Religion

Really, how do you get kicked out of art school?

Reader Skye sent me this article about a Portland student who was expelled from art school, supposedly for expressing his skeptical outlook on leprechauns. According to Bob Averill, he was hanging out at the end of a class when another student mentioned a belief in energy layers. Averill jokingly asked if she also believed in the little men with the pots of gold, leading to accusations of rude behavior. This led to a suspension followed by an expulsion for “rude and belligerent behavior.” Was this a case of discrimination against reason, or simply a just punishment for a jerk?

The answer: who the hell knows? I checked out the guy’s blog to see if he more thoroughly details the incident, but didn’t find anything relevant. From the article, we know that he has had past issues with professors (though unfortunately the journalist doesn’t give details) and that the teacher who started this may have received similar complaints in the past about his behavior. I’ll be interested to see whether or not the ACLU or Freedom From Religion Foundation jump in to help him out with his case.

This story has me thinking a lot about victimhood. A lot of people enjoy the “victim” label, and it always makes me flinch when I see a skeptic doing it, in the name of skepticism. “We’re the only group left that people can still make fun of without it being considered politically correct.” I’ve heard that line from atheists, skeptics, Southerners, Christians, and Irishmen, and each time my response is the same: oh, shut up. I’ve also heard horror stories about discrimination that go something like this:

“The other day at work, I said I’d be getting a raise next week, and a coworker told me to knock on wood. So I said, “Aren’t you a little old to believe in moronic fairy tales?” Then I gave her a stack of skeptical texts, signed her up for a subscription to Skeptical Inquirer, and invited her to my weekly atheist brunch. Now she’s ignoring me. Why am I being discriminated against?”

Okay, so I made that one up, but it’s not far from some of the things I’ve heard. How often are people just being jerks, and blaming the response they get on (non)religious persecution? I don’t know all the facts of this art student’s case, so of course there’s a chance he’s absolutely correct that he is being discriminated against. But seriously, getting kicked out of art school? In Portland, Oregon? A state with one of the highest percentages of non-religious people in the country? Where everyone is on a mellowed high, all the time? Somehow, this feels all too much like a case of someone improperly blaming his problems on the religious, which only serves to detract from cases of actual religious persecution.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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14 Comments

  1. I agree completely. I've had the same problem with certain friends of mine who, in this case, espouse radically liberal views (not that there's anything wrong with that per se!)

    But anyway, these particular friends would always butt into ANY conversation that could conceivably have anything to do with politics, sociology, or cultural studies, and would INEVITABLY spout their party line as if we were all dumb for having other opinions. Also, since that was their driving focus in life, they were typically quite handy with quotes from books and studies, when the rest of us were, say, just talking about living in a city.

    The point is, any annoyance we felt towards these friends had little to do with liberalism. It had everything to do with their being annoying, self-righteous busybodies who thought it was their business to remind everyone how "non-liberal" we all were in comparison to them whenever it suited them.

    In other words, I can completely imagine this guy being a similar sort of person. Now, I have no evidence to back it up, other than that the scenario described in the article sounds mighty familiar to me. Whether or not he deserves expulsion is another matter. What's clear is that it has little to do with the particular belief being presented. There are times and places to discuss all such things. And then there's being THAT guy. So please, don't be THAT guy.

  2. God dammit!! I wasn't done yet!

    I suspect that in this case, it’s more a matter of one guy being a jerk, while another student was being way too sensitive and a teacher had a slightly itchy trigger finger (perhaps in combination with being the typical new-agey type of art teacher with a severe prejudice against common sense and reason and a love for all things touchy-feely and supernatural). Each on their own wouldn't have been too much of a problem, but the combination of all of these things resulted in a tempest in a teacup spilling over.

  3. I agree with Rebecca, ethmar100 and Expatria.

    However I hesitantly state the reaction to this guy seems out of all proportion. We have been talking about it over on the American Atheist blog (big surprise) and someone there knows the guy so has been providing some extra back ground.

    Honestly even if the guy is argumentative or annoying expulsion seems a bit extreme.

    For anyone that is interested here are some more comments from the man himself:

    I've been getting alot of emails about this situation, and there seem to be two schools of thought:

    #1. I am a blameless victim of a monolithic and bigoted school administration

    #2. I am a combative asshole who got what was coming to him

    Neither one is accurate. My discussion with Lacy was the straw that broke the camel's back, and the allegations that there were several professors with whom I had been reported for arguing with in the past are absolutely true.

