A Student Comment on Social Justice, Rawls, and Chris H.

Professor H,

A student in your Political Philosophy course asked that these comments be forwarded to you since they could not fit in the comment box available on the Student Ratings survey:

This is from a student in my Political Science 309r: Special Topics in Political Philosophy. The special topic was “Social Justice.” No, this was not a response to Glenn Beck. His comments came out a couple months into the term and about 7 months after the topic had been chosen. The primary focus of the class had been, of course, John Rawls and contemporary writings about social justice. I was going to comment on the comment…but it is beautiful all by itself (I have only edited out my full last name). 

For the rest of my life, I will be grateful to Professor H for teaching me about the most powerful tools a political philosopher can use—smugness and sarcasm. Professor H taught by example, as well as by word. Dismissive snickering is far more effective than actual argument, as was vividly proven by the performances and demonstrations he integrated into his lectures.

Yes, Professor H. enjoys an abundance of excellent qualities as a teacher—his rather astonishing ability to understand texts he has never read; his pious refusal to argue (so difficult in a political science class); his ability to unite the class as a single, sulky, homogonous body of dissatisfied aristocrats (by applying the snicker method to any student who tried, however feebly or briefly, to defend—or discuss—property rights. Eventually such students were alienated, shunted into a corner of the room where they were remembered only when ridiculing them could further the day’s lecture. After a few months, they took to whimpering and shaking, groaning and rocking like Elantris’ Hoed, ravaged beyond sanity by the disease of having disagreed with the professor).

Yes, all of these are desirable qualities, and we enjoyed Prof. H’s abundance in them just as he did. Nevertheless, Professor H. is not without his flaws. The flaw that bothered me the most was the ease with which he dismissed the notion that God allows evil to exist in the universe as a way to test us, and the following notion that life is about choosing one’s own destiny. Certainly, I would never say that because God is in control we shouldn’t strive for justice on earth. This class was bafflingly unconcerned with justice—apparently slapping the word “social” on to “justice” stops justice from being an eternal good. The course proceeded as follows:

Professor H. presented the class with a problem: namely, that the world is an unjust place. Then he presented us with a solution: namely, that justice can only be achieved when a giant global government rises up, deprives everyone of everything, and dispenses resources among mankind according to the dictates of its awful omniscience. Then the professor retreated into the corner with the Hoed to lament the fact that this giant world totalitarianism seems unlikely to arise.

Alternative conceptions of just government were completely unwelcome. Alternative conceptions of the good life (alternative, I mean, to the conception of a human race which crouches in the dirt waiting for the next piece of food to be stuffed into its throat by an all-powerful public administrator) were mentioned only to be laughed at. The idea that one has a soul which exists in some way independent of earthly forces acting on it was briefly derided and then abandoned. The treatment of this was so brief that the entire occurrence can be represented here. “Some people,” Prof H. told us, “have this argument that says: ‘You can choose to be happy, no matter what your circumstances.’ Psshh. Well. Thanks. Great. That’s a helpful theory.” After this utterance, we returned to discussions of how we can use DNA tests to help us determine which students deserve to enter college and which deserve to be tossed into a dungeon full of starving wolves by way of punishment for not being genetically worthy specimens of our species.

The entire course revolved around H’s interpretation of Rawls and some lesser Rawlsian philosophers. Moreover, the entire course was in direct conflict with the notion (held by Viktor Frankl, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, C. T. Warner, C. S. Lewis, Hugh Nibley and a large host of thinkers far greater than Rawls) that mankind exists as an agent, not as a machine which responds automatically to outside pressures and commands. When confronted with this concept, H. chuckled but didn’t miss a beat in his lecture. He smoothly carried on with “ . . . clearly, people derive some kind of benefit from contact with nature, so the government should force them to go camping regularly.” Creating a list of activities which make us human beings and without which we are animals is ridiculous. Martha Nussbaum, of course, is the one who created the list; but it was Prof. H who would not allow any serious discussion of it. This entire course flew in the face of an earth history which includes Frankl’s discovery, made in a death camp, that love is stronger than death. It flew in the face of a human past in which Solzhenitsyn realized, while he was in prison, that there is an eternal ideal of justice. It flew in the face of a religion which believes that the son of God realized, through death, the fullness of his love for mankind. It flew in the face of our doctrine that we are free to choose salvation, eternal life and joy no matter what our situation, no matter the harm that can be done to us by other people.

