Teacher Sued For Bashing Christianity -- Will Others Be Censored?
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The context of the comments
After the case made headlines, Corbett was advised not to speak to reporters, and he found it frustrating to hear his words cited without getting to respond. Sitting in his living room recently, he explains some of the comments, starting with the “Jesus glasses,” which came out of a discussion of land reform in 19th-century Austria.
“It was a discussion of Joseph II, an Austrian emperor who tried to close the monasteries which had enslaved their serfs. He tried to close the monasteries and distribute land to landless peasants. He also tried to create equal justice under law with no privileges for church and nobility. Well, the church pushed back and the church had access to uneducated, deeply religious peasants and the church convinced peasants Joseph was going against God. In effect, the church put Jesus glasses on peasants and they couldn’t see their own best interests,” Corbett says.
Corbett concedes that some of the things he said “made me sound like a wacko.” He says many comments were made in the first few minutes of class, which he regularly devotes to current events, a topic recommended for California history teachers under the state academic standards.
“Board policy says students shall have the opportunity to discuss controversial events. It’s appropriate in a social science class. I try to relate anything that’s in the news to something in European history.” Corbett continues, as if anticipating the next obvious question: “How in the world can you possibly justify mentioning Viagra to 15- and 16-year-olds?” Ever the orator, he explains that Viagra’s side effects were in the news that day, and that there is a bona fide connection to European history: Victorian moralism held that excessive sexual gratification could cause blindness and now “here we are 150 years later and the Victorians were right.”
“Let’s face it,” he adds. “History has no use or meaning unless we can bring to bear the lessons of the past to what’s going on today. Nobody objects to the fact that people are drawing a parallel between Afghanistan and Vietnam. The difference is I would draw a correlation between the British experience of 19th-century Afghanistan and now.”
A memo distributed to Corbett’s students over the summer, “How to survive AP European History” gives advance notice of the current events discussions and recommends that students bring up the issues raised in class with parents at home. Why the instructions to talk to parents? Corbett thinks some students are not comfortable debating in classroom settings, in some case taking on the teacher, and would feel safer bringing up topics like the war, the economy and abstinence at home. He says parents have thanked him for inspiring kids to start political discussions at the dinner table, though obviously Chad Farnan and like-minded students felt differently.
Corbett uses what he calls a “modified Socratic” teaching style, which allows him to plow through an incredibly dense curriculum that begins with the Renaissance and continues to the present. One way teachers like Corbett are assessed is their ability to get the majority of their students passing grades on the demanding AP tests given in the spring. In court documents, Corbett said his pass rates in the last few years are 69, 66, 63 and 58 percent, all of them higher than the California average of 55. The newest pass rate for the nation in AP Euro is 63 percent.
As for his tendency to weave opinion into historical events, Corbett‘s jibes are almost all directed at the religious right, the Bush Administration or moralistic conservatism. But in a bizarre instance of deja vu (and conservatives would say, karma) the one comment deemed unconstitutional was made in a discussion about a previous lawsuit emerging from the classroom of Capistrano Valley High School. This one, dating back to 1992, also involved Corbett, who was one of the school officials sued by Jim Peloza, a science teacher and creationist claiming lack of freedom to teach that life was created, and that evolution was a theory.