Baker Academic

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Jesus Stomp cont...

In case anyone is still interested in this story, here is the latest.  For my part, academic freedom is a topic close to my heart.



  1. I've been thinking a lot about this story. In fact, I’m working on a blog post on it.

    My feeling is that the “Jesus Stomp” lesson crosses some kind of a bright line, that it simply should not be taught. Yes, academic freedom is a good thing, but it isn't absolute. Along with academic freedom is the right of all members of a university community to be treated with respect. All universities have tempered the right of free speech with rules governing right conduct, such as rules against hate speech.

    There are certain lessons that cannot be taught in a classroom, not even a college classroom, not even if the lesson has an educational value. One point made by those attacking this instructor is that no instructor in their right mind would perform the "Stomp" exercise and substitute the name of Mohammed or Martin Luther King for Jesus. This is a problematic point (particularly now, when any reasonable person would add Jesus' name to the list of names that cannot be subject to stomp), but there's some truth to it. If the name of a figure revered by Islam cannot be desecrated, not even symbolically, then there's something wrong with searching for a different figure from a different religion where we can stomp and get away with it. I mean, I don't want instructors to resort to the "Moses Stomp", or the "Shoah Victims Stomp", just because Jesus and Mohammed are now protected from stomping.

    But I'll admit, I'm having trouble finding the bright line I'm looking for. I think that along with education comes some degree of discomfort. Myself, I can barely read a page of New Testament without coming across something that makes me uncomfortable. The point of the Jesus Stomp exercise was for students to feel uncomfortable, and thus experience the symbolic power of the written word. We can ask whether higher education requires this kind of participatory experience, but from my conversations with my college professor wife, I think that the ability to utilize dramatizations, role playing and the like IS an important part of academic freedom. So if a college instructor wants to make a point, it’s acceptable to invent a participatory exercise to drive home that point.

    I suspect that my search for a bright line has something to do with the selection of a figure like Jesus, whose name is sacred to some students but not others. The Jesus Stomp is a lesson not only in the symbolic power of words, but also in human diversity. At a multicultural university, the performance of the Jesus Stomp is a decision to make some students more uncomfortable than others. It is a decision that I think can be fairly regarded as “let’s pick on the devout Christians to make a point”. THAT bothers me, particularly when the lesson is NOT about Christianity (in contrast, if I’m the only Jewish kid in a class taught about the history of 15th Century Spain, I’m likely to feel particularly uncomfortable compared to my non-Jewish classmates, but that’s a situation that’s inherent in the topic of study).

    On the other hand, WHAT symbol out there can be said to be equally offensive to all?

    I could use some help unpacking the arguments here, if anyone is so inclined.

    1. Equally offensive signal: the name of one's mother?

    2. Well, not everyone knows who their mother is. Not every mother-child relationship is loving. Not every mother is living.

      It had occurred to me that the exercise could be structured to allow the student to choose the name to be written on the paper. But to be honest, no matter how I try to restructure this exercise, I still think it's a bad idea.

      I think that part of what's bothering me is the idea that the students are expected to resist the exercise. The exercise may be voluntary and led by the instructor in a sensitive way, but the point of the exercise is for the student to feel a reluctance to perform the exercise. Is the REAL lesson here that sometimes a teacher is going to tell you to do something you shouldn't do? Arguably, that's a valuable lesson, but I don't see how education happens in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust.

  2. Interesting. Dr. Poole claims to be a Christian who considers Jesus to be his Lord and Savior. If he's telling the truth, then I assume that in his mind the exercise was not an attack on Jesus or Christianity.

    Should we think that even though Dr. Poole wasn't attacking Christianity, that the text which suggested the exercise was attacking it?

    1. Biblo, the text was written by James Neuliep, a professor at a small Catholic college in Wisconsin. As best as I can tell, Neuliep is every bit as devout a Christian as Poole. The exercise was not even remotely intended as an attack on Christianity. The exercise was designed to teach the power of symbols, in this case the symbolic power of the written word. The exercise is designed in such a way (according to Neuliep) so that students WON'T step on the paper with Jesus' name on it. They're expected to refuse, or at least to hesitate, at which point the instructor is supposed to step in, ask why not, and "discuss the importance of symbols in culture."

      You can question the wisdom of the exercise -- I certainly do. But I've read everything I can find about this exercise. It was not created or offered with an anti-Christian intent. The intent experienced by the offended student is something else, and the intent experienced by the offended Christian community is something else.