Professor Warren Blumenfeld recently retired from Iowa State University. Here he reflects on how orthodoxy inhibited education.
This month, my dear mother passed away two days before her 89th birthday. I was fortunate to have had her in my life these many years, for she was not only my mother, but she was also my best friend. During the course of the past year, I also lost four close friends to cancer, which again reminded me that life is short and one must live each day as if it were one’s last.
Being now 66 years of age and not knowing how many years I have left, I have decided to retire from my faculty position at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa and return home to western Massachusetts in June where my heart lies. There I will take partial retirement by teaching adjunct in-person and on-line courses, and continue to write academic and personal articles.
Though I have enjoyed my position over the past 9 years at Iowa State University, I have also found teaching courses focusing on issues of social justice very challenging at this university.
Each semester I teach the course CI 406, “Multicultural Foundations in Schools and Society,” in the School of Education. I base the course on a number of key concepts and assumptions, including how issues of power, privilege, and domination within the United States center on inequitable social divisions regarding race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, sex, gender identity, sexual identity, religion, nationality, linguistic background, physical and mental ability/disability, and age. I address how issues around social identities impact generally on life outcomes, and specifically on educational outcomes. Virtually all students registered for this course, which is mandatory for students registered in the Teacher Education program, are pre-service teachers.
Most students in my courses grew up in largely homogenous small rural communities where the vast majority comes from European-white and Christian (primarily Protestant) backgrounds and where most people look like themselves.
Of particular surprise to me were the writings of two female undergraduate students who, though they were in different courses during different years, seemed to come to the same conclusion. On a final course paper, one student wrote that, while she enjoyed the course, and she felt that both myself and my graduate assistant — who had come out to the class earlier as lesbian — were very knowledgeable and good professors with great senses of humor, nonetheless, she felt obliged to inform us that we are still going to Hell for being so-called “practicing homosexuals.” Another student two years later wrote on her course paper that homosexuality and transgenderism are sins in the same category as stealing and murder. This student not only reiterated that I will travel to Hell if I continued to act on my same-sex desires, but she went further in amplifying the first student’s proclamations by self-righteously insisting that I will not receive an invitation to enter Heaven if I do not accept Jesus as my personal savior since I am a Jew, regardless of my sexual behavior. Anyone who doubts this, she concluded, “Only death will tell!”
Over the years, I have attempted to analyze our campus environment, one that emboldens some students to notify their professor and graduate assistant that their final destination will be the depths of Hell.
One of the books I require is Joel Spring’s Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality, which explores history from multiple perspectives, and explodes some of the myths and misinformation that students may have learned throughout their educational experiences. Along with this book, I assign a “Critical Analysis” paper that requires students not to merely summarize but to critically reflect and analyze the information. I designate numerous pages in our course syllabus to detailing precisely what I am looking for in terms of “critical analysis,” including:
While our personal beliefs and experiences certainly influence our opinions in the classroom, students must use empirical and/or scholarly evidence to support and prove their points in all assignments. At our university, we value the research process and the type of discourse that arises when we combine our own opinions with the research and learning we have done. Opinions that do not have empirical and/or scholarly proof will not be accepted. Just because we believe something does not make it truth – instead find others who have researched and supported your beliefs. For example, your course books (or other empirically written books) serve as proof. A personal memoir or religious text would not.
Along with readings in Spring’s book, I give students a two-part assignment to be completed by the following class session in two days: the first part asks students a question for critical contemplation, the second part includes a research exercise.
The question I pose: “Did Christopher Columbus discover what has come to be called ‘U.S.-America’? Why or why not?” I tell students that after they reflect on this question, they are to investigate articles communicating Native American Indian perspectives of Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day.
