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Friday, September 28, 2007

Doesn't bode well.

Folks who keep an eye on the news out of Iowa* will be aware that there's a certain amount of hoopla going on about biblical literalism there. By this I don't mean that someone has proposed to teach the bible in biology class** or that we have someone akin to our old friend Connie Morris of Kansas stalking around. I'm not even talking about anything like the antics of Ruth Malhotra, although she was always fun. No, this time, I'm talking about something that's going on at a community college:

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.


“I put the Hebrew religion on the same plane as any other religion. Their god wasn’t given any more credibility than any other god,” Bitterman said. “I told them it was an extremely meaningful story, but you had to see it in a poetic, metaphoric or symbolic sense, that if you took it literally, that you were going to miss a whole lot of meaning there.”

Now, this is an interesting situation. Bitterman*** was simply trying to teach a class dealing with the religious views and creation ideas of several cultures over a span of historic time. This presents an instructor with a problem: if any one of those views is treated as "accurate" then the others are implicitly being condemned. Thus, approaching them as stories or fables is simply the fairest way of dealing with it. Some folks may not like being forced to deal with the notion that their own faith isn't obviously superior to that of another person, but being confronted with uncomfortable ideas is what college is supposed to be about. Or, as a smarter guy than I puts it:

Hector Avalos, an atheist religion professor at Iowa State University, said Bitterman’s free speech rights were violated if he was fired simply because he took an academic approach to a Bible story.

“I don’t know the circumstances, but if he’s teaching something about the Bible and says it is a myth, he shouldn’t be fired for that because most academic scholars do believe this is a myth, the story of Adam and Eve,” Avalos said. “So it’d be no different than saying the world was not created in six days in science class.

“You don’t fire professors for giving you a scientific answer.”

I don't think that it is the job of college professors, whether at four year institutions or two year institutions, to advocate any particular religion to their students. Nor, as it happens, do I think that academics should criticize any particular religion in class. However, it is well within our mission to analyze, to discuss, and to encourage our students to think about, the claims and history of pretty much any faith that exists.

If Bitterman was inappropriately mocking Christianity, then some sort of disciplinary action was necessary,***** but if he was merely trying to get his students to think about and engage with sections of the bible... well... then the students who got him fired are only cheating themselves.

If all you want from a college education is to have your previous ideas validated then, really and truly, what the hell is the point?

* I mean, c'mon people, who doesn't pay attention to the news out of IOWA?

** Well, not in the last week or so anyway.

*** This is, of course, an extraordinarily unfortunate last name under the circumstances.****

**** Unfortunate because doubtless he will be accused of being an atheist as a consequence of his statements and atheists are often thought to be bitter. Personally, I think that to be successful as an atheist it really helps to have a strong optimistic streak, but that's just me.

***** As is frequently the case, I have no idea if Bitterman actually did something inappropriate in class but, at the moment, it sounds like he was behaving professionally.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't mock Iowa news. I keep up with Iowa news. They were the most groundbreaking state -possibly in the world- in blindness rehabilitation for a very long time.

Friday, September 28, 2007 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Hey, obviously I find Iowa news interesting enough to keep an eye on it. I rather doubt, however, that most people feel similarly.

Friday, September 28, 2007 1:33:00 PM  

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