Friday, March 22, 2013

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According to FOX News, a university student has been suspended for complaining about an assignment to trample the name "Jesus":

Rotela, who is a devout Mormon, said the instructor in his Intercultural Communications class told the students to write the name “Jesus” on a sheet of paper. Then, they were told to put the paper on the floor.

“He had us all stand up and he said ‘Stomp on it,’” Rotela said. “I picked up the paper from the floor and put it right back on the table.

The young college student told the instructor, Deandre Poole, that the assignment was insulting and offensive.

“I said to the professor, ‘With all due respect to your authority as a professor, I do not believe what you told us to do was appropriate,’” Rotela said. ‘I believe it was unprofessional and I was deeply offended by what you told me to do.’”

Rotela took his concerns to Poole’s supervisor – where he was promptly suspended from the class.


A university spokesperson told they could not comment about Rotela’s case due to student privacy laws.

However, the university is defending the instructor’s assignment to stomp on the name of Jesus.

“As with any academic lesson, the exercise was meant to encourage students to view issues from many perspectives, in direct relation with the course objectives,” said Noemi Marin, the university’s director of the school of communication and multimedia studies.

So the activity is justified on the grounds that it is an exercise in objectivity. It is hard not to think of a similar scene in C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength:

On the floor lay a large crucifix, almost life size, a work of art in the Spanish tradition, ghastly and realistic. "We have half an hour to pursue our exercises," said Frost looking at his watch. Then he instructed Mark to trample on it and insult it in other ways.

Now whereas Jane had abandoned Christianity in early childhood, along with her belief in fairies and Santa Claus, Mark had never believed in it at all. At this moment, therefore, it crossed his mind for the very first time that there might conceivably be something in it. [...]

"This," said Mark, pointing with an undefined reluctance to the horrible white figure on the cross. "This is all surely a pure superstition." [...]

"Of course, it is a superstition; but it is that particular superstition which has pressed upon our society for a great many centuries. It can be experimentally shown that it still forms a dominant system in the subconscious of many individuals whose conscious thought appears to be wholly liberated. An explicit action in the reverse direction is therefore a necessary step towards complete objectivity. It is not a question for 'a priori' discussion. We find it in practice that it cannot be dispensed with."

This is an instructive case of ideological over-reach having the opposite of its intended effect. Note that Mark Studdock is an atheist
who has never had even the slightest religious instruction. But his reaction to the specific attack, not on religion generally, but on the person of Christ, raises uncomfortable questions about the objectivity of his indoctrination:

Mark was well aware of the rising danger. Obviously, if he disobeyed, his last chance of getting out of Belbury alive might be gone. Even of getting out of this room. The smothering sensation once again attacked him. He was himself, he felt, as helpless as the wooden Christ. As he thought this, he found himself looking at the crucifix in a new way - neither as a piece of wood nor a monument of superstition but as a bit of history. Christianity was nonsense, but one did not doubt that the man had lived and had been executed thus by the Belbury of those days. And that, as he suddenly saw, explained why this image, though not itself an image of the Straight or Normal, was yet in opposition to crooked Belbury. It was a picture of what happened when the Straight met the Crooked, a picture of what the Crooked did to the Straight - what it would do to him if he remained straight. [...]

Mark made no reply. He was thinking, and thinking hard because he knew, that if he stopped even for a moment, mere terror of death would take the decision out of his hands. Christianity was a fable. It would be ridiculous to die for a religion one did not believe. This Man himself, on that very cross, had discovered it to be a fable, and had died complaining that the God in whom he trusted had forsaken him - had, in fact, found the universe a cheat. But this raised a question that Mark had never thought of before. Was that the moment at which to turn against the Man? If the universe was a cheat, was that a good reason for joining its side? Supposing the Straight was utterly powerless, always and everywhere certain to be mocked, tortured, and finally killed by the Crooked, what then? Why not go down with the ship? He began to be frightened by the very fact that his fears seemed to have momentarily vanished. They had been a safeguard ... they had prevented him, all his life, from making mad decisions like that which he was now making as he turned to Frost and said,

"It's all bloody nonsense, and I'm damned if I do any such thing."

To be fair to the Florida University in the FOX piece, I doubt that they were intending such a specific indoctrination as Frost is imposing in the novel. But it is significant that it was the name of Jesus that the course specified, rather than the name of the President or Santa Claus, or some other culturally significant symbol.

If I were in the course, rather than objecting, I would have written the name of the instructor and trampled that. If the objection was raised that this was not the assignment, I would point out that the instructor's name denoted a clearly more immediate authority figure and thus a more relevant symbol for that particular classroom. Why, in that context, should there be such an interest in the name of Jesus?

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