My Defense, by James Corbett

Background: Last week we posted the news that Corbett Loses “Superstitious Nonsense” Trial, informing you that one of James Corbett’s comments in his California classroom — that Creationism is “superstitious nonsense” — had been ruled by U.S. District Judge James Selna to have violated the Constitution’s establishment clause. Here is the court’s 37-page ruling (a pdf file).

Yesterday, James Corbett visited our blog and posted a comment in his defense. This case is significant; therefore, we are presenting Mr. Corbett’s statement as a stand-alone article:

My Defense

Over two thousand years ago Socrates faced a court for refusing to recognize the gods acknowledged by the state, importing strange divinities and corrupting the young. The judges sent Socrates to his death. He accepted the sentence of the court and committed suicide by drinking a cup of hemlock.

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.

His provocations exposed the Athenians’ shallowness of belief and mindless deference to myth. Socrates was judged because he was successful in provoking his students “examine their lives.” [his words] Those who guard the myths must try and strike down any who teach young people to think and question, because myths often shrink in the light of reason, draining power from those in authority who benefit from belief.

There are thousands of teachers who agree with Socrates that, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” 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. The teachers willing to take that risk should be rewarded, not punished. After the verdict, the Athenian court asked Socrates what his punishment should be. He responded that he should get free meals at the Pyrataneum, a celebration hall for Olympian athletes. Socrates went on to explain that those who passed judgment were not harming him, but rather themselves. He said, by killing him they corrupted their own souls and revealed the weakness of their own belief. A true believer does not fear that a few questions can undo years of parental teaching. Those who would “protect” students from self examination have little faith and great fear.

Chad Farnan, the boy who sued me, was an average student, who admitted under oath that he did not do the required reading for the class. If Chad’s lawyers, the “Advocates for Faith and Freedom” and his parents were actually concerned with protecting the boy, why didn’t they simply come to me and ask me to explain my comments? Neither they nor the Farnans ever expressed concerns to me nor to any administrators before they came to school with attorneys and reporters in tow to drop a lawsuit on the desk of Tom Ressler, our principal. Perhaps more importantly, the Farnans were aware long before Chad took my class that I go out of my way to be provocative. Every year in July, I send a letter home to students who have signed up for my class. Chad admitted under oath that he received that letter. The letter says, in part:

Most days we will spend a few minutes (sometimes more) at the beginning of class discussing current events from either the Orange County Register or the L.A. Times. I may also use material from a variety of news websites. Discussion will be quite provocative, and focus on the “lessons” of history. My goal is to have you go home with something that will provoke discussion with your parents. Students may offer any perspective without concern that anything they say will impact either my attitude toward them or their grades. I encourage a full range of views.

I included my home phone number and e-mail address in that letter and encouraged parents to contact me if they had any concerns. Chad admitted under oath that my lectures prompted many discussions with his parents. I might add, that in 20 years in the CUSD, I have never had a complaint filed against me, save this one.

Every teacher in California (this was a federal case after all) now works with the knowledge that any student, at any time, and in violation of California law, can sneak a tape recorder into a classroom, record the teacher and use an out-of-context five second comment as a bludgeon to threaten, to intimidate and, ultimately, to destroy the teacher’s career and good name.

Challenging myths is dangerous, but it is the essence of getting students to think for themselves. The Athenian judges, like some parents today, would have students accept myth without question, because myth is the foundation of their parental, political and/or religious authority. Ms. Farnan objected to my challenging the myth of the Puritans as a pious people who fled religious intolerance to found America. As Ms. Farnan sees them, the Puritans are quaint pious people with buckles on their hats and shoes as portrayed in the national mythology, but they may also be seen as intolerant, misogynistic and homophobic religious bigots who hanged Mary Dyer, a Quaker girl, for preaching something other than Puritan doctrine and several other women for the crime of “witchcraft.”

Questioning may make students and parents uncomfortable, but students have a right to think for themselves. It is not “bullying” to demand that students think.

