Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Academic Freedom and “harassment”

Lynn just sent me an interesting article on a situation at Black Hawk College involving academic freedom. I recalled seeing a headline on Worldnutdaily about it, but didn’t bother reading it until I saw this followup article. Here’s the situation, as the Worldnutdaily describes it:

LeBlanc reportedly revealed two blackboards at the front of his class, with the F-word written on the left one and “God” written on the right one.

“I don’t even remember what went on for the rest of the class,” Stotler told the Dispatch, saying he was too upset to pay further attention.

LeBlanc is Bruce LeBlanc, a sociology professor from Black Hawk College in Illinois, and Stotler is Bob Stotler, one of his students, who was so upset that he filed a harassment complaint against the teacher for denigrating his religious beliefs. The university’s advisory committee has decided that LeBlanc violated the school’s harassment policy and should apologize to the student (their decision is not binding, however, and the final result is still to be determined).

The Worldnutdaily, predictably, portrayed this as horrible anti-Christian persecution by someone who appears to like queers (in an entirely superfluous passage, they point out that LeBlanc gives a lecture on sexual minorities). Also predictably, they use it as an opportunity to pimp books that they’re selling – anyone who reads the Worldnutdaily knows that their editorial policy seems to be “print any story that we can use to promote books that we profit from”. In this case, they use the story to pimp one book that shows “how U.S. colleges are perverting minds, morals of next generation” and another on how colleges “brainwash our youth”. You can always count on the WND to use inflated rhetoric to get a few more bucks into the coffers.

Anyway, here’s a follow up article from a local paper that sheds a bit more light on the situation. You get the idea from the WND that the professor just out of the blue wrote “Fuck God” on the blackboard to “brainwash” and “corrupt” our youth, right? Wrong. Here’s the rest of the story:

Black Hawk College professor Bruce LeBlanc was giving a lesson on the power of symbols and asked his sociology students to pay close attention to their reactions as he wrote two of the most powerful words in our language on the neighboring chalkboards.

The idea was for the students to observe how people connect words, even when they’re not connected. The exercise worked a little too well.

That changes the story considerably, doesn’t it? Placed in proper context, the story changes from one of anti-Christian harassment to one of a teacher using a provocative approach to make his students think about how they react to words and symbols that are intended to be provacative. In other words, it sounds like good teaching. The fact that one of his students reacted so negatively that he doesn’t even remember what was said after those two words are revealed is quite significant here, but rather than showing that the professor was out of line, it shows that his lesson was well-conceived and important – people really DO need to analyze their emotional reactions to words and symbols, Bob Stotler most of all.

But rather than taking this as a stimulation to his own thinking, as an opportunity to discuss a fascinating subject and examine his own reactions in context, Stotler did what so many Americans do so often – curled up in the fetal position and begged for protection. And many of his fellow Christians are demanding the same thing. William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, gave a predictably absurd response:


There is a huge difference between academic freedom and academic license, the latter being a form of academic malpractice. Furthermore, academic freedom is not an end in itself, it is a means towards the discovery of truth. But in the mind of Professor LeBlanc, truth does not exist.

Pray tell, Mr. Donohue, what IS the difference between “academic freedom” and “academic license”? You don’t lay out any criteria for this “huge difference” other than the implied distinction that if it offends you, it’s license and when it doesn’t, it’s freedom. At the very least, academic freedom must protect the right of professors to design their lesson plans for maximum effectiveness in making the point he is trying to make, right? And how on earth does it logically follow from anything that he did that LeBlanc believes that “truth does not exist”? I’ll take hysterical rhetoric for $1000, Alex. Our old pal at The Great Separation predictably goes a step further, not only calling it “evidence of intolerance for Christians in America’s colleges”, but saying:

Professor Bruce LeBlanc at Black Hawk College put the curse word and the Lord’s name up on two black boards in an apparent attempt to offend student Bob Stotler.

One thing that has been entirely overlooked by those anxious to strike the martyr pose is the fact that LeBlanc himself is not only a Christian, he is an ordained minister in the Ecumenical Catholic Church and spent several years as a Roman Catholic monk in his younger days. He left the Roman Catholic priesthood because he is gay, apparently, which of course means that Donohue and the WND crowd can simply dismiss him as not a “real” Christian, so it doesn’t count.