Entering the classroom one year on the next class session, students filled the room with frenetic energy. I asked them to divide into their smaller reading discussion groups (of 5-7), and asked each group to choose a recorder who was to report themes discussed. I wrote on the board discussion directions: 1. Discuss with group members how you had initially answered the question: “Did Christopher Columbus discover what has come to be called ‘U.S.-America’? Why or why not?” 2. Discuss what you learned from Native American Indian perspectives of Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day. What did you already know? What surprised you? What insights did you gain? What, if any, emotions came up for you? What question do you still have?
Following twenty-minutes of lively student discussion in small groups, I facilitated a large classroom discussion. Many students expressed anger over the ways that teachers and textbooks portrayed Christopher Columbus during their early schooling. These students felt that they somehow “had been lied to” in the “white washing” of the history commonly taught in schools. They felt appalled and horrified by the treatment of indigenous peoples by Columbus and his crew, by the killings, enslavement, thievery of natural resources, all which set the stage for the large-scale genocide, forced Christian conversion, deculturalization, land and animal desecration, and appropriation.
One student, a geology major, responded by answering a question with questions: “How could Columbus have discovered what would later be called ‘America’ when Indians have lived on this land for an estimated 33,000 to 35,000 years after coming over the Bering Isthmus during a glacial age when the sea level dropped? How can one ‘discover’ people who have been here so long? Actually, Indians discovered Columbus on their land!”
A number of students nodded their heads in silent agreement. Other students articulated the love they have for their Christian faiths, but expressed shock and some disbelief over the murder and forced Christian conversions perpetrated by European explorers, missionaries, and settlers. At this point, I asked students to interrogate the concept of “European settlers.” “If this was Indian land (‘first nation peoples’), how accurate, then, is the term “European settlers”? Some students showed confusion on their faces by this question. For others, their eyes opened widely and they sported a wide grin. “Yeah,” said one student. “Say I own a house, and someone knocks on the door, walks in, pushes me outside, and claims: ‘I like your house, and I am now settling here. You be on your way. Good bye!’ And he slams the door in my face.” Others pondered this student’s comments.
At the close of class that day, as students left the room, one student remained behind to talk with me, with obvious rage on her face. “I thought this was supposed to be a multicultural class! You and the geology student have disrespected my culture,” she declared accusingly. “My culture teaches me that God created the universe approximately 6,000 – 7,000 years ago. So, I ask you, how could Indians have lived here for thousands and thousands of years before God created the universe? Also, since Christians are called to bring God’s message to all the nations of the world and to spread the word of Jesus Christ, I take offense with the claim that Europeans forcibly converted anyone!”
I thanked her for raising issues that she was certainly not alone in believing. I asked her if I could raise her concerns, while not referring to her by name, at our next class session, and that I would like to open it up for class discussion. She agreed.
I raised the student’s concerns over our prior class discussion, and asked students to discuss this in their small groups. I also asked students to write in their course journals their thoughts and feelings around the issues raised. Students were very respectful of differing viewpoints both in their small groups and in the larger group discussion.
Some students provided scientific evidence for the approximate age of the universe, others discussed their religious teaching. Some discussed the theological imperative to spread the word of Jesus Christ, others talked about their frustrations and resentments when others attempt to convert them to Christianity in any of its denominations.
I brought up the notion of “culture clash,” in this instance the opposing beliefs, from some perspectives, that sharing the word of Jesus is an act of bestowing a great gift on the “unbeliever,” while for others, rather than experiencing this as a gift, some perceive this as an imposition, an annoyance, a provocation, or worse, a form of oppression.
While a slight majority of students expressed that the United States had been founded on the notion of a separation of religion and government, a number of other students (approximately one-sixth of the entire class), however, asserted that we are now and that we were always meant to be “a Christian nation,” and that the notion of religious pluralism runs contrary to their religious teachings. One student articulated this view best:
[A]s a Christian I am called to not be tolerant. I am not called to be violent, but am called to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28). When I look through all of the information I have been given in my life…I come to the conclusion that America was founded as a Christian nation….Separation of church and state was created to keep the state out of changing the church, not to keep the church out of the state (Undergraduate Pre-service Teacher Education Student).