    Those arguments were not religious, but over grades. I was told going into college by my folks that haggling for grades never hurts, and I shouldn't shy away from that kind of discussion with professors. I guess I argued a little too long in a few cases because I apparently pissed off those professors in the process. I attended a meeting with the associate dean about it, chose for myself to apologize to each of the instructors, and put it behind me.

    The thing is, you don't get a clean slate after something like that. It follows you around. With this latest incident, I guess they had finally decided that they had a good enough reason to suspend me. That's what they did.

    So why do I think discrimination was involved?

    Cassandra, the associate Dean, had a big long talk with me after the arguments over grades with professors that I pushed too hard in. She gave me a spiel about how she was like me once, but as a baptist learned to have a more humble outlook on life. I nodded and smiled, which is not to say that I didn't listen. When I left her office that day I did so on very friendly terms with her, and what I took away from the discussion was that I could apparently be abrasive without realizing it, and that one catches more flies with honey than vinegar.

    I did my best to put her advice into practice, and a month went by without incident. Then the Leprechaun discussion occurred. I was dismayed. I had done my best to go the gentle route with the discussion but I hadn't anticipated Lacy's fragility. I found myself once again in front of Cassandra but this time Dean Engeldinger as well. Put on the spot, I panicked, and insisted that the punishment was out of porportion to the crime (which I feel it was) when all they wanted to hear from me was frantic grovelling. Cassandram formerly chummy with me, had suddenly transformed into a vindictive, shouting banshee. I physically recoiled, and left the meeting in a frightened stupor.

    Afterwards the first thing that occurred to me was that I knew one of the people who had overheard the discussion. I asked him about it and he confirmed that Lacy had overreacted. Fool that I was, I assumed this was my ticket to vindication. I take him back to the offices with me and attempt to present him as a witness. This was when Cassandra, now madly in anger with me, comes out of her office and confronts us. I explain that I'd like to present a witness to the Dean, and she explodes. Perhaps due to a combination of learning that I had been on the secular side of the argument as well as figuring I had ignored her advice, Cassandra went wild on me. After the tirade, she told me the only way I was presenting a witness would be to leave, make an appointment, and then return. So I called her machine and made an appointment in the message and asked how long I had to wait before coming back. This sent her back into a rage. She called out for other teachers to "come witness this behavior!" Which was about when I realized that I wasn't going to win this with reason.

    It was because of this incident, officially, that I was expelled. I feel that Cassandra's attitude towards me led her to misrepresent my behavior in the hallway to the Dean, who I then appealed to. It was during this appeal that I explained my prior interactions with Cassandra, and how I felt as though it may have motivated her to push for my expulsion. This is when he told me very flatly that atheists are not a protected class of people.

    My jaw dropped. The idea that any sort of bias was involved in this had been more of a vague suspicion before, but in my mind this confirmed it. Here was the Dean of the school, telling me in plain terms that I did not deserve the same protections as religious persons because I myself lacked religous belief. In retrospect, he may have just been uninformed regarding civil rights laws.

    That's what I'd like to add to the Mercury's account of events, and it's what I intend to tell to my interviewers over the next few days. Was I already on thin ice? Absolutely. Did I deserve a suspension for the discussion? Absolutely not. Was my expulsion justified, or did it result from differences between Cassandra and myself?

    Even if I resume my education at the Art Institute, they'll still be looking for a "last straw". It could be anything, and I'd probably never see it coming. For that reason I'm thinking that transferring my credits to a different art school would be a better course of action.

  4. Thanks, Monika. The situation as the principal figure himself describes it seems realistic. We all make mistakes, and all those involved in this seem to have made misjudgements.

    That in no way of course excuses his dean's reaction, assuming that was an accurate account. A very unfortunate attitude for an administrator in this society.

  5. From personal experience, I have to attest that atheists expressions can all too easily get blown out of proportion. I wasn't the argumentative type back in high school (well, outside of Political Science and Debate classes, where it was encouraged), but people generally knew where I stood. When the Illinois legislature mandated that the Pledge of Allegiance be said in class every morning, I remained seated in silent protest. If anyone asked, I explained that it was because I firmly believed that the phrase "Under God" was unconstitutional (Side note: There was an orthodox, creationist jew at the school who remained seated for the same reason. Just an interesting oddity, no real relevence here).

