Thinking Christian

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James Corbett “Taught Us How To Think”

Posted on Dec 20, 2007 by Tom Gilson

He Made Us Think

He’s all about opening people’s minds.

I don’t agree with everything he says, but that’s not the point. Can you tolerate someone saying something that you don’t agree with? Can you have a fiery debate about ideas? It scares me that that’s not acceptable.

These were some of the views expressed yesterday at a demonstration in support of James Corbett, an Orange County, CA history teacher who is being sued for persistently denigrating the Christian religion in class. But all these protests miss the point. If I were James Corbett, I’d be appalled and embarrassed.

The Situation
Let’s back up a moment and review what has been happening. According to the lawsuit, Corbett has been recorded on tape saying,

How do you get the peasants to oppose something that is in their best interest? Religion. You have to have something that is irrational to counter that rational approach.

When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.

Conservatives don’t want women to avoid pregnancies – that’s interfering with God’s work.

Religion is ‘not connected with morality.’

He compared Christians to “Muslim fundamentalists” who want women to

stay pregnant, barefoot, and in the kitchen and have babies until your body collapses.

And he suggested that churchgoers are more likely to commit rape and murder. See the court complaint (PDF) for more.

So what’s the issue, then? The Los Angeles Times reported (the link to the article has expired) on a 90-minute demonstration in support of Corbett yesterday. The opening quotes above came from that demonstration. Tom Airey, a Christian fellow teacher at Corbett’s school wrote on behalf of Corbett in the Orange County Register,

Corbett has been a powerful reminder to me that we ‘Christians’ do not have the monopoly on truth … In an age where there is probably too much emphasis on teaching to the standards and getting ‘the facts’ right, Corbett is training young students to think critically.

The Register’s own report on the demonstration includes:

Many of Corbett’s current and former students have rushed to his defense, saying he not only has the right to comment on traditional Christian viewpoints on topics such as birth control, teenage sex and homosexuality, but that his talks force students to think critically about their own views.

Teaching Them How to Think?
“He Taught Us To Think.” That’s the common theme of the above. Now, teaching students to think is incredibly important. I wrote about it three times yesterday. I have trouble believing Corbett really did that, though, when I see his students’ thinking on this matter: it’s entirely disconnected from the facts! The legal complaint that was placed against Corbett is not about free speech rights, or about his being controversial. It’s a very specific Constitutional issue. American public schools are prohibited from supporting any religion. Case law also prohibits them from denigrating a religion. Corbett has been persistently breaking the law. “Corbett taught us how to think” is no defense against that charge.

Being taught how to think does not just mean being made aware of viewpoints different from your own. It means learning how to evaluate them. That includes knowing what background information is relevant to the question. Corbett might be the most interesting and stimulating teacher in the school. He might be terribly successful in imparting a joy in learning. That’s all believable enough, and if that’s so, then that is good. But under U.S. law he cannot legally denigrate Christianity, as he has apparently been doing.

Teaching How to Think Sloppily
It appears, in fact, based on the information we have before us, that he has actually been training students to think sloppily. He compares crime rates and religiosity in Sweden and the U.S., and concludes that religion is a contributor to crime. That’s about as bad as you can get in drawing conclusions from social research. Good thinking recognizes that correlation does not equal causation. It also acknowledges and addresses contrary research when it exists, which it certainly does (including several of the items here).

To teach students to think, a teacher ought to include data that he himself finds challenging. Corbett apparently ignores scholarship on the history of Christian rationality, however (see any of Rodney Stark’s recent books), and also on the historically Christian roots of women’s increasing freedom (up until at least 1970 or so, when women’s advocacy took a partial turn away from its Christian roots). Did Corbett demonstrate for the students the practice of thinking through contrary viewpoints? Did he actually consider any contrary viewpoints?

A Level Playing Field
Gordon Dillow, opinion columnist for the Orange County Register, sees the issues far more clearly than the demonstrators did:

If a public high school teacher were to say to his students, “When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can see the truth,” you can bet the American Civil Liberties Union and others would say that the teacher was promoting Christianity, that it was a violation of the separation of church and state. And the school administration would probably agree.