Ms. Farnan also objected to my challenge of another national myth, that the USA was founded as a “Christian” nation. There is some truth to that notion, but embracing that myth and excluding other views can be used to unfairly gain political advantage. Another view of the founding fathers can be seen in the writings of Thomas Jefferson, the man who authored the Declaration of Independence. He translated the Bible. The last words of the Jeffersonian Bible might shake Ms. Farnan’s faith: “There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.” There was no resurrection for Jefferson, he rejected all the Biblical miracles, as contrary to reason. I doubt his view would be called “Christian” by Ms. Farnan or anyone else. James Madison, who penned the Constitution, warned, “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded prospect.” If Jefferson and Madison were alive today, I doubt they could be elected. The guardians of the national myth would rise up and smite them as unbelievers.

We respect the guardians and their myths at our peril because history (and science) changes and improves with knowledge, but the same force damages myth based on belief. That’s why the guardians fear the knowledge begat by questioning. For them, “knowledge” is gained in rote memory of approved truth. They chant in the school, temple, church or Mosque and fool themselves into thinking they’ve acquired knowledge.

All those teachers, and there are many of us, who understand the value of questioning sacred myths serve this nation as faithfully as other patriots. What is true will be strengthened. What is false will be destroyed, as it should be. Such teachers should be honored. There is no greater gift teachers can give to students than to teach them to think. Don’t sue them for it. Try taking them to the Pyrataneum for dinner, conversation and a cup of coffee, no hemlock.

Jim “Jesus Glasses” Corbett

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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14 responses to “My Defense, by James Corbett

  1. George Williams

    Jim :

    I am a Scienc teacher (retired) and I am not sure that you are as innocent of the charges as you pretend . Your defences are smoke they are based on some hearsay and lack of research of the material that you claim to condemn (make provocative ) .
    You make statements that insult the students beliefs and their family`s . When you condemn their faith on the basis of “myth`s ” ; how do you know a myth from fact or fiction ?
    What do you base the statement , “Creationism is superstitious nonsense ” and add some judgemental comments to drive home home the this insult ?

    Your defense is not even on the same page as Socrates .

    Eat the humble pie ..it`s good for your diet.

    One requirement of Science is doing the research , thoroughly , before you set up your experiment !

    George Williams

  2. I think James Corbett’s statement is wonderful. Surely every teacher should be there to encourage their pupils to think and rationalize for themselves, even at the risk of questioning the parents religion.
    Or do we follow Martin Luther who wrote “Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense and understanding”?

  3. jim corbett

    George:

    I’m disappointed at your post. Certainly my defense is not hearsay. I was there, I know what I said as well as the context. I don’t know if you judge me after reading the edited, out-of-context recordings made by Chad, a student with very limited academic abilities, despite his claim of being an “honor” student. I have never insulted a person’s religion in my life. My references were to the 18th century Catholic church and to the continuing effort by some conservative religious communities to limit the role of women to “traditional” areas. Your use of quote marks including the word “creationism” is simply, like Chad, making something up. I never said those words. What I said was that I would not allow a Science teacher at our school who was accused of teaching “creation science” (he gave an assignment asking public school students to demonstrate that the earth could be less than 7000 years old and created complete with fossils) to propagandize kids with his superstitious religious nonsense without someone to counter him. If you believe the notion that the world might be less than 7000 years old or that such a notion is not nonsense, I hope you, too, quit teaching what you call science and others call “superstitious religious nonsense.” As for me, I’ll keep teaching as I have.

  4. I’m sorry it came to a lawsuit and I hope that the judgment is a reasonable amount that doesn’t hurt your financial future. The boy’s family definitely overreacted and, if they needed to throw lawyers around about it, should have sued the school district, not you personally.

    However, since it did go to trial, I’m glad you lost.

    You were in a public school and teaching religion in the context of what is and is not true. The Constitution doesn’t let you do that and for a very good reason.

