesson for the entire class: “Jenny has an interesting argument, however, if you all recall our discussion on geology, here’s why the flood argument doesn’t really work as an explanation…”. It also doesn’t hurt to point out or demonstrate (as I occasionally do) that I understand the creationist and intelligent design “arguments” better than they do. Most fundamentalists don’t like a public display of their faulty thinking (even if done with respect) – so I rarely get openly challenged. I am also somewhat of public figure locally – I’ve taught the human evolution course at Lassen College for about 10 years now, I’ve written editorials and letters to the local paper, and of course many in the community read Northstate Science – most students have a pretty good idea of what kind of perspective they’re going to get when they take one of my courses. Those that are likely to have heartburn with the subject matter don’t tend to take the course.
Bitterman is also apparently dealing with a meddling administration and I note with some interest that the Des Moines Register article referred to the situation of adjunct community college faculty as “adjunct hell”. I can’t say I’ve had the same experiences at Lassen College – I certainly would not describe it as “adjunct hell”. Are adjunct faculty underpaid? Yeah, probably – but then I don’t know a single teacher (K through college) who actually does the job for the pay. If we get a raise, that’s great, but I’m teaching for reasons other than pay. The administration has been supportive on all levels. I know of only one student complaint about me (and it apparently happened years ago – I only just heard about it through the campus grapevine). Of course it was a fundamentalist Christian student complaining that I was teaching human evolution! The fact that I never heard about this tells me the administration basically told this person (presumably politely) that this was a legitimate course, O’Brien is a legitimate professional in the field, and if you don’t like it you should look for another class. I would say that’s pretty supportive. Of course, administrations change (ours has recently) and you ultimately never know…but I have no reason not to expect support here at Lassen College.
Of course if anything does happen, I’m sure you will all be reading about it here….
UPDATE: I actually wrote this several days ago and in the meantime Chris Heard has another update and links to a newer Des Moines Register editorial on the subject. As Heard notes in the byline of his post, there are additional opinions but no new facts. After reading the editorial (and especially the reader comments at the end) I certainly have no reason to adjust my thinking on this subject.