    It was in the same class as we had to pledge where The Incident happened. One of my biggest flaws is that I can never resist an opening for a joke, even if no one else there would get it. So, when a couple of kids in class were asking where they could find the Bible in the school library, I couldn't resist shouting out, "Check under Fiction." The room went silent. If I had been more courageous and sure of my righteousness then, I would have followed that up with, "Oh, I'm sorry. I should have said 'Fantasy.'" But that probably would have made things worse. Instead, I just backed out with "Just kidding, geez."

    Later that day I was pulled over by the school counselor. She'd received numerous complaints about the incident, and we got into an argument about it. I explained to her that all I was doing was expressing my religious beliefs, and that other kids did it all the time without reprisal. I wouldn't have gone off and complained if some religioso had claimed that Origin of Species should be shelved in fiction (though I would have argued with them on the point). I had no doubt that it was, in fact, offensive to them, but that's no fault of my own. They're allowed to proclaim there is a god, I should be allowed to proclaim there isn't. The counselor, religious herself, didn't fully agree with me, but she at least realized she didn't have a case to punish me.

    In retrospect, it probably wasn't wise to make that joke (no point alienating myself further from them), but there wasn't anything innately wrong with it. I should be allowed to do so without fear of consequences, as this student should have been allowed to claim that leprechauns don't exist. (Of course, if you disagree, feel free to tell me I was being a jerk about it.)

    I've only recently realized that this is the same problem Dawkins is facing: Any expression of atheism, however polite, is considered rude. It's an uphill battle we're facing, but it's a battle that must be fought. To arms!

  6. I think I might find myself in a similar situation someday. If someone says "Leprachauns live in energy fields layerd throughout reality." I would laugh for many minutes and then explain to them that they are wrong.

    I am a combative asshole when it comes to this stuff (I know I don't help any cause, but it feels so damn good). I grew up a few miles from a hippie commune, I heard it all, but no matter how much I've heard I couldn't keep my mouth shut.

    If you flip this though, and have this girl with strange thoughts on reality telling someone that "no gravity isn't real… science proves it… how can you be so stupid to think that leprauchauns arnt on another vibrational frequency." do you think there'd be half the problems? Why is it when you assert reality you're thought to be a jerk. Is destroying someones worldview really that bad?

  7. Reading Monika's reply, I'd say my interpretation was spot on. A guy who was being just a tad abrasive, a fellow student who was just really easily offended, and an associate dean (not a teacher) with a really itchy trigger finger.

    As for the associate dean suddenly "turning bad", who knows. It would be interesting to hear her side of the story to put things in perspective, but I think she overreacted anyway. I figure his showing up with a witness to corroborate his story, gave her the impression he was going to start an argument again, like he had done countless times before with several teachers regarding his grades.

    The boy who cried wolf.

  8. Yeah, hearing the account doesn't change my mind too much. I still think that the school is likely out of line in expelling him (though perhaps not suspending him), and DEFINITELY still think that the Dean was completely out of line to say that atheists are not a protected class of people. But, simultaneously, I'm even more assured of my previous description of the atheist in question.

    Leprechaun girl was obviously too sensitive. I think people tend to be far less sensitive about their beliefs as their beliefs become more reasonable. There's probably a graph about it somewhere. I'm sure the teacher was likely all too willing to pull the trigger as well, mainly for the reasons exarch mentions.

    But regardless, the main message I tend to go with about any sort of beliefs, be they New Age or traditionally religious in nature is simply: Be less sensitive! Be open to discussion. You have every right to believe what you want, but if you can't stand someone asking questions about your beliefs (in the right tone, of course, and not by surprise attack!) then perhaps you need to question them yourself. Or, more revealingly, perhaps your unwillingness to question them highlights how shaky is the ground on which they stand.

  9. It is not so much that it changed my mind as that it provides some interesting background detail. It convinced me the guy (Bob) is not a jerk but is probably pretty assertive (maybe aggressive) about his belief.

    The main conclusion I draw however is it was a huge overreaction on the part of the school to expel him.

    Exarch sums it up well and Expatria makes some really good points about being less sensitive. I guess it is the skeptic in my but I like talking about my worldview.

  10. Yeah, sensitivity is the keyword.

    Although I think it's telling that everyone here is by now calling the girl "leprechaun girl", when it's pretty clear to me she was just talking about "energy" or some-such, and the guy asked her if she also believed in "leprechauns and pots of gold". In itself a not very subtle way of saying "hey, I think your beliefs are silly childish BS".

    But on the other hand I'd say that if people are ashamed of the things they believe, than maybe they should start wondering why it is they're ashamed of the things they believe. Perhaps it's because they realize themselves just how silly they sound when they say them out loud?

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