[Web Exclusive!] Teachable Moments: A Q&A With James Corbett

High-school history teacher Jim Corbett made national headlines last December when student Chad Farnan and Farnan's parents sued him and the Capistrano Unified School District for allegedly violating Farnan's right to freedom of religion. Corbett spoke with the Weekly about his pedagogy, the "Jesus glasses" and how he has coped with his newfound infamy.

As an educator, how do you feel as a result of the lawsuit?

All teachers, including myself, must have some self-doubt; mine has been tempered by the hundreds of past students who have contacted me since this process began. . . . In 20 years, not a single student, save Chad Farnan, has ever filed a complaint against me. I have had some parents ask that I explain my methods and goals, but almost all of those parents have gone away satisfied after discussing matters with me. Even though I know I cannot make them all happy, I feel the sting of failure any time I lose a student or upset a parent.

I will never know if the Farnans' concerns could have been alleviated with discussion because they never contacted me to voice their concerns, neither did they contact the school principal.

Given the provocative nature of the comments excerpted from the tapes Chad recorded—in violation of the California Education Code—I'm not surprised that those who have never been in my classroom might think I'm intemperate. It has been a trial to remain silent while my reputation has been savaged in the community and even on national television.

What has been your experience with religious students?

I generally don't have any problems with religious kids. We have a lot of Mormon kids here, so I read The Book of Mormon, The Pearl of Great Price (a history of the Mormons). You've got to understand the kids that you're teaching.

How do you approach religion in class?

I don't teach religion in any sense except the class begins in early modern European history in the 15th and 16th centuries, so we have to deal with the invention of Protestantism, the way the Catholic Church responded to it, how theology affects society, and the difference in the impact of Protestantism on culture. I mean, you can't get away from the fact that Calvinism, for example, does tend to promote democracy because their churches are democratic churches where they pick the pastor. Catholicism tends to be more a community of obedience; in fact, they call themselves a community of obedience. There are consequences to this, so yes, we talk about that. And at every level, the Church has an impact all the way along.

I'll give you an example with the Jesus glasses quote. Joseph II, who was an Austrian monarch, tried to give the peasants the land that he was taking from the monasteries. And he tried to give them equal justice under law. He's the archetype of the enlightened despot. Well, the Church, which had access to peasants every Sunday, turned the peasants against the king—and against their best interests—by basically telling the peasants that Joseph II was anti-God. In effect, the Church put "Jesus glasses" on the peasants, and the peasants couldn't see their own best interests.

I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but apparently other people think there is. It's a wonderfully provocative phrase when you put it out of context. I mean that's why I've gotten hundreds of letters from people who are just, I mean people literally calling for my death, calling for "You should be tortured, you should be fired."

If this were a class on world history or Asian history, would you approach other religions in the same way?

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. . . . You know, there's this quote—'Evil people will do evil no matter what anybody does, but it often takes religion for good people to do evil.'

Would you throw that quote out there to your class? There might be someone out there saying to himself, 'But I'm a good Mormon!'

Sure, why not? I didn't say it always takes it; I said it often takes it—I'm careful with my words. Even the Buddhists—I used to say, can you imagine Buddhists rioting and in the name of Buddha killing people? It turns out that in Sri Lanka, that's exactly what's happening.

It is true that whatever moral restraints there are on people are released when they think they're fighting for their god. At that point, there are no moral limits to what you can do. You are self-righteous; you are righteous in what you do. I think that's a good perspective. I think people need to understand, especially when they're coming from their own religious point of view, they need to think, well, wait a minute now, am I doing that? Or is somebody else doing that to me?

I mean, these people are sincere. You can't deny that. And you need to respect that sincerity. But we need to also understand how that can hold in abeyance other kinds of judgments. Northern Germany was denuded of people in the Thirty Years War. I mean, literally, "given over to wolves" is what Palmer [in the class textbook] says. Everybody in my class knows that everything is game.

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