Dear President Bruininks;
I'm writing to you in support of PZ Myers. I know I'm in excellent company in doing so. But even if mine was the only voice, I'd still be raising it.
I don't have to tell you that PZ is a wonderful human being and a fantastic teacher. You already know that, probably better than I. If what he's able to do in a few short blog posts about biology is any reflection of his quality as a professor, you have a gem beyond price. He makes biology accessible, he makes it fun, and he makes it wonderful. I hate snow with a passion and I have no interest in becoming an actual biologist, but I've been tempted more than once to give up my Pacific Northwest paradise, buy some serious winter clothes, and migrate to Morris just so I could take his classes. One day, the impulse could become irresistible.
It would be horrible if he wasn't there because he threatened a Communion wafer.
There's a strong argument to be made for religious toleration and respect for other peoples' symbols, of course, but I think what's been missed in all this uproar is the very essential point that PZ was making: those symbols are not more important than people. I fully share his outrage at those who would physically assault a student for taking the Host out of a church, send him death threats, call for his expulsion, and call his minor bit of sacrilege a hate crime. They showed little enough respect and toleration for others by their actions. Quite the contrary: they showed an appalling lack of humanity. PZ's response, while not diplomatic, was definitely more effective than a mere scolding. And he did poor Webster Cook a great good service by pulling some of the heat away. It seems people got so distracted by the cracker that they lost sight of what PZ was actually saying in his post: that it's wrong to treat a student this way over a symbol. PZ doesn't lose sight of people. It's one of the things I admire most about him.
He wasn't out to merely cause offense and raise a furor. He was forcing people to think. That's what a good teacher does.
Neil Gaiman once said of writers, "Being contentious is what you should be doing. You should be shaking people up." All of my best professors did the same. They said outrageous things. They shook us up. Their contention was never gratuitous, and it caused us to learn more, think things through, go beyond the easy answer and understand why we thought and felt and knew the things we did. Sometimes they changed our minds. Sometimes they made us more confident of our initial position. What they never did was leave us untouched and unmoved.
PZ reminds me of the best of those professors. We need more, not less, like him.
But there's one more reason why I don't think you should bow to pressure from people who refuse to think past their initial upset to the point being made:
John Yoo, who wrote many of the memos setting forth a legal argument explaining why our government is allowed to torture human beings, is now a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley. It makes me physically ill to think that such a man is in charge of teaching future lawyers. But despite a huge outcry, he remains a professor. His views on the legality of torture haven't disqualified him from teaching law.
I hardly need to tell you what a travesty it would be if it turns out that a lawyer can advocate torture and still be allowed to be a professor of law, but a biology teacher could be fired for the mere threat to desecrate a religious item that isn't even equally revered by all Christians.
PZ has my full support. I'm sure he has yours, and I can't thank you enough for it.