About Me

Find out more about me here.

18 April 2013

Jesus, Jews, and the Classroom

I have been fascinated by two recent episodes in which teaching exercises have come under heavy criticism. The first, assigned by a 10th-grade English teacher in New Albany, New York, required students to write a persuasive essay using historic Nazi propaganda arguing that Jews were evil and "the source of our problems." The second, assigned by a Communications Studies instructor at Florida Atlantic University, asked students to step on a piece of paper with the word "Jesus" written on it. While both exercises sound egregious and inflammatory, I don't find either necessarily inappropriate. (For contextualized defenses of both, see here and here respectively.) When we talk about academic freedom, we typically focus on research. [1] Academic freedom, however, is also essential in the classroom. It is our job as educators to challenge our students' common-sense conceptions of the world. If my students are not uncomfortable at some level in my class, I am not doing my job. [2]

That said, what so far hasn't been a part of the discussion about the "evil Jews" and "step on Jesus" exercises is the larger, stratified social context in which people of different religions/ethnicities exist. Jews and Christians experience different social advantages and disadvantages. While antisemitism has been waning for quite some time in the United States, Christians still enjoy immense privilege. (See previous posts on Christian Privilege here, here, and here.) It is quite a different thing to denigrate Jews--even if for benevolent effect--than it is to show symbolic disrespect to the name of the central figure of Christianity. Imagine similar teaching exercises about race instead of ethnicity/religion. Could you imagine asking a class to write an essay arguing that blacks are an inferior race? How about asking a class to step on pieces of paper with the word "Whites" written on them? The negative effect is asymmetric because the social location of these groups is asymmetric.

I suppose my point is that while we should grant teachers a lot of leeway in their classrooms, we teachers are responsible for understanding the social context that are larger than our classrooms.

[1] - I remember when I was on the job market several years ago, there was some controversy in Georgia over a professor of "blowjob studies" whom several state legislators wanted to oust. Luckily, the professor in this case was protected by tenure, and aside from the legislators scoring some political points with their anti-intellectual, backwards core constituents, nothing ever came of the media attention. Coincidentally, I was at that very time interviewing for two job in the University System of Georgia. While I found the witch-hunt extremely disconcerting and expressed concern in the interviews, I did end up accepting one of the job offers and today still work in Georgia. If all goes as planned, I'll be getting tenure in a year at which point I'll be able to reveal my actual, diabolical research agenda. Muah ha ha ha!

[2] - h/t Stephanie McClure

No comments:

Post a Comment