There are a couple of larger issues here, of course. Should religious beliefs be protected under college “harassment” policies? Should being offended be grounds for thinking you’re being persecuted? Or does the free flow of ideas in an academic setting virtually guarantee that you’re going to run into people advocating ideas you don’t like and maybe even are offended by? Frankly, I think all this screaming about “liberal indoctrination” on college campuses is nothing more than the whining of people who think their beliefs should be considered so sacrosanct and unquestionable that mere contact with other ideas is an outrage to them.

Anyone going to college is going to run into ideas they disagree with, don’t like, even are offended by. I suspect this is particularly true of fundamentalist Christians. You can’t take a basic science class without learning about evolution and the evidence for the age of the earth and universe. In a philosophy course you’re going to run into Nietzsche and Hegel and Hume, among many others; in a history course you’re going to learn about Voltaire and Thomas Paine, influential figures who rejected Christianity; in a sociology course, you’re going to have to deal with various ideas about how religions interact with each other and with other cultural institutions. The fact that you don’t like those ideas is, frankly, tough. If you haven’t run into ideas that you don’t like, you haven’t been educated at all.

Comments

  1. #1 Rob Ryan
    August 30, 2004

    This reminds me of my old psychology professor at the University of Tennessee. He once played a George Carlin routine that dealt with the seven words one can’t say on the radio. One student who identified himself as a Christian stood right up and voiced his objection to the language. The professor first apologized (although his demeanor did not suggest that he was truly sorry; rather, it suggested that it was the student that had a problem) and then explained the purpose of the activity. Most of the people in the class had little sympathy for the fundy. I felt the same at the time, but years later, as an educator myself, I found the professor as lacking empathy. The examples you cite in your last paragraph are all valid, but educational license can be taken too far. What if a professor whipped out his penis to illustrate visceral responses to taboos? Whatever the motivation of the professor in your post, he had to know he would knock someone for a loop. He might have chosen a juxtaposition with less impact. However, what I diapprove of even more than the professor’s insensitivity is the slanted coverage of it that you cite. It’s quite telling that the same folks who are so sensitive toward those who share their own ideology are so unconcerned about those they view as immoral.

  2. #2 Les Lane
    August 30, 2004

    Juxtaposition with less impact? I’m not sure “poop’ and “The Lone Ranger” would have the sufficient impact. In fact I’d guess that at least a few students would find his actual choice tame.

  3. #3 eon
    August 30, 2004

    I’ve got a college story, too.

    I went to a Catholic university out in the middle of Nowheres, NY. Despite a rather superficial emphasis on “Franciscan Values,” the religious aspect of the place was pretty unobtrusive. Nevertheless, we did have our clenched-sphincter Campus Ministry groupies that only drank with each other, where the majority population of pickled fornicators couldn’t see.

    A few of devout types were, in the course of meeting their philosophy credit requirement, horrified to learn that the professors were teaching not only the arguments for the existence of god, but also the criticisms of those arguments. There were a couple of other things that horrified them in addition — mostly regarding the freedom of conscience that leads to non-reproductive sex — but the philosophy thing was what really traumatized the two or three of them.

    At least one of them transferred, writing a letter to the school newspaper decrying the university for not being Catholic enough. It was right then and there that I decided to ditch accounting 201 and go to a $3-a-cup afternoon kegger. I used St. Anselm’s ontological argument to prove that mine was the greatest beer in existence, of which none could be greater.

    It’s a pretty neat trick when you’re swilling Milwaukee’s Best.

    E

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    August 31, 2004

    Eon-

    When I saw you say “I have a college story too”, I was sure it was going to start with, “I never thought those letters in your magazine were real….”

  5. #5 eon
    August 31, 2004

    This one time, at band camp …

  6. #6 Steve
    September 13, 2004

    “Ken, it’s your pick.”

    “I’ll take Mentally Retarded People for $400, Alex”

    “This fake news site features both claims that teenagers don’t have enough respect for others, and a 14-year-old ‘columnist’ who calls Vietnam Vet John Kerry ‘a joke who can’t tie his own shoes’”

    “Uh, what is WorldNutDaily.”

    “Right again.”

