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Austin Cline

Student Threatens Lawsuit: Instructor Didn't Treat Genesis as History!

By September 23, 2007

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In Red Oak, Iowa, an instructor at the Southwestern Community College has evidently been fired because he told his students that he didn't treat the story of Adam & Eve in the Bible as literal historical fact. Steve Bitterman used the Bible as part of his course on Western Civilization, which one might assume would make conservative Christians happy, but his situation demonstrates the pitfalls of such a situation: real academics don't use the Bible as literal history and this contradicts conservative evangelical theology.

Bitterman made his remarks about how he used the Bible on Tuesday the 18th; he was fired already on Thursday the 20th — and over the telephone, too. Why so fast? It's not clear, but one student threatened to sue the college over hearing something so contrary to his religious background. Have we really come to the point where conservative, evangelical Christian students can now exercise veto power over course material and prevent legitimate history from being taught when it contradicts their theology?

“I’m just a little bit shocked myself that a college in good standing would back up students who insist that people who have been through college and have a master’s degree, a couple actually, have to teach that there were such things as talking snakes or lose their job,” Bitterman said. ...

Bitterman’s Tuesday course was telecast to students in Osceola over the Iowa Communications Network. A few students in the Osceola classroom, he said, thought the lesson was “denigrating their religion.”

“I put the Hebrew religion on the same plane as any other religion. Their god wasn’t given any more credibility than any other god,” Bitterman said. “I told them it was an extremely meaningful story, but you had to see it in a poetic, metaphoric or symbolic sense, that if you took it literally, that you were going to miss a whole lot of meaning there.”

Bitterman said called the story of Adam and Eve a “fairy tale” in a conversation with a student after the class and was told the students had threatened to see an attorney. He declined to identify any of the students in the class. “I just thought there was such a thing as academic freedom here,” he said. “From my point of view, what they’re doing is essentially teaching their students very well to function in the 8th century.”

Source: DesMoines Register

Describing the story of Adam & Eve as a "fairy tale" might be inappropriate as part of an official lesson, but as a remark made privately after class it shouldn't be any basis for any sort of disciplinary action — and certainly not dismissal. Simply treating the stories in the Bible in the same way as the stories in Homer absolutely shouldn't be the basis for disciplinary action. It's true that such treatment of biblical stories will offend conservative Christians who are convinced that their myths are real history, but it's not the obligation of instructors to coddle and defer to the religious beliefs of students.

Barbara Crittenden, president of Southwestern Community College, insists that Bitterman's firing had nothing to do with free speech — but if his firing was based on this lesson, that's hard to believe. Unless there is a lot more going on here than we know about, it really does look like Bitterman was fired because he refused to transform his history class into a revival meeting. Right now I think I'd be very cautious about taking any classes taught by anyone at Southwestern Community College — I'm not sure I would be able to trust whether the instructors were allowed to present the information as it really is or if they are being censored by fear that the administration will fire them if they don't teach about talking snakes.

September 23, 2007 at 7:05 pm
(1) tracieh says:

I’m willing to hear the University’s side of this (except that they declined comment for the time being, apparently), but with just this info, it’s a bit unsettling.

September 23, 2007 at 9:45 pm
(2) davepete says:

The University of Kansas, fired a Doctor at KU Med Center two yeas ago for waearing a gorilla costume as part of a Darwin Day celebration.

Moral of both those stories, is to keep your free-thinking, unbelieving mouths shut if you value your job.

How sad for what’s supposed to be higher education.

September 23, 2007 at 10:21 pm
(3) Patrick Quigley says:

Thank goodness non-belief isn’t a civil rights issue.

September 23, 2007 at 11:04 pm
(4) Yenald Looshi says:

Colleges like these should be immediately suspect whenever students try to transfer grades for subjects like biology and other sciences to institutions with less inclination to be so credulous.

And when a college is willing to fire an instructor when a student threatens to sue because of hearing a position contrary to his/her own ideology, aren’t *all* classes in history, politics, and science then risky topics?

September 24, 2007 at 12:00 am
(5) AV says:

Have we really come to the point where conservative, evangelical Christian students can now exercise veto power over course material and prevent legitimate history from being taught when it contradicts their theology?

Yes–except the conservatives give this kind of scenario the Orwellian title of “Academic Freedom”.

September 24, 2007 at 2:40 am
(6) Patrick Quigley says:

Thanks for that link, AV. That is a fantastic article.

September 24, 2007 at 3:11 am
(7) Gotweirdness says:

I suppose to some theists attending universities their “higher education” comes from mythological stories. I’ve had my fair share of fellow students when I was in college who accepted creationism as a undeniable truth. There was one guy who was decent fellow if misguided majoring in biology to “prove” creationism.

September 24, 2007 at 5:52 am
(8) Forrest Prince says:

Normally I’d reserve judgement on a story like this until more facts are in, but on the face of it I’d say “something’s rotten”, meaning it certainly appears Southwestern CC has some bigoted Christian(s?) in their administration department that were just waiting for a chance like this to pounce on and punish a free-thinker for (gasp!) actually thinking before speaking.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

September 24, 2007 at 11:52 am
(9) nal says:

I hope Bitterman sues. Southwestern Community College not only receives state funding but also federal funding. If this kind of bigotry is not nipped in the bud, it will only spread.

September 25, 2007 at 2:43 pm
(10) Kafir says:

Makes you wonder just why the complaining student decided to further his education if he’s already convinced of how it all happened.

September 28, 2007 at 3:16 pm
(11) John Hanks says:

I suppose the rest of the faculty went into hiding. Lazy cowards never unite.

September 29, 2007 at 11:30 am
(12) Brooke says:

Based upon the minimal facts we do have, I would tend to take sides with Bitterman. Students of a secular university should not expect to hear agreement with the Bible.

October 2, 2007 at 12:07 pm
(13) Gina Salvati says:

The teacher did nothing wrong because people go to college to learn the TRUTH. If he wants to learn about the bible, let him go to a church and learn it.
I say….dont pray in my school and I wont think in your church.

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