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Heresy or Critical Thinking: Beliefs and Classroom Discussion

This afternoon I received an article from the Center For Inquiry (“CFI”), a secular humanist organization who’s mailing list I somehow ended up on last year, that discussed a case of alleged anti-religious discrimination at Suffolk County Community College (New York) that the American Center for Law and Justic (“ACLJ”) is involved in. “Religious Right Organization Tries to Intimidate Professor,” screamed the title, “Shamelessly Misleads Its Own Supporters.” While the headline sounded biased and anti-religious of itself, I was rather impressed by the article, which unvelied the professor’s (Dr. Phillip Pecorino) self-defense.
“I would not be doing my job as a philosophy professor,” explained Pecorino, “if I did not require students to think about their beliefs and provide reasons in support of their beliefs— not my beliefs or anyone else’s beliefs. Critical examination of beliefs, including one’s own beliefs, and training in reasoning are among the primary objectives of a philosophy course, and of a liberal education in general. Only professors who are negligent or indifferent allow students to earn good grades simply by providing as a reason for an assertion ‘well, this is what I believe’.”
This statement resonated strongly with “Dr. A,” who reproduced the CFI article on his blog “The Phytophactor” and further comments that:
“We’ve all had students like this. Only a couple of years ago I had a student in a senior seminar class, a ‘capstone experience’ for biology majors who refused to discuss or even justify their positions or opinions. I had ‘no right to pass judgment’. Of course I wasn’t passing judgment, I was trying to get students to think and support their positions in a manner scientific.”
As with all issues that people are emotionally involved in, there are several different perspectives floating around. This Xanga user wrote a reactive email arguing with Dr. Pecroino, and posted it on their blog (Scroll to the bottom of the page to turn off their music 😛 — followup post here). The post(s) solicited quite a few comments from the right, such as…
WiLD4SURFiNG: “GeeZ Louise… Liberal Stupidity never ends. I love Jay Sekulow and the ACLJ. I will be praying Gina up!”
followfreedom: “This isn’t teaching, it’s indoctrinating.”
Anonymous: “Yes, he did demand that people change the way they think and conform to his way of thinking. His goal was to ‘move students to Plato’s level 3 and 4’ and remove them from levels one and two. How else can you do that if someone refuses to change their way of thinking and is content at level one or two? Well in this case, he bullies or intimidates, or demeans. That isn’t teaching, teaching is allowing someone to gain knowledge and the rest is up to them.”
…as well as comments challenging the conservative assertions:
Zeus4Life: “Sure, you have the right to believe that this beautiful planet was created 6000 years ago by the all-powerful, celestial dictator (although EVIDENCE suggests otherwise)who personally had a hand in the creation of this world and the universe. But such illogically incoherent beliefs should be left at the door of any learning institution (College and University) upon entry. Religious beliefs/dogmas should not be conveyed from the pulpit to the grandeur of an American educational institution, for it will stain the educational process, but they should be sequestered and set aside for their own seekers at their own established venues… Since so many people on this blog seem to subjectively critique this professor, I ask you all to answer a few objective questions: How long has this professor been teaching? How long has this professor been teaching this course? Is this the first encounter the fore mentioned professor has had with a Christian student concerning their religious beliefs? What are his credentials? What have other students said about his courses and teaching style?”
One of his students did indeed comment potently:
Rain05x: “its difficult for me to believe that prof. pecorino has ‘punished’ anyone for believing in God. our class spends hours debating on various aspects of religion, including the existence of God. so before you crucify him for the alleged crime he has done against gina, maybe we should investigate the source of blame… is it not the job of a professor to make his student think? is it not a teacher’s job to challenge each student’s ideas and beliefs?”
Do you have any thoughts on the matter? Where is the line between encouraging critical thinking and arrogantly discouraging someone else’s way of viewing the world?

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