Friday, January 20, 2012

I spotted a story on First Things that initially roused my sympathy. It described a course cancelled at Iowa State University because the professor, by all accounts a serious and significant scholar, was teaching a course on “Application of Biblical Insight into the Management of Business/Organization.” This bothered me because at the University of St. Thomas, admittedly a private, Catholic university, in the Theology Department we teach any number of courses that would seem similar to this. For instance, we teach “Bridge Courses,” which are described as

It is the first type of Bridge Course which would seem similar to the course cancelled at Iowa State:

Apart from these courses, we have at the UST Center for Catholic Studies The John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, which “explores the relationship between the Catholic social tradition and business theory and practice by fostering a deeper integration of faith and work.” All of this is to say that I was sympathetic to a course combining theology and business, especially as a biblical scholar a course examining biblical principles.

Just following the links, however, to the story at Inside Higher Ed, makes me think it was right that the course was cancelled, not because of the general sort of course this is, or because it is at a public university, or because of the Professor, but because it does not seem to deal with the biblical or theological content in a serious, academic manner. At a public or private university, biblical studies and theology in general cannot be taught as catechesis or advocacy or without academic rigor.

The course, according to Inside Higher Ed, was “to use How to Run Your Business by THE BOOK: A Biblical Blueprint to Bless Your Business by Christian leadership speaker Dave Anderson as its sole textbook.” Colleagues were displeased with the course:

a trio of Iowa State professors started a faculty movement to shut down the class, first by writing a letter to administrators and then by circulating a petition. “It was obvious he was going to be teaching a Sunday school class and giving credit for it,” said Warren Blumenfeld, an associate education professor who helped draft both the letter and petition.  “This is a violation of the First Amendment. This is not teaching world religions or even one religion, but one concept of one religion.”
I personally have no First Amendment issues with such a course, if the course is demonstrably academic, open to debate, taught by an expert and rigorous, but to use a book by a motivational speaker does make one wonder if it is such a course. There is another issue which is often overlooked, even in the criticism of this course, and which can often put biblical studies under the gun: what is the expertise of Dave Anderson or Roger Stover on the Bible? Are they trained academically in its teaching? I can see nothing in Stover's superb resume that has prepared him to teach the Bible.
You do not have to be an expert on the Bible to love it and to guide your life by it – the same, of course, would go for the Qu’ran, Rg Veda, the Platform Sutras of the Sixth Patriarch, etc. – but if you want to teach it in a university, you should have demonstrable and significant expertise in the field. This is why at UST, a bridge course is taught by a team, one with expertise, for instance, in the Bible, the other in management, or by one person who has demonstrated competence in both fields. How would the business faculty feel if I decided to teach a course in finance because of my expertise as a biblical scholar? Jesus talks a lot about wealth and possessions in the Gospel of Luke, and I know Luke well, I have taught it many times. It would never fly. Frankly, I think the religion department at Iowa State should have complained about this course.
The other issue is advocacy. This might be a fine book for Christians in business, but could anyone, atheist, Jew, “other “Christians – those who do not belong to whatever denomination the author of the textbook belongs - feel comfortable in this course? Every theology and biblical studies course ought to make a student feel welcome.  I assure you I have a religious point of view in my classes and share it with my students. I also make it clear that they do not have to share my point of view to be in the class or to succeed in the class.

The professor himself has responded to the controversy:

An Iowa State University professor whose class on applying Biblical principles to business was canceled now says he disagrees with parts of a controversial textbook he planned to use. That book was among the reasons faculty members cited when protesting the course, saying it was inappropriately religious for a public university.

Professor Roger Stover, who declined to speak with Inside Higher Ed for the initial story, wrote Wednesday that his class was to be “a critical evaluation of a popular book’s prescriptions.” The text, Dave Anderson’s How to Run Your Business by THE BOOK: A Biblical Blueprint to Bless Your Business, at one point advises Christians not to go into business with nonbelievers.
In a statement released to Inside Higher Ed Wednesday evening, Stover called that an “extreme recommendation." Stover added that “I professionally disagree with much of the book’s recommendation on borrowing money.”

The professor said he planned to focus his one-credit, independent study class on chapters like “Four Mandates to Maximize Your Time” and “How to Lead Through a Crisis.”
“This was a proposed business management class,” Stover wrote. “These are hardly theological issues – they are management issues.”
The question that arises, though, is why teach a course on “Application of Biblical Insight into the Management of Business/Organization” when you want to disregard the chapters that deal with the (supposedly) biblical recommendations and deal not with theological issues but management issues? Why choose to teach a textbook that discriminates against non-Christians in business? It is not as if one must agree with everything in a course textbook, but if your course is ostensibly on biblical insight into management, why not choose a book that is academically sound and theologically sound at least to supplement your one course text?

Most significant to me, though, is the sense that this is a course dealing with advocacy of particular positions or views of the Bible, written by a non-expert, and taught by a non-expert. He might love the Bible, but what are his credentials to teach a university course on it? I love money, and I know how to spend it, but no one should let me teach a course on finance. This is not, for me, a first amendment issue, it as a question of academic competence.
John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


Post a Comment