"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Tradition and Indignation

Recently my husband was teaching Genesis 1-3 in the Judaism section of his world religions introductory course. He started the class with a 10 question multiple-choice quiz. One of the questions was, "What did the man and woman eat that got them into trouble? (that's my phrasing, by the way). One of the four choices was "an apple from the tree of life" and another was "unspecified fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil."

I'll give you all a second to think about the correct answer to this question based on the text of Genesis 1-3....


The answer is the latter, an "unspecified fruit." When he was going over the quiz answers with his class, one student became particularly indignant. She raised her hand with an angry look on her face, "I've gone to Catholic school for 14 years. Are you telling me that all of my teachers were lying to me when they told me it's an apple?" To which my husband responded, "If they taught you this, they were mistaken. There certainly is a long tradition of associating the fruit with an apple, but the text does not specify that it's an apple."

The student didn't let the issue die there. "This is official Catholic Church teaching," she insisted. "Everyone just knows that Adam and Eve ate an apple." Jeff pulled out his pocket-sized Catechism, and he assured her that it was nowhere in the Catechism that the fruit from Genesis was an apple. He also offered her extra credit if she could locate where in Genesis 1-3 the fruit was identified as an apple. Finally the student crossed her arms and closed her mouth.
Since this was in the section on Judaism, Jeff went on to talk about several midrashic interpretations of the passage, one which identifies the fruit as grapes, and another that identifies it as figs. There's nothing patently wrong with variously interpreting the fruit, especially for the allegorical juice (no pun intended). Grapes as the fruit, for example, has a strong tradition because of the association with wine and drunkenness that causes trouble later in Genesis. The figs tradition, meanwhile, is interesting to Christianity in that it makes possible one explanation for Jesus' cursing of the fig tree in the gospel of Mark. I have a hunch that the apple tradition comes from Augustine (probably among others), who would have had a lot of fun playing with the Latin words for evil and for apple.So I guess Jeff shouldn't be too surprised that a student would be absolutely convinced that the fruit in Genesis is an apple. Perhaps for those raised in the Catholic tradition, it's kind of commonsensical- one of those Bible "facts" that we just all assume we know. As testament to this, Jeff's office neighbor polled a listserve of Catholics (not in academia), and found that 22% of them thought the apple in Genesis was dogmatic, an official Church teaching. For the most part, Jeff just found the incident amusing.

That is, until he checked his email a couple hours letter and found a scathing email from the student. "I answered today's quiz based on my previous knowledge. I understand that you drop our three lowest quiz grades, but I didn't want to waste my cushion on a topic that I know. I've been a practicing Catholic for 18 years, and I attended Catholic schools for 14 years. You are basically saying that my parents wasted thousands of dollars on my education and that all the Catholics I know are wrong on this" and so on (my paraphrase).

Well, Jeff's never had his Catholic orthodoxy challenged by a student before, so he was a little taken aback. The real issue of course, was not his orthodoxy, but the text. It's a text-based course and it was a text-based quiz. Upon re-examining the student's quiz, he found she had correctly answered one out of the ten questions (she erroneously answered that the sun was created on the first day, and human beings on the seventh, for example). His Muslim student, on the other hand, had received ten out of ten. Which student do you think actually read the text? Clearly not the one who relied on "previous knowledge."

My husband is a convert to Christianity who was in many ways led to Catholicism because of (and through) the Bible, so he is continually surprised at the seeming ignorance of many Catholics when it comes to Scripture, which is a crucial part of what constitutes tradition.

I told Jeff that he should tell the student to look on the bright side, something like, "I'm not saying your parents wasted thousands of dollars on your Catholic education. I'm saying you're getting money's worth in my class."


Clara said...

Ah, irate students! Just this week I concluded the THIRD argument with a student who is incensed by one of the True/False questions from my last test. He says that it is unfair of me not to specify explicitly when I'm using words in their *philosophical* meanings (as opposed to a vaguer conversational usage. Mind you, it's an introductory class, so he would have a point if I hadn't explicitly taught them the philosophical meaning of the term in question. But I did. It was even included on their study guide. And he agrees that he *knew* the philosophical meaning; he just never dreamed that I would expect him to assume that I was using the word philosophically simply because it was, you know, a philosophy test. It's funny how non-humanities people sometimes have this kind of prejudice against the humanities, thinking that it's somehow impermissible for us to have discipline-specific language even though other fields obviously do. The student in question is a computer science major, so I asked him whether his computer science classes didn't expose him to discipline-specific lingo that he was expected to master and use appropriately in context. He agreed that they did -- but that was totally different! Computer science is actually *about* something! They *need* specialized language!)

Anyway, what I was really going to say is that my orthodoxy has also been questioned by students. Or actually, worse than that, I've been accused of assigning a poor grade because of anti-Catholic prejudice! In this case, the class really didn't have much to do with Catholicism, and the student had no way to know that I was Catholic. But in his first paper, he had gratuitously brought in a whole bunch of quotes from St. Augustine, claiming that they somehow supported his convoluted attempt at an argument. Though the approach was unexpected, I would have been happy to give it a chance if the paper had been any good. As it happens, the quotes had been pulled entirely out of context, and the paper as a whole really made very little sense. Also he went on for nearly a page with an irrelevant ode to his Catholic high school and how much he loved the nuns who had taught him there. So I gave him a C.

After I returned the papers, the student came to my office with an angry, pious rant about how he is constantly suffering discrimination because people don't accept his Catholic views. I didn't tell him immediately that I was Catholic, but rather tried to explain to him why his paper simply didn't accomplish what a philosophy paper is intended to do. But when he really got heated, and started threatening to speak to the professor about my unfair grading, I told him. I said that he was welcome to appeal his case to the professor if he chose. But as I was widely known to be a recent Catholic convert, and a staunch defender of religious belief in most philosophical discussions, he would probably have a difficult time persuading the professor that I was prone to anti-Catholic bigotry.

What was funny was, I think it's probably true that many students suffer from anti-Catholic bigotry among their professors in secular schools like Cornell. I like, when possible, to be a sympathetic advocate to students like that... but I can't pretend not to notice when a paper is just terrible. Anyway, I hope that the episode persuaded the student that he has a bit too much of chip on his shoulder when it comes to his Catholic background.

Theologian Mom said...

Funny stories, Clara! I'd say they are almost unbelievable, but, of course, I know better than that.

I didn't realize you were teaching now -adjuncting, I presume?

Clara said...

Yup, I'm adjuncting at the moment, at UST where Mathew is teaching. Just one class this semester, so I still have time to work on my dissertation, but I also have something else to break up the week a bit. I'm really enjoying it. They gave me an introductory ethics course, and I was instructed to give it a historical spin (no problem there!) so it's worked out perfectly. On one level I know all this material quite well, but it's very beneficial, I think, having to figure out how to explain concepts to non-specialists in an understandable way. Helps me to firm up my own understanding of certain things. It's also given me a little more teaching experience for my CV, which is good, because I was a little thin in that area, what with having left Ithaca so early in my graduate career.