    I am an atheist too and I view the court’s decision as a good thing. The Constitution stops you from teaching public school students that God doesn’t exist. It also prevents the teacher across the hall from teaching his students that God does exist.

    Religion doesn’t belong in the classroom. Period. Hopefully the outcome of this trial provides a chilling effect on the guy across the hall who wants to use the Bible as a text book.

  5. Kevin Bowersox

    Rooker,

    The statement that Creationsim is religious, superstitious, nonsense does not say there is no God. It simply makes demonstrably true statements about Creationism.

  6. Eric Strickland

    Dear Mr. Corbett,

    Let me begin by saying that the Creationists’ lies and their deceitful subterfuge have had me foaming at the mouth for more than 30 years. My condolences on having to put up with and even defend yourself in court against a religious zealot such as John Peloza. I find the idea that people like him continue to get away with teaching their religious beliefs in public schools infuriating.

    However, in the spirit of posing uncomfortable questions, there are a few things I would like to ask you.

    You begin your defense by recalling the unjust treatment of Socrates. You acknowledge that, “Challenging myths is dangerous”. You go on to say, “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.”

    But surely you jest when you add that “The teachers willing to take that risk should be rewarded, not punished”? As a witness to the fact that Socrates’ plea for “free meals at the Pyrataneum” went unheeded, how can you in all seriousness expect to be feted by grateful parents for upsetting their cherished apple carts? If it is your intention to be a modern day gadfly, should you not also expect some form of ‘martyrdom’?

    You present yourself as a man of principles and ideals. You state your belief that “There is no greater gift teachers can give to students than to teach them to think,” that “students have a right to think for themselves.” You assert that “It is not “bullying” to demand that students think.” And you make the claim that, “those . . . of us, who understand the value of questioning sacred myths serve this nation as faithfully as other patriots.”

    I wonder when the last time was that you examined these beliefs?

    I too, used to hold that ‘learning to think’ and the pursuit of truth were the summum bonum. I’m a little less sure of that now. That is, I’m less sure that it’s possible to realize those goals in more than small measure. As Alfred North Whitehead said, “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.”

    You are, no doubt, familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell? I’ve become much more sympathetic to the presence of myth in society after becoming acquainted with his treatment of the subject. The creation and elaboration of myth fulfill some very important functions in society and the social-psychological being of its members.

    In your concluding paragraph you assert, “What is true will be strengthened. What is false will be destroyed . . .” I find that to be surprisingly naïve. My reading of history suggests that the process is not nearly as linear or straight forward as that implies. Truth is often suppressed or hidden for long periods of time. It is obfuscated. And most often it is comingled with untruths from which it is nearly impossible to disentangle. I see Creationist dogma surviving for many more centuries. And Joseph Campbell might not think that’s such a bad thing. But, if you truly fancy yourself as a patriot carrying out the good fight, then also take to heart Jefferson’s famous quote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

    I wonder if you’ve examined your methods recently? You trumpet the fact that you “go out of [your] way to be provocative.” In your letter to students you say “My goal is to have you go home with something that will provoke discussion with your parents.” Well, where I come from, fights and arguments are provoked, not discussions. Assuming that you’re being charitable when you describe your own behavior, one can imagine how that actually comes across to some of your students and their parents in practice.

    You assert that, “It is not ‘bullying’ to demand that students think.” I wonder how it is possible to make such a demand without bullying, if the student is unwilling? After all, you can lead them to the fountain of knowledge and reason, but can you really MAKE them drink?

    And I wonder how much “thinking” you’re actually getting them to do? Your example of demythologizing the Puritans overflows with value loaded terms. You say “they may also be seen as intolerant, misogynistic and homophobic religious bigots . . . ” with the implication that they were murderers to boot. Surely you know better than to pass judgment on the past by applying modern standards? Why even Lincoln can be portrayed as a racist bigot using that technique. By inserting this kind of bias, are you really teaching them to think for themselves?