But what if a public high school teacher tells his students that “When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth”? Isn’t that essentially the same thing? Isn’t disparaging a certain religion in a public school classroom just as legally improper as promoting a certain religion?

It’s about a level playing field. Current court decisions say that schools must stay out of the religion business. It’s illegal to promote Christianity, and it’s also illegal to teach against it.

He Ought To Be Appalled
If I were James Corbett today, and if it had been my overriding goal all these years to teach my students to think critically, I would be appalled at the ways in which they were trying to support me. I would recognize that “he taught us how to think” is sadly disconnected from the charge, “he is illegally singling out a religion to denigrate it.” I would realize they didn’t get it: they’re not connecting facts to relevant issues. I would be terribly disappointed, possibly even embarrassed.

But if the plaintiff’s complaint is accurate–which is up to the courts to determine–then it would seem that teaching students how to think has not been Corbett’s only goal. He has had another, at least as strong as that one: teaching students to think that Christianity is awful.

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18 Responses to “ James Corbett “Taught Us How To Think” ”

  1. SteveK says:

    This story is playing out just a few miles from me and I’ve barely kept up with it. I agree with your analysis, Tom, and that of columnist Gordon Dillow.

    “It’s about a level praying field.”
    Typo?

  2. Pastor Jon says:

    I really wonder how free students in James Corbett’s class who disagreed with him felt in sharing their critical thoughts about his teaching. It would be great if all teachers would encourage and teach critical thinking, but this begins with respect for different points of view. I don’t see any of that in his comments. Instead of teaching “how” to think it sounds like he taught “what” to think. We’ve all had teachers like this and they also have the pets and defenders who will stand up for them. In an increasingly anti-Christian society, we will only see more of this in the future.

  3. Tom says:

    Steve, that was indeed a typo, but a good one, if I may say so myself! I’ll fix it now…

  4. Jim Skaggs says:

    I was a public high school social studies teacher for thirty-five years.

    Pastor Jon’s take is exactly right.

    I always felt that, in dealing with controversial issues, I needed to do two things. First, I had to present the credible arguments on every side of the issue. And second, and even more importantly, I had to make certain that students felt safe in expressing their own arguments. This guy appears to have been a failure on both counts. Provoking discussion is one thing. Making it obvious that you dismiss – will not consider – think ridiculous or dangerous – positions held by your own students is professional malpractice.

  5. ordinary seeker says:

    I think we need to remember that the inflammatory comments have been taken out of context. We can’t know, simply by reading the comments themselves, in what way they were intended. Corbett could have, for example, been playing devil’s advocate when he made certain statements, or he could have made additional statements that balanced the excerpts that have been made available to us. Or, he could have had a style that allowed students to know that he expected his comments to be challenged, but that is not discernible from simply reading these isolated comments.

  6. Tom Gilson says:

    That’s a reasonable caution, OS, although no one in the media has raised that as a potential explanation, as far as I know. Since Corbett himself hasn’t spoken out yet, however, it remains possible.

  7. Dale says:

    It appears that the student’s (and possibly the teacher’s) definition of critical thinking is along these lines:
    1. being critical of a dominant or prominent ideology, or
    2. being free to disagree with with a dominant or prominent ideology.
    This is regardless of the value or validity of the ideology in question. This style of critical thinking is no longer about presenting and/or evaluating opposing arguments to discern the truth of a matter. It is about being contrary to many of the audiences’ views. They don’t question their values and beliefs because they have been presented with information that necessarily causes them to rethink the validity of their views. They question their views because of the social ramifications of continuing to hold and act on those views.

  8. Mother Teresa says:

    How can such a topic be blown so far out of proportion? Dr. Corbett is a much loved, kind and brilliant teacher, who inspires his young students with his inspirational and thought provoking lectures. Those who KNOW him will all testified to this.
    His taped lectures were taken out of context and the student who is suing was failing his class.,are all facts.
    EUROPEAN HISTORY is about how a religious control government that caused great harmed to the peasants!
    How can people be so malicious and call themselves Christians?
    John 8:7 He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone….

  9. Tom Gilson says:

    “Mother Teresa,” if this has been misrepresented by the plaintiff, that will come out as the case makes its way forward.

