Teacher Fired for Sane Comment About Biblical Literalism… But…

Link found somewhere:

A community college instructor in Red Oak claims he was fired after he told his students that the biblical story of Adam and Eve should not be literally interpreted.Steve Bitterman, 60, said officials at Southwestern Community College sided with a handful of students who threatened legal action over his remarks in a western civilization class Tuesday. He said he was fired Thursday.

“I’m just a little bit shocked myself that a college in good standing would back up students who insist that people who have been through college and have a master’s degree, a couple actually, have to teach that there were such things as talking snakes or lose their job,” Bitterman said.

Though my first reaction is to laugh and nod my head — talking snakes, friends! how can you not agree with the man? — the thing is that this is all quite complicated. It’s complicated by a few things:

  • The College Itself. If it’s a denominational (funny, I typoed demoninational the first time) and the school is some kind of Biblical literalist nutter school, then the fellow probably can be fired rightfully, and should be glad to be out of there. Working with fundies isn’t fun. Actually, any atheist teaching at a religious school should know better than to talk about the subject in the classroom. Working in classrooms at religious institutions, I’ve learned to steer clear of certain topics, or at least certain approaches to them. While I and certain of my supervisors have very “sane” (supposedly “liberal”) views about homosexuality (for example), and while I have never been told not to discuss the topic at all — after all, it comes up sometimes, and students bring it up and want to talk about it — I am quite careful to approach the subject qith caution, provide information, point out the distinction between religious beliefs and legal systems in a diverse, non-theocratic society, and leave my specific opinions for when they visit me during office hours.
  • Teacherly Conduct and the Power Differential in the Classroom. Even if this guy’s employers aren’t fundamentalists, whether or not a Christian school of some kind, his tone in the classroom may have had more to do with student reactions than what he actually said. Teaching in Korea, sometimes students will insist on the validity of opinions or claimed facts which shock me: fan death and the ability of kimchi to cure SARS and cancer are more  innocuous (at least in the short term), while blather about the “greatness of Hitler’s leadership” or constant expressions (by a few unhappy males, usually) of hatred for (and desire to destroy) Japan are significantly more worrying or enraging.

    Yet I do not get enraged in the classroom. The classroom environment is a place where power is unequal. As a teacher, if I start telling students what is true and valid — let alone mocking them about their beliefs involving talking snakes — not only do I reinforce the horrid sham model of primary and secondary education (that the teacher knows everything) but I also impose it on people who, as young adults, ought to have at least some inkling that this is horrid and unacceptable. Anyway, lecturing people about why their beliefs are stupid doesn’t help them to see that those beliefs are untenable: it only gets theit guard up, makes them mad, and brings in complaints. As I learned from a fellow teacher named Mike, if you really want to help your students see the other side of an argument, the way to go is Socratic: ask them tons of questions, just enough of them leading questions, and let them reason themselves  over to the other side of the fence so they can see it for themselves.

  • Burnout and Accumulated Resentment. I’ve been teaching now for almost 6 years, and before that there were another couple of years of courses I taught while working on my MA. It’s quite possible that all this other stuff is a symptom of teacher burnout, and that the professor was really not pulling his weight. At 60 years old, if he’s been teaching for any length of time at, don’t forget, a community college, he is very likely to have reached a certain point of boredom and burnout with his classes.  After all, I can even feel the crinkly edge of burnout looming in the distance, and I’ve been doing this what may well be one-seventh of the time he has.  I don’t know for sure, but there’s a certain possibility that boredom, resentment, and burnout plus some extra-stupid blathering by a fundamentalist student (who are usually the worst students anyway) may have conspired to provoke a reaction that distorted a reasonable and sensible academic response into a kind of lashing-out at a student. Atheists in America certainly have reason to be tired and angry, with the way religious fanaticism is doing its level best to take over the nation, cripple science research and education, control the private lives of all kinds of non-religious citizens, and so on. Maybe he was tired of acting as if he wasn’t disgusted with yet another student blathering things that offend him deeply. As Richard Morgan once noted when asked about why his novels are so ultraviolent, teaching (especially across cultures) is actually a profession in which one can accumulate a lot of pent-up rage.

I’m not saying any of these are  the case, but it’s worth considering. There are issues of free speech, but free speech is something that becomes more problematic when it’s also privileged speech.  We don’t condone free speech claims on some professor’s or president’s decision to spew hateful bile, and I’m not so sure we should condone it when a professor is indelicate with his students’ personal beliefs. (Though of course he should have the right — and students should respect it — to change the subject.)

Then again, if all he really said in the classroom was that most scholars agree the literal interpretation of the Genesis story misses a lot of important ideas, and in fact most scholars of religion and science alike agree it is not literally true — if he observed a simple fact, and it is a fact — then the firing is absolutely wrongful, and my words above are misdirected.

I just think it’s worth considering that the atheist in the story is human, too, and just as capable of lashing out or screwing up as anyone else.

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