Stomp on Jesus at College

Conservative thinkers and activists have long worried that the faith of young people would be threatened by the dangerous skepticism they learned in college.

A recent flap at Florida Atlantic University demonstrates the continuing worry over the anti-faith teaching on offer in American higher education.

In this story, student Ryan Rotela protested when instructor Deandre Poole told students to write the word “Jesus” on a piece of paper, then stomp on it.  According to reports, Rotela claimed to have been suspended from class for his unwillingness to complete the assignment.  The university later apologized.

The flurry of interest in this story among conservatives tells us something about their attitudes toward higher education.

Paul Kengor, for example, executive director of the Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College, told Fox News’ Todd Starnes this sort of Jesus-bashing was typical of today’s higher education.  This sort of lesson “reflects the rising confidence and aggression of the new secularists and atheists, especially at our sick and surreal modern universities,” Kengor said.

This anxiety over the goings-on at “modern” universities has a long lineage.

In 1922, for example, William Jennings Bryan warned that even among rich and powerful families, college threatened students’ faith.  One of Bryan’s acquaintances, a US Congressman, told Bryan that his daughter had returned from college only to inform him that “nobody believed in the Bible stories now.”  Nor was this an isolated case, Bryan argued.  Other Congressmen and prominent clergy had shared similar stories.  Children had gone off to school, only to return with a set of values and ideas abhorrent to their parents.    [See William Jennings Bryan, In His Image (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1922), 120.]

Patriotic conservative activists in the 1930s shared these worries about the nature of “modern” schools.  In 1935, for instance, New York Congressman Hamilton Fish denounced the socialism and communism that had corrupted leading schools such as Columbia, New York University, City College of New York, the University of Chicago, Wisconsin, Penn, and North Carolina.  Such schools, Fish charged, had become “honeycombed with Socialists, near Communists and Communists.”

Conservatives have long worried about what goes on once America’s children go off to college.  What will students be asked to do at college?  What will they be forced to learn?  Will they be punished if they refuse to stomp on Jesus?

**UPDATES:  Juan Williams has offered a defense of the Jesus-stomp lesson at Fox News.  And the Texas Freedom Network Insider has reported that the instructor of the controversial lesson is a leader in his Biblical-Christian church, Lighthouse Worship Center Church of God in Christ.  Does that matter?

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  1. I’m trying to imagine the pedagogical approach that would have students of that age writing words on slips of paper, especially names, like “Jesus,” and stomping on them. For higher education? Really?

    • As I understand it, the goal was to challenge students to think about symbolism. What does it mean to stomp on a piece of blank paper? Nothing. But if that paper has a picture of a loved one on it, or an important word, suddenly we invest the stomp with horrific meaning.
      One commenter at Inside Higher Education put it this way: “I’ve used a similar exercise where I ask students to write down two names on two pieces of paper: one of the person they dislike most in the world (often a politician, a high school bully, etc) and one of the person they love most in the world. I ask them to put the first piece on the ground and stomp on it, which they often do with zeal; however, when I ask them to do the same with the second piece, almost all of them hesitate. I use this exercise to demonstrate the symbolic power of language. So, I can see where this instructor was going with the exercise, but I question the use of a specific religious figure. I think the exercise is more effective and less potentially offensive when it’s more personal to the individual student.”
      According to Fox News, the source of the lesson was a textbook: Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach, 5th Edition. According to Fox, the textbook described the lesson in question this way:
      “Have the students write the name JESUS in big letters on a piece of paper. Ask the students to stand up and put the paper on the floor in front of them with the name facing up. Ask the students to think about it for a moment. After a brief period of silence instruct them to step on the paper. Most will hesitate. Ask why they can’t step on the paper. Discuss the importance of symbols in culture.”

  2. Patrick

     /  March 26, 2013

    In C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi novel, That Hideous Strength, a character is taken into what is called “the Objective Room” in order to perform exercises that will liberate him from irrational emotions and help turn him into a purely objective being. One such exercise is to stomp on and insult a crucifix. He refuses, and this becomes a turning point for that character in the novel. It’s a fascinating scene.

    • Interesting. The complaint of some conservative evangelical leaders, such as Governor Mike Huckabee, was that this was differential treatment for Jesus. No school, Huckabee complained, would allow that kind of activity with the name “Muhammad.” CS Lewis’ point is more anti-Christian-as-a-way-of-being; Huckabee’s is more specifically anti-Christian-as-opposed-to-other-minority-groups.

  3. Patrick

     /  March 26, 2013

    Yes–Lewis’s novel (which we read at the Christian school where I teach) is a warning against excessive faith in and devotion to science and progress, not against anti-Christian political correctness.


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