    But if you have learned from Dr. Corbett that European history is “about how a religious control government that caused great harmed to the peasants!” then you have learned a greatly distorted picture of European history.

    And again I remind you that the point is not whether Dr. Corbett is “a much loved, kind and brilliant teacher, who inspires his young students with his inspirational and thought provoking lectures.” The point is whether he has been illegally denigrating a religion. Presumably he could be a brilliant and much-loved teacher without breaking the law.

    (We do not know if he actually has broken the law, and we cannot decide that from a distance, nor is it our place to make that decision. Please note that my comments have been directed toward the careless thinking of his supporters, and I have not presumed to know whether Corbett has been guilty of the plaintiff’s charges.)

    Again, if he has not indeed been illegally denigrating a religion, then that will come out as the case is pursued. I find it interesting, though, that none of his defenders seem to be saying he is innocent of that charge. They, like you, are just saying that since he’s such a wonderful teacher he should be free to do it regardless.

    That’s not being very successful at connecting relevant thoughts to relevant facts; it’s not good critical thinking. So far, until other facts are brought forth, I stand by my stated opinion on the matter: if Corbett’s goal was to teach people how to think, this incident provides little evidence that he has succeeded.

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  12. Robert Crabbs says:

    There’s a major, underlying disconnect between the opposing sides of this debate. Dr. Corbett’s supporters are certainly not “missing the point” of the lawsuit. When they defend the professor’s actions because he encourages critical thinking, the demonstrators make an unvoiced, but nontrivial, assumption. They assume that outside observers understand, as they do, the context and purposes of Dr. Corbett’s remarks. The quotes do seem to target religion, but only if taken out of the context of his classroom.

    Dr. Corbett structures his entire course around taking lessons from the events of the past. This approach involves discussing a wide range of subjects, and evaluating the effects (both positive and negative) of events in history. A recurrent theme is how irrationality affects the world.

    When Dr. Corbett focuses his remarks on religion, it is not because he is an irreligious or irresponsible man. His purpose is not to put down specific beliefs or religion as a whole. Rather, he simply aims to make his students aware of the consequences of irrationality. Indeed, unfortunately people often do very irrational and destructive acts in the name of their religion.

    Dr. Corbett targets this kind of destructive behavior in all of his discussions. He does not talk exclusively about religion, and does not talk about it as a negative influence to be avoided. His whole purpose is to expose harmful behavior, wherever it shows up, and discuss the causes and consequences.

    This is what his supporters mean when they say he teaches his students to think critically.

  13. Tom Gilson says:

    Robert, that’s the kind of contextual information that really needs to be brought forth in a discussion like this. I appreciate your sharing it.

    I still have questions. From this distance it is very difficult to imagine a context in which Corbett could have said what he is alleged to have said about Christianity, and that it could have expressed a modicum of respect or even in a neutral tone. There are facts yet to be brought forth, of course, so none of us should rush to a conclusion from a distance.

    I have to tell you this: I appreciate your actually addressing the issue at hand, and providing a thoughtful, relevant perspective on it. That’s what seemed lacking previously from other supporters of Dr. Corbett.

  14. Fisk says:

    Now, I may just be a high school student, but I know an awful lot about history. Medieval history is my scholarly focus.

    I happen to support James Corbett, because from what I hear, he does give people an opportunity to think. I, as a student, enjoy the classes where you are allowed to participate in the discussion, instead of just being handed information. I do agree that some of his statements were a bit offensive (“Jesus Glasses”, predominantly), but most of them actually made sense, and were based on, or were, fact.

    “How do you get the peasants to oppose something that is in their best interest? Religion. You have to have something that is irrational to counter that rational approach.”

    This has happened many times in the past, where church officials have passed something off as good, because it was sponsored by The Church. For instance, The Crusades. Many times, the plebeans of medieval society did not agree with their current politics, such as going into the East, and killing the “infidels”. According to many people of clerical profession, God supports this war, and heaven is just around the corner for those who participate (this happens in a lot of wars…). There are many times where something like this has happened, but The Crusades just came to my head first. I see nothing wrong with his statement, because it is fact.

    “When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.”

