UPDATE: I didn’t check the date carefully on this story, which I read as August 2014. My error: it’s August, 2012, so the story is two years old. My apologies. I’ll leave it up, however, as I think it’s still of value to discuss this, but be aware that the fracas is dead by now. And a note to readers as well: when sending me pieces, do check the date yourself. Of course, I bear the ultimate responsibility!
Charles Negy is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida. His faculty page says he specializes in cross-cultural psychology:
His research interests vary, but have focused primarily on how Hispanic Americans adapt to the United States’ culture and how that adaptation manifests itself on psychological and personality tests. . . Specifically, he examines how variables such as race, ethnicity, culture, acculturation, gender, social class, and sexual orientation influence people’s attitudes and behaviors, including performance on personality tests. Although his studies usually are contextualized in clinical psychology, the essence of the research falls more within the domain of personality/social psychology.
Well, there’s already some potential flashpoints there, but things really blew up when, according to Inside Higher Ed (IHE), Negy apparently was teaching his cross-cultural anthropology class when a fracas occurred (the following is, according to IHE, based on Negy’s account):
In Negy’s telling, about 8 to 10 students, among 496 students in the class, started arguing that Christianity was superior to other religions. Negy asked the protesting students to demonstrate how this was so. At this, one of the students in the group asked the rest of the class not to take part in the discussion.
Negy said the class continued after he steered the discussion in another direction, but he was fuming. Soon after, he sent out a stinging e-mail message to all the students in his class.
Here’s his email, which was also posted, presumably by one of his students, on reddit
Hello, Cross-Cultural students, I am writing to express my views on how some of you have conducted yourself in this university course you are taking with me. It is not uncommon for some-to-many American students, who typically, are first-generation college students, to not fully understand, and maybe not even appreciate the purpose of a university. Some students erroneously believe a university is just an extension of high school, where students are spoon-fed “soft” topics and dilemmas to confront, regurgitate the “right” answers on exams (right answers as deemed by the instructor or a textbook), and then move on to the next course.
Not only is this not the purpose of a university (although it may feel like it is in some of your other courses), it clearly is not the purpose of my upper-division course on Cross-Cultural Psychology. The purpose of a university, and my course in particular, is to struggle intellectually with some of life’s most difficult topics that may not have one right answer, and try to come to some conclusion about what may be “the better answer” (It typically is not the case that all views are equally valid; some views are more defensible than others). Another purpose of a university, and my course in particular, is to engage in open discussion in order to critically examine beliefs, behaviors, and customs. Finally, another purpose of a university education is to help students who typically are not accustomed to thinking independently or applying a critical analysis to views or beliefs, to start learning how to do so. We are not in class to learn “facts” and simply regurgitate the facts in a mindless way to items on a test. Critical thinking is a skill that develops over time. Independent thinking does not occur overnight. Critical thinkers are open to having their cherished beliefs challenged, and must learn how to “defend” their views based on evidence or logic, rather than simply “pounding their chest” and merely proclaiming that their views are “valid.” One characteristic of the critical, independent thinker is being able to recognize fantasy versus reality; to recognize the difference between personal beliefs which are nothing more than personal beliefs, versus views that are grounded in evidence, or which have no evidence.
Last class meeting and for 15 minutes today, we addressed “religious bigotry.” Several points are worth contemplating:
Religion and culture go “hand in hand.” For some cultures, they are so intertwined that it is difficult to know with certainty if a specific belief or custom is “cultural” or “religious” in origin. The student in class tonight who proclaimed that my class was supposed to be about different cultures (and not religion) lacks an understanding about what constitutes “culture.” (of course, I think her real agenda was to stop my comments about religion).
Students in my class who openly proclaimed that Christianity is the most valid religion, as some of you did last class, portrayed precisely what religious bigotry is. Bigots—racial bigot or religious bigots—never question their prejudices and bigotry. They are convinced their beliefs are correct. For the Christians in my class who argued the validity of Christianity last week, I suppose I should thank you for demonstrating to the rest of the class what religious arrogance and bigotry looks like. It seems to have not even occurred to you (I’m directing this comment to those students who manifested such bigotry), as I tried to point out in class tonight, how such bigotry is perceived and experienced by the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the non-believers, and so on, in class, to have to sit and endure the tyranny of the masses (the dominant group, that is, which in this case, are Christians).
The male student who stood up in class and directed the rest of the class to “not participate” by not responding to my challenge, represented the worst of education. For starters, the idea that a person—student or instructor—would instruct other students on how to behave, is pretty arrogant and grossly disrespects the rights of other students who can and want to think for themselves and decide for themselves whether they want to engage in the exchange of ideas or not. Moreover, this “let’s just put our fingers in our ears so we will not hear what we disagree with” is appallingly childish and exemplifies “anti-intellectualism.” The purpose of a university is to engage in dialogue, debate, and exchange ideas in order to try and come to some meaningful conclusion about an issue at hand. Not to shut ourselves off from ideas we find threatening.
Universities hold a special place in society where scholarly-minded folks can come together and discuss controversial, polemic, and often uncomfortable topics. Universities, including UCF, have special policies in place to protect our (both professors’ and students’) freedom to express ourselves. Neither students nor professors have a right to censor speech that makes us uncomfortable. We’re adults. We’re at a university. There is no topic that is “off-limits” for us to address in class, if even only remotely related to the course topic. I hope you will digest this message, and just as important, will take it to heart as it may apply to you.
I see nothing objectionable in this email. Its language is strong, and perhaps the students singled out (not by name) could feel that the professor will be biased against them, but they’re adults, and this is a lesson on how to be an adult at a university.
As of yesterday afternoon, there were more than 1,600 comments on the Reddit discussion thread. I’ve just skimmed them, but most of them think that Negy’s letter and attitude are fine, which is heartening.
Even more heartening is that his university is standing by him. According to Inside Higher Ed:
Jeffrey Cassisi, the chair of the department of psychology at UCF, said in an e-mail that he supported Negy’s perspective. “I view Dr. Negy’s discussion as protected by the fundamental principles of academic freedom,” he said. “I am encouraged by the worldwide positive response to his letter, because if critical thinking and debate were not permitted in our public universities, I believe the future of all human rights would be at risk.”
Tony G. Waldrop, provost and executive vice president, said in an e-mail that the university encouraged faculty members to have classroom discussions that help students think critically. “We also hope our students will arrive at their own opinions based on those thought-provoking discussions,” he said.
There is one fly in the ointment, however, as the IHE article starts with this statement (my emphasis).
Charles Negy, a professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida, has taught his cross-cultural psychology class for 15 years. Uproars are not uncommon, especially when he talks about religion or tells his students that there is no evidence of a “heaven.”
And it makes me wonder what Negy said that made the students proclaim that Christianity was “the most valid religion.” I hope it wasn’t that he’s promulgating atheism at a public university (UCF is a public university—with 60,000 students, it’s the second largest in the U.S.).
Even at a private university, like the one where I teach, I wouldn’t tell the students there is no evidence for a heaven. For one thing, it’s not in my brief as a biology teacher. But even were I teaching a course on comparative religion or culture, I would ask the students for the evidence, and let them argue it out under my guidance. Students should be adults and be willing to have their beliefs challenged, but for a professor to question religious beliefs in a public university, even as a lesson in learning to tolerate dissent, seems to me a violation of the First Amendment. In a private university, it’s no legal violation, but remember that a professor is an authority figure.
In the end, I love Negy’s letter but wonder if there’s anything a bit less honorable behind it. What got those students riled up?