This student referred to his interpretation of Christian scripture, which commands him to spread the word of Jesus:
(16) Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. (17) When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
(18) Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (19) Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (20) and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (from the King James Bible).
Students also wrote about the warnings from their pastors and national Christian leaders regarding the dangers to their faith in attending secular educational institutions. One student referred to Brannon S. Howse, president and founder of the Worldview Weekend Foundation, which I investigated further and found:
“Where do most Christian students get their perspective on history and sociology or learn about the question of origins? The frightening reality is that most take in the steady diet of Secular Humanism served up in our public schools. And in college, it only gets worse. Worldview Weekend speaker Kerby Anderson puts it this way: “When a student enrolls in Philosophy 101, it could just as easily be called Atheism 101. A class in Sociology 101, should really be called Postmodernism 101. A class on Religion 101, is really a class that should be called Religious Pluralism 101. And a class in Biology 101, would more accurately be called Evolution 101. It’s little wonder that more than three out of four young people from Christian homes deny their faith before graduating from college. Parents must prepare their children to counter the lies of Secular Humanism, the New Age Movement, and bizarre forms of mysticism finding their way into our churches.”
This website also includes quotes from David Wheaton, a Worldview Weekend Speaker and author of the book, Surviving the University of Destruction:
“…I was now living full-time in the midst of a world diametrically opposed to the one I had grown up in — there would be no returning home to Mommy and Daddy every night. I would soon find out that an excellent upbringing coupled with academic and athletic success was no match for the maelstrom called college. The waters were baited, the sharks were circling…spiritual shipwreck loomed.”
Students, faculty, and staff at our university, in addition to members from our surrounding communities, have founded and maintained quite a number of campus and community-based Christian student organizations, some to promote their version of their faith and to help insulate students from the so-called “secular humanist indoctrination” of public secular universities. One such organization on our campus and many others throughout the nation include local chapters of the Christian Educators Association International (CEAI). A few years ago, student leaders with their community advisors set up display tables in my building in the School of Education promoting their organization in their attempts to recruit pre-service and in-service teachers, school staff, and school administrators to serve as “Missional Teachers”:
Missional Teachers are established by the work of Jesus Christ. They are “sent out” into the mission field of education, connected with the body of Christ to serve His purposes in all things (CEAI brochure, emphasis in original).
The goal of the organization is to bring the word of Jesus and reintroduce Christian prayer into the schools, not merely parochial schools but within public education as well. Among the services the organization provides are a subscription to their magazine Teachers of Vision, free Bibles for the public school classroom, and most tellingly, professional liability insurance:
Being a Christian educator has difficult barriers. Fears of saying something “illegal” often rule in the mind of Christian teachers. Many don’t know what their freedoms are (CEAI brochure, emphasis in original).
In this regard, the organization also provides “Access to advice, consultation, support.”
The Christian Educators Association International takes quite literally the undergraduate pre-service teacher whom I quoted previously in his underlying assumption that “Separation of church and state was created to keep the state out of changing the church, not to keep the church out of the state.”
Anti-Intellectualism Has No Place in Our Schools
While I genuinely respect individuals’ religious understandings, during my service at Iowa State University I have been saddened and deeply concerned that some of my students have used their religious teachings as defensive shields against inquiry, creating an aura of anti-intellectualism “protecting” them from information that may contradict or challenge their beliefs. While I find this particularly troubling when I perceive it in any person, in a pre-service and then in-service teacher whose job it is to impart a life-long love of learning, the consequences can be disastrous.
Throughout the semester, I continually looked around my classrooms, and I asked myself this question:
If I had a child, would I want my child to be taught by this student, or that student? Happily, on numerous occasions, I answered with an unconditional and enthusiastic “yes, most definitely.” Too often, unfortunately, I was emphatic: “never, under any circumstances,” which sometimes turned me pessimistic about the future of U.S. education.