Class dismissed!

After another personal blow-up in philosophy, I took the only out: To shout like Jehovah and declare the end had come.

Published October 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I completely stopped a philosophy class in its tracks two days ago; I
blew the whistle, shut down the factory and sent everybody home. It was a
godly act, like an expulsion from the garden or a devastating flood,
with no recourse and no mercy. There would be no more business as usual.

The class began in the typical, non-directive way I've been using lately. Two students who had volunteered to lead the day's discussion collected the
questions, based on the reading assignment, that everybody had written on little
slips of paper. We've used this method for about four weeks now, relatively
successfully. Everybody was acting like Socrates. I made a couple of
announcements and then took a student seat while Selena and Roberta sorted
through the questions. The topic was Renaissance humanism, particularly all
the big names in early astronomy and physics: Newton, Copernicus, Kepler,
Galileo. I did notice that six students were absent, including Nikki and
Dan, oddly, the two hardcore scientists.

"The first question is this," Selena read off a slip: "Why was the
church so threatened by these men?" Standard question. No buzz in the room.
Students lounged around in the circle we have adopted to replace the sterile rows.

"They challenged the old worldview." Somebody finally said it, and
Roberta did her job by asking, "What's a worldview?"

Karl, stirred easily by anything that even remotely challenges
Christianity, pulled himself up in his chair. Hair slicked back with a wet
combed look, always slouching in the latest baggy fashion, he approaches
everything with light disdain. Once when I had digressed into a current
event that precipitated a wildly irrelevant bit of bantering and had then
called us back to the topic, Karl had said, "This one's on you, Alford."

Columbia College sits in the middle of an intense Bible belt, and
every class has at least one and often as many as 10 militants whose
defense of the faith is almost unbearably predictable. Karl was an
interesting case, though, usually trying not to appear doctrinaire. But this
day he looked ready for combat.

A sincere young woman named Lessie kept the dialogue sweet by saying, "A
worldview is the set of assumptions people make about life, including
assumptions about the nature of the universe, God, all that kind of thing.
Copernicus and the others made it seem like the earth was no longer the
center of the universe."

It was very clearly stated, but I was just barely paying attention, the discussion
was such stock stuff. Somebody else muttered, "Yeah, the church didn't like
it that the universe might be dehumanized."

"That's not it," a young woman named Angela countered. "The church was already 'dehumanized.' They didn't want the universe de-deified!" She was mildly triumphant,
pleased with her word coinage. I started paying slightly closer attention. A
couple of people repeated 'de-deified.'

"How long did it take the church to get around to admitting that Galileo
was right, about 500 years?" Nate asked archly, watching Karl. I started
thinking, "Here we go again."

Karl launched his attack obliquely, at Mormonism rather than at the
humanists. It was an oddly misplaced target, but he may have sensed that he
would be all alone if he came at the subject head on.

"I hope nobody in here is a Mormon," he said, tersely, gripping the edge of
his desk as he tilted it over into the action. "But, there are some people
who consider themselves Christians who have some really strange beliefs.
What is that stuff about the underwear, special underwear or something? How
can such people call themselves Christians?"

I was close enough to Nate to hear him mutter under his breath, "What the
hell does this have to do with the subject?" A few seconds later, Heather
said the same thing out loud, to a general murmur of assent.

"What good does it do for us to discuss attacks on Christianity from the
scientists when there are people who call themselves Christians who are
attacking it from what looks like inside? That's where the real trouble
lies." Karl's desk almost fell in the zeal of his forward motion.

Lessie, speaking so gently she was difficult to hear, said, "I'm a Mormon,
so you can speak directly to me. What is it you want to know?" It was
firm, matter-of-fact. Karl flew back in his chair, almost hitting his head
against the wall.

"But, see ..." Karl backpedaled for a moment, but then started up again.
"See, if you're going to be a Christian, all you have to do is believe in Jesus
as your personal savior. All the rest of this stuff is not important. In
fact, some of the stuff you believe in is just plain wrong." Audible
collective sighs wafted throughout the room. Most students chose sides long
ago. I had stopped a similar discussion several weeks before, suggesting
that we all try not boring each other with repetition.

Roberta had been holding her deep sarcasm firmly under control until now.
With pierced nostrils and a bandanna on her head, no makeup, fierce dark eyes,
Roberta looks like a Gypsy avenger, a woman who could tear the heart out of
an enemy and bite into it. I was glad she was not sitting next to Karl,
because she might have thrown him down on the rug and stomped on him.

"This is the same old shit, Karl," she bellowed. "Where do you come off
with this self-righteous bullshit?"

"Yeah," from Selena. The room was rumbling. Even Bart, the middle-aged,
grandfatherly, self-identified Christian was visibly upset.

My face felt like an inferno. I bent my nose to one side with my index
finger to see how red it actually was: W. C. Fields going on Rudolph. Then
an Old Testament deity, much like the one seemingly snubbed by Galileo and
the gang, rose to speak a sonorous tone much like the voice that transfixed Job.


Of course, they were all looking at me, red nose and all. I'm sure even in their wildest
hopes for liberation from the authoritarian voice, most of the class knew
that the latent dictator would erupt from the sidelines and take back the power
he had bestowed upon them. Everybody knows that power granted, not won, can
always be reclaimed.

It was spontaneous and unrehearsed. I had been under stress and popping
pills for the previous two weeks, grasping for a way to avoid an early
death. Suddenly the nature of this particular class, this particular
dialogue, or absence thereof, my earlier surrender of authority, student
mindlessness in general, probably the failure of the test-ban treaty, the
direction of the world economy, perhaps even phases of the moon all
coalesced into an eruption that was as inevitable as Old Faithful.

"SO!" I began again and then lowered my voice. "So, the class is over. Not for today, for the whole semester. Obviously a lot of people have learned nothing. We begin again next
Wednesday. Nobody is required to come. If you show up, you can help plan
the rest of the semester. Dismissed." Jehovah had flooded the just and the

A few people milled around. Bart nodded. Karl looked stunned. I turned to
Roberta and Selena and tried to assure them that it had not been their fault
as discussion leaders, though Roberta clearly was one of the recipients of
my wrath. Jane, who had been so heavily dissed a few weeks ago, looked
quaintly pleased. Karl said, "See ya."

Four students came to my office, either to solidify their own innocence or
to join in judgment of the guilty. There wasn't much to say, yet.

On the drive home, NPR was discussing the failure of the test-ban treaty,
Trent Lott intoning that the treaty was "fatally flawed." Clinton could not
dismiss the Senate. The system of checks and balances doesn't allow it.

I turned off the radio. I needed to reflect on the checks and balances in
my own personal system.

By David Alford

David Alford lives and works on a ranch in the Sierras, near the town of Avery, CA.

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