    Now, this may seem, at a glance, to religion bashing. When I first saw this, I agreed. To me, “Jesus glasses” refers to propoganda. When you mindlessly obey church propoganda, you can’t see the truth. In the time of John Calvin, I’m sure many people were wearing their “Jesus glasses”. He put his own stepson to death for adultery. It was highly ignored, because he was high in God’s favor. I do agree, though, that this would be offensive. Corbett could have used a better term, or phrased his sentence differently. That’s what we’re here to talk about, right?

    “Conservatives don’t want women to avoid pregnancies – that’s interfering with God’s work.”

    Now… I wouldn’t entirely say this is true. As a high school student, I hear many things about “coupling”, and it’s a wonder that most high school women are not pregnant. I would say that most people are more concerned with the well-being of their daughters, than with giving them no other choice than abstinence. In this case, I would say this is only true for a minority of Roman Catholics and a fraction of a percentage of other religious denominations. Conservatives do want women to avoid pregnancy. Abstinence.

    In a historic point of view, IN THIS CLASS, this is true. Women were sometimes killed for committing adultery and becoming pregnant. That’s where the myth of the incubus came from; women blamed their pregnancies on Satan and his minions, for fear of their life.

    “Religion is ‘not connected with morality.’”

    Well… Most religions do promote different sets of morals, but that doesn’t mean that culture plays no part in it. I grew up in a home that did not promote religion. We did not go to church, and I was not exposed to religion until I was eight years old. I decided soon afterwards that I did not care for religion that much. My mum has Christian beliefs, and my dad is agnostic. I uphold Christian morals and values better than most Christians that I know. There are perhaps one in fifty Christians that I know that uphold the same values that I do. Culture and the way that you were raised has a great effect on morals, with religion, or not.

    “who want women to stay pregnant, barefoot, and in the kitchen and have babies until your body collapses.”

    This, in our society, is apalling. In many of the populations’ lifetimes, though, this was commonplace. Until the 40′s and afterward, women were expected to obey their husbands, produce offspring, and to stay indoors doing chores. This was even more commonplace in medieval society, where women most often did not have any rights. This is just offensive in our society today, but it makes perfect sense in this classroom setting. I think what people are getting so worked up about, is being compared to Moslems.

    “churchgoers are more likely to commit rape an murder”

    This, as offensive as it sounds, is true. Proportionately. In 1997, a study was done from the US Bureau of Federal Prisons (I think that was the one), and found surprising information. It is hard to explain, so I will provide a link. http://www.holysmoke.org/icr-pri.htm

    I’m sorry for the long post, but I had to discuss the “context in which Corbett could have said what he is alleged to have said about Christianity”.

    I would like to make one more point. Doesn’t this lawsuit go along the same lines as a teacher who publicly denounces the Taliban and Moslems for attacking the Christian faith? Isn’t that degrading their religion? Why aren’t those people being sued? Because it is socially acceptable to do that.

    I think this has blown way out of proportion. The kid, my peer, was overreacting.

  15. Tom Gilson says:

    Fisk, I appreciate your dropping by.

    Just a few responses: If James Corbett were just a teacher who got students to thinking, that would be great. The question is whether he did so in a way that violates the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits state schools (according to current case law) from either promoting or denigrating a religion. (And as I wrote above, I wonder whether he actually did get students to think clearly, relevantly, and effectively, based on what some of them have said in response to this case).

    Anyway, to respond to a few points:

    “How do you get the peasants to oppose something that is in their best interest? Religion. You have to have something that is irrational to counter that rational approach.”

    This has happened many times in the past, where church officials have passed something off as good, because it was sponsored by The Church. For instance, The Crusades.

    The Crusades were a definite instance of the Church taking the population in a wrong direction. But note the very explicit denigration of religion in what Corbett said, according to the complaint. It is “irrational.” That’s denigration; and I’m also convinced that it is not true.

    “Religion is ‘not connected with morality.’”

    Well… Most religions do promote different sets of morals, but that doesn’t mean that culture plays no part in it.

    That culture plays some part in morality does not make Corbett’s alleged statement true, that religion is “not connected with morality.”

    Until the 40’s and afterward, women were expected to obey their husbands, produce offspring, and to stay indoors doing chores.

