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Professor's email warning students of 'bigotry' goes viral

News Editor

Published: Sunday, August 19, 2012

Updated: Monday, August 20, 2012 06:08

One UCF professor is gaining national attention this week after an email he sent to his students last semester resurfaced on a popular website, Reddit.com. The email, sent to students in his spring 2012 class, discusses one classmate’s religious bigotry and lack of cultural awareness after he stood up in the middle of a lecture and told other students not to participate in the discussion.

According to an anonymous post on Reddit.com, the student — who remains nameless — stood up during professor Charles Negy’s lecture on religion and advised his fellow students “not to feed into the devil.” He went on to say that Christianity was the only valid religion that existed.

The lecture, which discussed the validity of religion in general, was presented in a way that challenged students to think about how and why they believe what they believe. Negy, who has been teaching cross-cultural psychology at UCF for 15 years, says his class was meant to focus on cultural groups, not just racial groups, and religion is an important aspect of those cultures. He accepts the fact that this subject matter can be difficult for many students, especially those with strong religious backgrounds, and he has seen some take offense to the lecture in the past but none that reacted as harshly as this particular student.

“This class is meant to have students be able to think for themselves and not just accept the ideas that were impressed upon them as children; demand evidence for these ideas,” Negy said.

Negy said he believes religion is an intricate part of many cultures and learning about it is important. In his email to the students, he challenged them to contemplate how “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 email goes on to state that the student who spoke out in class demonstrated arrogance and bigotry and that his reaction was a form of tyranny of the masses — in this case the masses he was referring to were Christian students.

“There’s a chance that other students felt the same way but it was Christian students that felt they had a right to voice their opinion. It was Christian students who had the audacity to express that Christianity is the only valid religion in the world,” Negy said. “I was only challenging them on what basis they believe that.”

Augusta Jahrsdoerfer, a senior psychology major, was a student in Negy’s class when the outburst took place and said the student was rude and shouldn’t have acted out the way he did.

“I was quite surprised that he stood up and addressed the class, it was almost a challenge to Negy. His teaching methods are unorthodox but they get you to think. …That’s part of the teacher’s learning goal,” Jahrsdoerfer said.

Jahrsdoerfer said there was immediate tension in the room as the student continued his rant. A debate about religious bigotry arose between the student and his classmates, a situation Negy is used to seeing in his classes, but eventually the students settled down. Negy, who attempted to acknowledge the student’s comments but continue on with the lecture, had a hard time maintaining the class’s attention and eventually allowed the class to adjourn for the day.

As an agnostic, Jahrsdoerfer said she believes in a higher power but isn’t sure who or what that higher power is. She said that this belief may have led her to take the lecture less offensively than other students in the class.

“Keeping my beliefs aside, I don’t think it is what you believe in but what kind of person you are and how much of an open mind you can have,” Jahrsdoerfer said.

The email, which was originally posted on Reddit six months ago in a community for atheists, was reposted in a UCF-based community and quickly inspired strong reactions from its readers this week.

Negy, who stands by the content of his email, says he has received many letters in response to his actions and all have been positive, thanking him for providing students with a way to broaden their way of thinking.

“There’s no limit to what we can talk about, all questions are up for debate. We all have freedom of speech,” Negy said.

Jahrsdoerfer agrees, saying that the email was mainly about having respect for the teacher and the class.

“The point was to open your mind to other cultures and beliefs, not necessarily to challenge your own religion. It’s important that this is coming out because it shows that even students who are supposed to be here to learn are so close-minded to the things they should be studying.”

The content of the email is copied and pasted below.

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.

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4 comments

Anonymous
Sun Sep 16 2012 12:43
I actually think some disciplinary action upon the professor by the university is warranted.
Anonymous
Sun Sep 16 2012 12:39
I question the maturity and integrity of a professor who resorts to sending out such an e-mail to students... thus circumventing the classroom in which certain students expressed the view that they did not want to be a part of such a discussion with this professor.
Gary
Sun Sep 9 2012 16:16
A professor sends a letter exhorting a change in behavior and thinking, and the contents of the letter deride the thought that anyone -- student or instructor -- should instruct other students on how to behave. Pot, meet kettle.

Also the bit about not censoring speech in a letter intended to suppress "arrogance" and "ignorance".

The real problem is that since religion influences culture and vice-versa, someone not trained in religious studies may indeed cross a line into lecturing outside of his field. Right or wrong, it seems that certain students perceived this to be the case.

I can understand the need for a classroom to have order and not devolve into an unguided discussion, certainly, but the students were responding to something here, and I think it is ignorance/arrogance to ignore that the professor in question perhaps could have at least given a better caveat about the fine line he would be walking and where his expertise does and does not obtain.

Another problem is assuming that these Christians were cradle Christians or cultural Christians only; did he know for a fact that none of his students were converts who had weighed evidence critically? Or well-raised cradle Christians who did the same? No; he simply assumed.

Proud Alumnus
Wed Aug 22 2012 10:49
Kudos to Professor Negy for defending the virtues of critical thinking in a culture increasingly valuing ignorance and unquestioning obediance, and thank you for continuing to teach students HOW to think, not WHAT to think, as some religious bigots would have it.




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