The School Teacher, by Krzysztof Lubieniecki; Wikimedia commons

I’m late to this fairly silly little story, but something about it intrigues me:

“Don’t take this class if you believe the Bible is inspired or infallible.”

When I started taking classes a year ago as an entering doctoral student here at UC Berkeley, I knew I was entering a very liberal environment. I had heard that the campus was the flagship of liberal academia, and I was also familiar with other bastions of liberalism during my time in the Ivy League and at Oxbridge as an undergraduate and a master’s student, respectively. But despite UC Berkeley’s ultra-liberal reputation, I took it as a given that there was still significant latitude for free thought and expression in the classroom.

Thus, I was not expecting the unapologetically heavy-handed double standard I encountered from the professor, a well-respected biblical scholar. His initial cutting remark within five minutes of the start of class was soon followed by more: “This stuff isn’t taught in synagogues or churches because they don’t want to piss people off. … Anyone can take this class, as long as you play by the rules of the game. … If you disagree with the approach we use, that’s an F.”

What intrigues me is that I have a good deal of sympathy for the professor. Here’s why: A handful of times in my career at Wheaton College I had students who didn’t think that we should be reading literature at all. The protestors were always people who didn’t really grasp the distinction between a Bible college and a Christian liberal-arts college, and were deeply and genuinely grieved that in a school that formally upheld the authority of Holy Scripture students would be asked to read books written by atheists and pagans.

I think I was kind to these people, and would offer to meet with them in my office to talk about their concerns. But on two or three occasions a student wanted to use class time to conduct a debate about whether Christians were allowed to read non-Christian books — something that, beyond a fairly brief statement about why I think Christians are not just permitted to read such books but often should read such books, I was disinclined to do.

This was more of a pedagogical than a theological decision. There indeed could have been value, and not just for the protesting student, in going back to something like First Educational Principles and articulating a defense of a Christian liberal arts model, quoting Augustine (“All truth is God’s truth, wherever it is found”; “spoiling the Egyptians”) and all that. But in my judgment that class was, to quote a wise man, not the venue. The more time I spent making such arguments, the less time I could spend on the literature that I had been hired to teach. So, at the risk of frustrating people who had legitimate questions, I always made the call to cut that debate short.

So yeah, I have some sympathy for the professor at Cal. But only some. He was also — if he is being quoted accurately here — acting like a jerk, and here’s how he could have handled the sitation better:

  • First, he could have been more clear about what he was actually saying to his students. First he said, “Don’t take this class if you believe the Bible is inspired or infallible”; but then he said, “Anyone can take this class, as long as you play by the rules of the game.” Which is it? Similarly unclear: “If you disagree with the approach we use, that’s an F.” If you disagree with anything about the “approach”?
  • Having gotten all that clear in his own mind, he should have said something like this: “The historical-critical method for studying the sacred texts of Israel is often controversial within faith communities; but this isn’t a faith community, it’s an academic one, and we have our own rules and methods. You are of course free to disagree that this is the best way to approach these texts; but in this class this is the general approach we’re going to employ, and that’s not up for debate.”
  • And then, finally, he should have said, “If you have questions about this decision, please come by my office to talk. I will try to explain, briefly, why I take the approach I take, and if that’s not enough for you, I’ll point you towards some books and articles that will make the case in greater detail.”

As a professor, you don’t have to change the structure of your class to suit students who would prefer you to do things a different way; but you don’t have to treat them with contempt or derision either. And that’s a key universal rule for teachers.