By Jason M. Wester
Deandre Poole, a professor at Florida Atlantic University, employed an activity from a textbook in his course about cultural studies.
He asked his students to write the word Jesus on a piece of paper and then stand on the paper.
Assuming that most students would balk at the request, Dr. Poole would then have an opening to discuss the power of symbols.
One might think that such is rather benign, that it might have sparked interesting classroom discussion. Perhaps students would leave the classroom that day with a deeper understanding and awareness about the power of symbols in their lives.
Ryan Rotella, a student in Poole’s class, would have nothing of it. As his professor expected, he refused to stand on the paper. Not only did Rotella refuse to do the activity, he asserted that being asked to do the activity was an affront to his Mormon faith.
He took his complaint to the media, claiming that he was punished for not doing the activity by being suspended from the class. His claims were snatched up by right-wing blogs and turned into a national story.
When I read the story, I recognized that something was amiss. I could not imagine a student being suspended for exercising his academic freedom.
It didn’t add up, so I did some digging and found that there was more to the story. According to Dr. Poole, Rotella accosted him after class. He repeatedly punched the palm of his hand and told Dr. Poole that he wanted to punch him.
Poole did exactly what I would have done. He reported the encounter to campus police. Thus, Rotella was suspended from class not for refusing to do the activity, but for threatening the teacher.
Of course, Poole’s objective that day, to teach students the power of symbols, was demonstrated with breathtaking irony by Rotella’s overreaction, yet I’m sure Dr. Poole wishes the point hadn’t been made quite so well.
Poole, a devout Baptist, has endured all manner of harassment, from calls that he be fired to hate mail to threats on his life. On the positive side, the attacks on Dr. Poole have brought him the support of the university and shined a light on the importance of academic freedom.
Academic freedom is a concept that ought to be easy for most people to understand.
Simply put, academic freedom is the freedom to ask questions, regardless of how unpopular those questions might be. Without academic freedom, the creation of knowledge is stifled, if not made impossible.
Galileo Galilei is often cited as an example of what happens when academic freedom is restricted. Galileo noticed that the then-held view that the Earth was the center of the universe was wrong, and when he published those findings, that put him into conflict with the Pope. He was tried by the Inquisition and found guilty of heresy, forced to recant his findings and imprisoned for the rest of his life, all for asking a question about the universe and coming to the right answer.
It is an age-old problem. Some people work to advance knowledge, and some people work to prevent that advancement. Unfortunately, those who have sought to stop the advancement of knowledge have often done so on religious grounds.
What strikes me about all of this mess, the threats Dr. Poole has received, the idea that this lesson was somehow insensitive or offensive and should never have been done in the first place, is that such reactions betray an astounding lack of faith. Anyone with religious faith should welcome inquiry and support academic freedom with passion because that is how we advance our knowledge.
If one’s faith is deeply held, no amount of questioning, no amount of standing on a piece of paper with the word Jesus written on it could possibly shake that faith.
Anyone who refuses to learn on religious grounds is telling the world that his or her faith is precisely as fragile as that paper. I would suggest that Ryan Rotella has some soul-searching to do. His faith is paper-thin.
JASON M. WESTER is a Tupelo resident who teaches at Northwest Mississippi Community College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.