    There has to be a better way to present the facts. Too often, impressionable young minds are left feeling that their country was evil in its founding, evil to its very core; its history irredeemably stained by all of the sins if its forefathers.

    I wonder whether most students of high school age have the maturity and emotional strength to endure having so many of their cherished beliefs “destroyed, as [they] should be.”? Sure, you may have a mostly eager audience, inasmuch as it is comprised of rebellious adolescents, ready to question all authority, especially parental. But have you ever considered the family discord you may be provoking, and how that may contribute to a weakening of the social fabric? (Unintended consequences, anyone?)

    And I wonder what good you have accomplished, if after depriving your students of their treasured myths, you leave them with nothing to hold onto in their place? People need something to anchor them. Without that, they are adrift; they feel as if they don’t know who they are. They are in a state of anomie. I contend that in such a state people’s ability to think rationally is greatly diminished. That being the case, you defeat your own purpose.

    People must have something to believe in. Absent a firm grounding in who they are and where they come from, the abstract virtues of truth and knowledge, especially if they presented in the form of a battering ram that shatters them at their social-psychological foundations, are poor substitutes for what they have lost.

    Providing students a means to find alternative ground upon which to stand, so that they can still feel all right about themselves and their country, may be a more difficult and time consuming task than simply making them uncomfortable by feeding them a steady diet of shocking and unsettling truths about their nation’s past and present.

    If you are able to provide for those needs simultaneously while demolishing their myths, then you are a true educator.

  7. Mr. Corbett,

    Thank you for challenging kids everyday in your class!!! As we teachers know, we can get into alot of trouble for doing this from parents and administrators because many are only interested in passing the student so that the school can look good.

    For Mr. George Williams, I’m glad you are retired. I bet you taught creationism or falsehoods of science. Sir, God does not exist.

  8. Rooker,

    The reason many students don’t do well in class is because of your God. You say you’re an Atheist, but your words don’t support it. God stops all critical thinking. It also depends on the level of indoctrination reckless parents impose on their children. Why believe in “superstitious nonsense” when you can actually find the answer through science and research??

  9. Mr Corbett,

    Based on your own account, it appears your mistake was using the word “religious” in the first place. You might have gotten away with “superstitious nonsense”. After all, “creation scientists” (I cringe to use those words together) insist that their discipline is science, not religion, right? So for them to make a 1st amendment case out of it, they would have to contradict themselves and admit that it really is religion after all. I’m sorry, but you’ve done their work for them.

  10. Mr. Corbett,

    What kind of a teacher makes a public attack on the academic prowess of a student currently at the high school where they teach? The ethical baseness boggles the mind. I hope the school board puts you out yet. And, last time I checked, high schools don’t generally allow poor students into AP courses.

    You are a classless legend in your own mind, and an embarrassment to the profession and those that share your views and beliefs. The level of hubris displayed in your post knows no bounds – other than those that keep you from being an actual college professor. You love your bully pulpit, and are bothered that you have been held accountable for displaying your personal distaste for adherents to their faith.

    You are no Socrates. Socrates asked questions to make people think – you make statements and go on rants to stroke your own ego. If you want to be paid to share your beliefs, or lack thereof, you should have aimed to teach at a private college, not a public high school. That is not your job as a public high school teacher, and when you make the statements you do to a captive teenage audience you are nothing more than a bully.

    Moreover, Socrates encouraged his students to examine their own lives – you get your jollies by offering your students your examination of their lives. That’s a big difference. News flash – I’m sure they don’t much need your examination and if properly taught would be able to examine themselves without your “insights.” Your attacks on faith do not provoke thought; they just highlight your bigotry and are unconstitutional when spouted in a public classroom at taxpayer expense.

    Further – beyond your Socrates complex – stop with your “out of context” B.S. claims. The judge was provided with full recordings, as evidenced by the fact he was able to find “context” for a large amount of your venom and explain it away. Just because some of your hate speech was so clear as to be unjustifiable in any way doesn’t mean you were taken out of context by the court or the student. If anything, you were given the benefit of the doubt with much of your inane ranting.

