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.
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.