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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

'Stepping On Jesus' - Challenging Received Wisdom In The Interest Of Logical Inquiry

Stanley Fish has written an article in the New York Times (4.16.13) called Stepping on Jesus in which he recounts a number of incidents where individuals who hold strong beliefs are asked to suspend them for a principle of education, greater understanding, or social justice.  Is this right, Fish asks? Should anyone be required do something that offends his moral, religious, or ethical principles?

What most recently comes to mind is the case, reported by Fish, of the high school history teacher who asked his students to write an essay on the evil of the Jews from a Nazi point of view. His obvious intention was to teach rhetorical skills:
[The exercise called for] a bit of role-playing; you’re not being asked to become a Nazi but to master and reproduce Nazi rhetoric as a demonstration of your argumentative skills. (Seneca and other classical rhetoricians recommended similar exercises under the rubric of controversia.)
One would like to think that the teacher had a higher purpose in mind - to force students to contemplate the unthinkable by trying to understand the power of rationalization that we all have, and that even the most heinous policies have been seriously justified.

In any case, one-third of the class refused to participate because of their personal conviction that Hitler was evil and that the extermination of the Jews was a crime against humanity.  They were also persuaded by current, nearly universal, public opinion – any discussion of the Holocaust except in favor of the Jews is completely, absolutely, and unequivocally off limits.

Fish, although disturbed by the assignment, was even more worried that more and more, Americans seem reluctant to get out of themselves, to put themselves in the place of others.  Strict moral stances are in many cases simply vanity and at worse ignorance.  Once people have made up their minds, they don’t even want to have their convictions challenged.  It is moral posturing which in many cases prevents learning and respect.

Image result for images jesus medieval

The title of Fish’s article, Stepping on Jesus, was prompted by another educational episode where a college instructor asked his students to write the name ‘Jesus’ on a piece of paper and step on it.  The moral outrage and universal opprobrium that this assignment generated was hysterical.  Yet, the instructor had a genuinely positive and very moral reason for giving it:
The instructor, Deandre Poole, identifies himself as a strong Christian. The author of the teacher’s manual he took the exercise from teaches at a Catholic college and explains that the purpose of the exercise is to get students to think about the power of cultural symbols. Most students, he reported, “hesitate” to step on the paper, and many decline. (No one is forced to participate.) “In fact,” he adds, “the point is knowing that they won’t do it. I accept that and then ask them ‘Why won’t you do this?’ Then they reaffirm their faith.”
Fish is as uneasy about this incident as he is about the Nazi apologia and says that he has tried to justify it through philosophical and legal arguments.  Perhaps the instructor was unfair, he suggests, because he asked students to act, rather than just to reflect.  This concerted, deliberate action – rubbing the name of Jesus Christ with the dirty, polluted sole of your shoes – was the egregious element in the exercise; not the idea itself.  So perhaps, opines Fish, the instructor was right to focus on cultural symbols, but crossed the line when he demanded action.

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Once again, however, this incident is one of many in what Allan Bloom referred to as The Closing of the American Mind.  Bloom was addressing political correctness on campus, the ‘progressive’ attempt by Sixties liberals to enforce their own neo-Marxist credo on unsuspecting college students; but the parallel to the rise in American moral sanctimony is clear. Fewer and fewer people are willing to let in opposing views whether they are political, economic, social or cultural. 
A third incident reported by Fish is the case of a theatre student who was asked to play the part of a young woman who recently had an abortion:
Christina Axson-Flynn, a Mormon, was enrolled in the University of Utah’s theater program; and she objected to some of the words she would have to say when, as part of a class exercise, she played the role of “an unmarried girl who had recently had an abortion” (Axson-Flynn v. Johnson, 2004).
The director and producer (and the University in the lawsuit) insisted that asking a student to play a role was not the same as asking them to compromise their beliefs in the real world, and that the lawsuit should be dismissed.  The court agreed with the University:
The court, after rehearsing a number of earlier decisions, observed that “the First Amendment does not require an educator to change the assignment to suit the student’s opinion,” as long as the assignment has a reasonable relationship “to legitimate pedagogical goals” and as long as the policy of no exemptions was applied evenly and was not a pretext for discrimination.
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The court decision seems rational and just if you take the position of a rational, logical person.  The United States, however, is increasingly divided by a surprising fault line – logic vs. illogic.  Well over half of Americans believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible and that the words printed are the words of God; and all political and social convictions come from that non-factual source.  Everything from abortion to gay marriage is wrong because the Bible says so.  There is no room in such illogical a priori judgments for rigorous, objective analysis.  There is only right and wrong in the world, dark and light, God and the Devil, and nothing in between. 

Within that context, one can quite easily understand how many Americans were violently exercised at what they considered an unlawful intrusion into the young woman’s belief system.  How could a secular institution have the audacity to challenge anyone’s beliefs?  Role-playing, acting, exteriorization all mean nothing compared with well-founded principles.
Finally Fish recounts the story of yet another relevant case which required adjudication:
Julea Ward was a student in a counseling-degree program at Eastern Michigan University. When she signed up for a practicum that required her to counsel clients, she told her professors that she would not be able to counsel gay clients and still conform to the program protocol that requires an affirmation of client values. She requested permission to refer her gay clients to another counselor “if the counseling session required [her] to affirm the client’s same-sex relationship” (Ward v. Polite, 2012).
The court disagreed with her claim:
Ward was charged with violating the American Counseling Association’s code of ethics, specifically the provision that warns against “imposing values that are inconsistent with counseling goals.” The idea is that counseling goals are client-centered; the professional should put aside her own goals while she is performing as a professional. In short, like an actor, she should lose herself in the role. And, like an actor, she can be reasonably expected to put her own beliefs and values on hold while she does her job.
This case brings to mind the current French experience.  Under the banner of √©galit√© government authorities and French courts have decided and ruled that no patient in the national health service can refuse treatment on the religious or cultural grounds.  An orthodox Muslim woman has no right to demand to be seen only by a Muslim woman doctor. The idea of being physically examined by a non-Muslim, especially if he is a man, is apparently absolutely abhorrent to strict Muslims.  Yet the authorities unwaveringly said that either you are French or you are not; and if you are then you will be treated exactly as any other of your fellow citizens.

To the logical observer, the French are absolutely right.  A patient should be able to distinguish between the doctor and the man. To assume that the male doctor is automatically and forever a predator, invader, and violator offends anyone but the woman brainwashed and forced into a void of intellectual servitude. 

Yet, the Muslims of France have been up in arms over what they see as French indifference and neo-colonialist hostility. Do Muslim women have a point? Did the French go too far? I will do like Fish and justify the French action by legalistic means.  The health system in France is public, and the government has every right to impose what it determines to be public values on its citizenry.  A better system would be our American private one where the market will respond to demand.  If there are enough Muslim women in Detroit who will see only female Muslim gynecologists, then the market will produce the supply.

Image result for image woman in full burqa

In conclusion, the opening of the American mind by any pedagogical means is essential.  However, the gulf that divides the logical and the illogical, value-driven in America gets only wider, and the convictions of each continue to get more hardened and inflexible.  Political correctness and safe spaces rule colleges and universities.  Until that corrosive, destructive, and anti-intellectual bias is eliminated, free minds and open education are but pipe dreams.

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