It flew in my face with its refusal to let me say anything unless I was willing to sulk about the injustice of a world in which some people own sketchers and other people wear hand-me-down shoes from D. I. It flew in my face with its constant admonishment that I stop thinking and accept the hard “truth” that people are soulless and cannot be human unless a just government is created which allows them to be so. This class was nonsense. As a senior I’m not unfamiliar with frustration and disappointment. Nevertheless, I’m enormously disappointed that this kind of worthless garbage exists at BYU. Pl Sc 309 from Prof. H is an affront to God, frighteningly akin to Rome, fat-free milk and poser old men with dirty pony-tails.

This student’s comment may have been the highlight of my four plus years at BYU-Idaho and BYU. Thank you.

38 Replies to “A Student Comment on Social Justice, Rawls, and Chris H.”

  1. Chris,

    You missed one mention of your last name.

    When my wife taught “RM Book of Mormon” one summer at BYU, she got a student evaluation very similar to this. Most of the other evaluations were very moderate, but one just went way overboard in condemning her for teaching false doctrine. Based on student interactions in class, she believes that the student had a problem learning the Gospel from women.

  2. Thanks, I fixed the name (not that people cannot figure it out, but I am trying not to come up on Google searches as often).

    I bet many teachers have had similar comments.

  3. thanks for sharing, chris h.

    what is to be made of the attempts at humor in this otherwise seriously accusatory comment?

    give this kid 5 years, and s/he will see the light (or darkness, rather). the whole learning thing can be so painful.

    based on the student’s citations of you, assuming them to be somewhat accurate, i think i would have really enjoyed your class. “ . . . clearly, people derive some kind of benefit from contact with nature, so the government should force them to go camping regularly.” that is the kind of stuff that great lectures are made of.

  4. Chris,

    So, do you often go around posing as the All Mighty and Powerful Oz? Or were you just experimenting with this one class to see if any of them were literate enough to provide you with such a response?

    And given such a response, will you be changing your teaching methodology any in the future, or just smugly and glibly post it on-line as a trophy? 😉

  5. “what is to be made of the attempts at humor in this otherwise seriously accusatory comment?”

    Obviously, they are trying to model me, whether s/he knows it or not. 🙂

    Rameumptom: Most students like my in-class style. I am sarcastic, but usually is a self-deprecating and humurous way. Many of my students, in particular conservative students, have liked this approach.

    I am always changing my teaching…we will see. Of course, TT pointed out that I seem to blog in a similar manner. Maybe it is just who I am.

  6. Sheesh. Stupid people don’t like what I write, they don’t hire me again or stop reading my blog. I don’t like what stupid people write, I don’t accept them as clients and ban them from my blog. What must it be like to have to face this? At least your colleagues must know you’re doing your job.

  7. Wow. I think you should frame this.

    On a serious note, and out of curiosity, what is the departments response when you get an evaluation like this? Did they confront you about it? Or laugh with you?

  8. This is why the open response box is so small! Seriously though, I admire all of you who can continue to put up with this in order to serve the students who possess some modicum of charity. I lasted three semesters and that was enough. I found that vast improvements in my teaching made exactly no difference in my evaluations, so I packed it in in favor of doing work in which good performance brings me praise rather than censure.

  9. Congratulations on your Student Rating! My worst teaching ratings ever came after I found a student cheating on the final. What did I learn? Cheaters tend to have vengeful friends. All of the comments were vitriolic. It was the only semester I had comments like that.

  10. Chris H, So you teach the way you blog? I thought you said you were different in real life. Now I’m confused.

    Oh wait, I see TT beat me to the punch with this reaction.