    I hope the fact that a student had the strength of character to draw a line in the sand against your bullying, and win, sticks in your craw to the point of driving you completely off your “academic” edge.

    You have already lost in a federal court of law, and every time you open your mouth you do damage to yourself in the court of public opinion. It is clear you are ego and dogma driven, not student driven. Stop talking before you do more damage to the liberal “academia,” of which you believe you are a champion. We don’t want you.

    Good day, sir.

    JC

  11. JC, I’ve been leaving this thread un-moderated, so that Mr. Corbett can respond to any comments, as he likes. You, however, will be unable to post comments anywhere outside of this thread, and I’ll be watching your comments here carefully from now on.

  12. jdg,

    > Rooker,
    > … You say you’re an Atheist, but your words don’t support it.

    I don’t see how you’ve come to that conclusion. My words are that religion does not belong in school and that I don’t want to see bibles being used as textbooks.

    I regret that this lawsuit happened, but since it did, I’m glad that the decision was to uphold the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

    Why?

    The county council in Cumberland County, Tennessee wanted to keep a statue of Moses on public grounds outside the courthouse in Crossville, Tennessee. One day, somebody applied to put up a statue of the Flying Spaghetti Monster on another part of the public grounds and they had to do it, because otherwise they would violate the Constitution.

    They opened the door and someone they didn’t expect stepped through it.

    Caspar, Wyoming had long allowed a statue of The Ten Commandments to be on display on public property (a city park). In 2003, Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Hate Church wanted to erect a statue mocking Matthew Shepard in that park. So the locals decided that instead of allowing this, they would disallow any religious statues at all in the park.

    They opened the door and a monster tried to step through it.

    If the court had decided in favor of Mr. Corbett and allowed him to continue, as a government-paid, public school teacher, to teach the students that God doesn’t exist and all religions are just superstitions, then that means that someone in another wing of that same school would be allowed to teach his students that God does exist and only the Baptist sect of the Christian Church is the correct one.

    Or the Shiite sect of the Islamic Church. Or The Church of England. Or The Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints. Or the Fred Phelps sect of The Christian Church.

    Because I am an atheist, I’m glad Mr. Corbett lost the lawsuit. Because I am an atheist, I want that particular door to remain closed, to prevent someone I don’t like from stepping through it.

    Hope that clears everything up about my opinion.

  13. After hearing Rooker missing things like the “Creationism is superstitious nonsense” was in response to the science teacher at the school giving a pro-creationism project to show ‘proof’ for a Young Earth Creationist model, I’m kinda wondering if he actually read the post.

    Also, I haven’t seen transcripts, all I ‘know’ is that somehow the phrase “Jesus glasses” was passed up and it was “Creationism is superstitious nonsense” that as pounced on. Was that the actual wording?

    It’s all I’ve actually heard, so it kinda boggles my mind how that is religious discrimination when creationism is unlawful to teach in schools because it’s religious stuff masquerading as pseudo-scientific nonsense. That then was reinforced at the Dover trial when Intelligent Design likewise got the boot because it was shown to be creationism with a new pseudo-science facade.

    On that note, any calls on when Academic Freedom bills get revealed to be neuvo intelligent design, misbegotten offspring of creationism. I say 2011 because I like an uneven number for it. 2012 is just too symmetrical and 2013 is too awesome to be associated with such nonsense.

    As for the post, how about at least some facts of what the hell is going on and less “I am the new Socrates”, because I’ve heard precious little details. Ya know, your part part of the story and all that. I could say a lot more about it if I knew more than a paragraph of the material.

  14. Eric Strickland

    Valor,

    You’ll find the answer to most of your questions by reading the judge’s ruling on the case

    http://www.ocregister.com/newsimages/2009/05/01/Student%20lawsuit%20-%20final%20ruling.pdf