    “Retards for $600, Alex”

    “This radio host argued that prescription drug abusers should be sent to prison, before…”

    “Who is Rush Limbaugh. Retards for $800…”

    “This pansy referred to GOP candidate Jack Ryan as “above all, a moralist”, before Ryan was discovered to’ve tried to coerce his wife into public sex at freaky clubs…”

    “Who is George Will. Tards for 1000″

    “This GOP politician frequently trumpets values, when he’s not busy divorcing wives.”

    “Who…are…lots of them?”

  7. #7 Jonathan Sawmiller
    November 16, 2004

    Hey guys, I just happened onto this site and read your comments. I’m in my fifth semester at Black Hawk College and know Bruce LeBlanc personally. He takes great joy in taunting those in his classes who are religious. Just today my friend Mary told me how LeBlanc, in her sociology class, accused Christianity and Christians of being responsible for a worldwide view of women being inferior to men. It’s par for the course for LeBlanc to make ridiculous assertions such as this in class, and expect the students to accept them as fact. I know, I’ve been there. LeBlanc’s actions are simply an attempt to mock the beliefs of Christians in his class, and are not anything so noble as “teaching provacatively.” (if that can be calle noble) One more quick comment. You say, “Placed in proper context, the story changes from one of anti-Christian harassment to one of a teacher using a provocative approach to make his students think about how they react to words and symbols that are intended to be provacative. In other words, it sounds like good teaching.” Good teaching? Would you consider it good teaching if LeBlanc had written, “Fuck Niggers” on the board? Wouldn’t you think an African-American student would be offended enough to complain about that, and rightly so? You’re simply taking the side of Mr. LeBlanc against Christians because you don’t like them. If LeBlanc had discriminated against a person of another religion or race instead of a Christian, you would be screaming for his head.

  8. #8 Ed Brayton
    November 16, 2004

    Hey guys, I just happened onto this site and read your comments. I’m in my fifth semester at Black Hawk College and know Bruce LeBlanc personally. He takes great joy in taunting those in his classes who are religious. Just today my friend Mary told me how LeBlanc, in her sociology class, accused Christianity and Christians of being responsible for a worldwide view of women being inferior to men. It’s par for the course for LeBlanc to make ridiculous assertions such as this in class, and expect the students to accept them as fact.

    I suspect that what you are reporting, or what your friend Mary is reporting, is a bit oversimplified. I doubt he really said that Christians were responsible for patriarchy worldwide. But take this statement:

    “Christianity grew out of a patriarchal system that viewed women as second class citizens and the Bible reflects that patriarchy. Women were considered property in numerous ways throughout the bible, property first of their fathers and then of their husbands. This can be seen, for example, in the manner in which rape is punished under Mosaic law. If a man raped a woman who was not yet married, he had to pay her father 50 pieces of silver and then marry her. In the New Testament, Paul makes clear that women are not allowed to even speak in church. This devaluing of women, reducing them to property or to mindless receivers of information, was a major reason for the subordination of women in Christian cultures throughout history and has only recently begun to change.”

    Now I’m sure your friend Mary would think that argument is offensive as well, but it’s still entirely true. Not a word of it is false, regardless of one’s wishful thinking. And it’s very close to what LeBlanc is reported to have said, isn’t it?

    Would you consider it good teaching if LeBlanc had written, “Fuck Niggers” on the board? Wouldn’t you think an African-American student would be offended enough to complain about that, and rightly so?

    I don’t think this is analogous at all. The only way that it is analogous is if you want to take the position that anything a teacher says that any group might take offense at means they should be fired, because the only thing it shares with what really happened is that another group would be offended by it. But there is obviously a difference between taking a non-intellectual racist position and taking an intellectual position that you don’t like. No one can change their skin color, nor should they have to. But a set of beliefs is not immune to challenge, certainly not in a college environment. A set of beliefs, whether religious or non-religious, is entirely open to challenge in an intellectual environment. There simply is no limit to the number of things a professor could say that would be considered offensive by someone.

    You’re simply taking the side of Mr. LeBlanc against Christians because you don’t like them. If LeBlanc had discriminated against a person of another religion or race instead of a Christian, you would be screaming for his head.

    I’m glad that having just “happened upon” my site, you’ve already managed to figure out exactly what motivates me and who I like and dislike. Sorry, but you’re wrong. I do not dislike Christians. In fact, I’m engaged to a Christian. And there is no discrimination here. No one was flunked for being a Christian, he only said something you didn’t like. That is not discrimination by any sane definition.

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