Monday, September 13, 2010

James Corbett, Teacher Extraordinaire, Persecuted by Christians

Over the weekend I stumbled across a story right in my own back yard. It's about James Corbett, an extraordinary teacher who is being persecuted in California's courts by a bunch of Christians. His crime? He treats Christianity like any part of history, subject to genuine scrutiny and criticism.

Dr. James Corbett teaches Advanced Placement European History at Capistrano High School. Even his detractors admit that Corbett is a truly great teacher, and the Advanced Placement scores of his students confirm their opinion. Corbett's philosophy is simple:
"The only virtue for Socrates was "knowledge." He reached it by questioning the most deeply held beliefs of his students by which I mean all of Athens and ultimately all of us. What troubled the Athenians about Socrates, however, was not listed in the charges. His crime was that he prompted people to think. ... Every teacher who makes a student think takes the risk that he will be attacked by parents and others who see themselves as guardians of cherished political and religious myth."
Corbett goes on to explain how all students who sign up for his class know what they're getting into – they sign a paper saying the class is going to be provocative, their parents receive a letter, and they know from their fellow students. In fact, that's why many of them select Dr. Corbett's class: it's the best.

Apparently Chad Farnan, an average student who admitted that he hadn't even been doing his assignments, was fine with Corbett's study of European history, until they got to Christianity's role in that history. So Chad took a tape recorder to class (which is a violation of California law), and recorded a few two- to five-second snippets of Corbett's history lessons. Here are the gems:
"How do you get the peasants to oppose something that is in their best interest? Religion. You have to have something that is irrational to counter that rational approach."

"When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth."

"Conservatives don’t want women to avoid pregnancies – that’s interfering with God’s work."

"Religion is ‘not connected with morality."
On the face of it, these comments would seem to violate the First Amendment of the constitution. If these kids came to class every day and that was all they heard, it would certainly be a case of a state-sponsored religious agenda.

But that's the way anything looks when taken out of context. The question is not whether Corbett may have uttered a few provocative sentences here and there. The question is, what was the whole conversation? Did Corbett single out Christianity, or did he apply the same caustic critical eye to all topics?

Any great educator challenges our beliefs. The question is not whether Dr. James Corbett challenged the Christians, it's whether he challenged everyone equally.

Perhaps more important is how this reflects on Christianity. If student Chad Farnan's faith can't stand up to the scrutiny of a high-school teacher, he must not have very much faith.


  1. I'm Jim Corbett and thanks for the props. You're right about context. Claims that remarks are taken out-of-context is often the refuge of scoundrels, but my case is particularly telling because my District-supplied attorney advised me that my case was so "hot" that it would be unwise to allow an Orange County jury to decide if my comments constituted a First Amendment violation. He offered that we would be wiser to go with a Judge. What I did not understand, at the time, is that Juries decide matters of fact, while judges determine matters of law. Consequently, by asking for a Judge, I could not contest the "facts," only the law. The result was that none of the claims put forward by Chad's lawyers could be challenged in court. That decision has not served me well. I could easily have demonstrated how each statement was appropriate and related to the curriculum. Ah well, live and learn. Jim "Jesus Glasses" Corbett

  2. Jim -- thanks for writing. It's time for me to head for bed, but one quick link and I'll have more to say soon. I thought you might enjoy this blog I wrote a while back:

    I'm an atheist, so help me God.

    Keep up the good work, and I hope this isn't the end of your case.

  3. Hi Craig,

    It’s been a while since we’ve conversed, so I hope all is well. Also, Hi, Jim, I read Craig’s blog and I must say bravo to you! Reading this has restored some faith – if you’ll pardon the expression – in our educators. What I find particularly interesting is that people have gotten carried away with the fairness nonsense. As you noted, “Any great educator challenges our beliefs. The question is not whether Dr. James Corbett challenged the Christians, it's whether he challenged everyone equally.” I think we’d all agree, logically speaking, that taking this position borders on the absurd, for it presupposes that all positions can and should be challenged. For example, should we, for the mere sake of challenging, question whether the Nazi doctrine was perhaps misunderstood?

    This reflects the sort of default perspective that most Americans hold: religion is good and should not be questioned. Years ago, my ex-wife once opined that I should keep my atheistic perspective to myself and let my daughter decide for herself. When I agreed on the condition that she stopped taking her to church, she was greatly taken aback. Indeed, let’s equally challenge everything; after all, it’s only fair…bollocks. This line of reasoning is a classic misdirection designed to appease the obtuse, but Mr. Corbett was most precise with his challenges; in particular, “"How do you get the peasants to oppose something that is in their best interest? Religion. You have to have something that is irrational to counter that rational approach." He should be applauded for making such statements, for it is true! Indeed, when one links religion with economics, health care, etc, the peasants willingly reject things which could be of great social value. In the end, I’d like to personally congratulate Mr. Corbett for his personal courage to stand up to the tyranny of religion, and be brave enough to teach students to think critically – regardless of how dear something is to them.

  4. Oops, let me clarify a point. Yes, a great educator should and will challenge our beliefs; I was merely referring to the "fairness" part. Sorry for any confusion.

  5. I am a high school math teacher in Ohio and I applaud Mr. Corbett. Naturally I don't teach European History but I do entertain the "belief" conversations. I usually deflect back onto the students to be more precise in their questions and definitions.

  6. Steve: Ironically, a parent who pulled his boy out of my class, confronted me on back to school night claiming he wasn't upset at what I said, only that I be "fair and balanced." I explained to him that "fair and balanced" was a catch phrase from Fox news, the least "fair and balanced" of all "journalistic" outlet. Further I said, "I'm not interested in being "fair and balanced," only fair and accurate." "What," I asked, " do you want me to do, give time to holocaust deniers in the interest of "balance?" I guess some minds think alike. Thanks for the support

  7. Jim -- Your whole experience reminds me of Bill Sykes' "Eleven Things They Don't Teach in School." Thinks like "Life isn't fair, get used to it," and "If you think your teacher is tough, wait until you have a boss."

    When these kids get out into the real world, they're going to find that they've been sheltered, that their Christian (and Islamic and Jewish and ...) values and beliefs are no longer sacred and unassailable. They'll face serious challenges to their beliefs, and will be ill-prepared to face them.

    Ironically, from a religious point of view, their parents are doing the right thing. One of the topics of my book is why, from a biological/evolutionary point of view, the human brain is programmed to "freeze" its beliefs as it reaches adulthood. If these parents can get their kids past teachers like you with their ancient superstitions intact, they have a good chance of carrying those beliefs with them for their entire lives. The "religion virus" has evolved its memes to account for this. All fundamentalist religions have a strong meme that discourages education and inquiry, substituting authority and tradition for inquisitiveness and learning.

    And sadly, it works.

  8. Sorry, make that Charles Sykes, not Bill Sykes!

  9. I had Dr Corbett's class. He says some controvesal things no doubt, but I never thought someone would go so far as to sue him. I Cant believe how big the story got. I wish he wouldve gone on those talk shows like "O'Reilly Factor" and defended himself. He woulda SHRED those guys!!!!


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