    This is not entirely true, and to the extent that it is true, it was true for a much shorter period of history than you might think–basically in the industrialized parts of the world, since the Industrial Revolution. I would encourage you to take note of how Christianity raised the status of women. Don’t look back to 1970; look back to the time of the New Testament, and look to other cultures of the world. It’s quite eye-opening. Here’s one tidbit for you: women’s suffrage was a movement led by Christians.

    “churchgoers are more likely to commit rape an murder”

    This, as offensive as it sounds, is true. Proportionately.

    The “study” you linked to is completely unusable for drawing research conclusions, for it says nothing about anything about the inmates’ actual beliefs, practices, backgrounds, etc. It appears only to reflect which box they checked for religious preference when they entered. This is meaningless in research terms.

    Doesn’t this lawsuit go along the same lines as a teacher who publicly denounces the Taliban and Moslems for attacking the Christian faith? Isn’t that degrading their religion? Why aren’t those people being sued? Because it is socially acceptable to do that.

    If teachers publicly denounce Muslims for “attacking the Christian faith,” they are violating the Constitution, most likely. If teachers violate the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and various Islamists for violence, that does not violate the law. And it makes no difference at all to the current question whether any teachers are being sued for that or not. What makes a difference is that Corbett has allegedly made statements that actually denigrate a religion, which is illegal in the U.S. Whether he actually did that is up to the courts to decide.

  16. Fisk says:

    Well… First off, I was merely giving instances in a European History classroom setting where his comments could be put into context. I’m not saying that he was right to say all this, or that it did not degrade a religion. I know there are exceptions to all I’ve said, and that for many things, you would have to be very narrow-minded to ONLY think that Corbett’s statements were right. In some cases, they were. In others…. Not for a thousand years.

    That culture plays some part in morality

    Hold on… Some? Culture plays the largest part in morality! Morality comes from how you were raised. Religion is part of culture, as is the absence of one.

    But note the very explicit denigration of religion in what Corbett said, according to the complaint. It is “irrational.” That’s denigration; and I’m also convinced that it is not true.

    His comment does not appear to be any form of religious denigration. The “irrational” part seems to be the Church’s actions, not the religion itself. In my example, likely to have had happened in a history class, the Church’s actions were irrational. Corbett does not say “religion is irrational”. From his statement, it seems to be more on the lines of “using religion as a tool is irrational.” That is not denigrating to religion.

    I don’t quite understand your comment about my “women’s rights” example. What exactly are you trying to say? I’m pretty sure that I was speaking in a historical content, which would be appropriate for this class. It is true that women have been oppressed throughout history, also by Christian males. You can say an equal number of good and bad things that Christians have done. I wouldn’t say that the Suffrage Movement in the US was a Christian movement. Actually, Susan B. Anthony did not approve of organized religion, and she was often ridiculed for that belief by Christian organizations.

    The “study” you linked to is completely unusable for drawing research conclusions, for it says nothing about anything about the inmates’ actual beliefs, practices, backgrounds, etc.

    Christianity, and its denominations, are organized sets of beliefs. When the inmates gave their religion, they also gave thier beliefs. When a man says that he is a Christian, it is implied that he follows the Ten Commandments to the best of his ability, worships Jesus as his Lord and Saviour, and believes in God. Saying all that, and by reading the Bible, you can get a pretty good definition of that man’s beliefs. Those people were Christian, and this is a valid study.

    My example about the Muslim faith was worded strangely, I’m sorry. I meant to express the point that if a teacher says to his students that what the Muslims did to America was wrong, would that be illegal? If so, a large percentage of the population of teachers in America should have a lawuit like this filed against them.

    My comment wasn’t made to alter the current discussion, I was just comparing this one to a hypothetical situation.

    Whether or not Corbett denigrated religion is arguable, as there is evidence for both sides, and the lack of evidence for the REAL SITUATION to prove anything.

  17. Daniel says:

    This comment, which included what was purported to be a phone number for Mr. Corbett (I didn’t check to make sure) and an encouragement to “call him” was completely out of line and reprehensible. I certainly hope and trust no person has phone Mr. Corbett or passed the number along.

    Comments on this post will now be closed to prevent the same from happening again.

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