  11. Ben,

    I never heard anything from any of my supervisors. I am on my way out, so it was not a big deal one way or another. I did show a few colleagues. Most chuckled.

  12. lol, that was awesome! somebody had waaaay too much time on their hands. i think i wrote something along the lines of, “cool class” and maybe a few other nouns & adjectives.

    i must’ve missed the classes that he/she quoted you as saying those things. the funny thing is, is that the person that wrote comment probably never even spoke up in class. i was probably in the top 3 of conservative speaker uppers (proper nomenclature 🙂 and never felt that way. oh well, it’s unfortunate if they (byu) used this comment as a reason to not pick you up for the second year.

  13. It could be worse: You could be caught explaining the virtues of markets in a contracts class at Cornell. I had one student whose evaluation warned me darkly that making jokes about pinko commies was “not a good idea in a city where Nader got more votes than Bush.” I put the eval down and had this view of being confronted by a group of violent and scruffy vegans in a dark alley in Ithaca.

  14. John F.: Getting angry student evaluations is not awful. It is one of life’s little treats for professors. Anyone who doesn’t get a perverse joy in pissing off ideologically motivated students should find another line of business…

  15. “I put the eval down and had this view of being confronted by a group of violent and scruffy vegans in a dark alley in Ithaca.”

    LOL…I lived 20 miles North of Ithaca for 2 year..I didn’t realize that it was that cool.

    I most definitely get that “perverse joy” of which Nate speaks of.

  16. “Anyone who doesn’t get a perverse joy in pissing off ideologically motivated students should find another line of business.”

    This strikes me as a flippant and dangerously naive comment from someone who subscribes to the ‘Dead Poets Society’ myth of the poet-professor.

    It is foolish to think that a rational person would automatically disregard such a student evaluations as ridiculous – especially at BYU. This is an institution that featured Randy Botts on the front page of their website because he was the top-rated professor at ratemyprofessors.com.

    BYU students take the time to write those comments because they know that the administration pays closest attention to the most dogmatic opinions. Students know these comments will hurt the prospects of new or visiting faculty. That comment on Chris H. is now a weapon in the hands of administrators to wield as they choose.

    Faculty at BYU are not professors, they are retailers who must keep the student-customer satisfied with academic and religious orthodoxy.

  17. “This strikes me as a flippant and dangerously naive comment from someone who subscribes to the ‘Dead Poets Society’ myth of the poet-professor. ”

    More like a flippant prof with tenure at a more prestigious institution than BYU.

    I only taught in Provo for one year. By the time I received this, I was half-way through my last class during the Spring term.

    I am off to teach at a public community college. There my humor will be enjoyed and my disinterest in the eternal soul will not matter…to the administration at least.

  18. That takes me back more than a decade to a class I taught at BYU, in which–after I assigned a brief argument for atheism–a student returned the next day with a five-page tirade he wanted to read to the class. Fortunately I was able to calm him down in fairly short order.

    At least he didn’t nail me on evals. Most of my bad evals have amounted to, Too hard, too mean, bizarrely willing to stick to consequences outlined in syllabus–in short, not my mommy. Just one reason I don’t miss teaching. At all.

  19. smallaxe,

    This post is shared in light of that earlier discussion.

    ZD Eve,

    I tend not to think that this was getting nailed in any serious way. Of course, there is a reason these arguments were not made in class…they are not good and likely would have been challenged.

    BTW dkin (#16) above is political the most conservative student I had at BYU. Philosophically he is likely a conservative libertarian. The writer of this comment has been more heavily influenced by the Straussians at BYU. The funny thing is that our disagreements led dkin and I to become friends. He would regularly shake his head at me (in this class and in the two-part American Political Throught sequence). Upon seeing his faces, I would often invite him to comment and he often did. Of course, he is also a veteran and my guess is that fat liberal professors are not as scary when you have already been through military training.

  20. But, will the bosses at the Community College care whether you appreciate the difference between “lack of interest” and “disinterest”? : )

    I am an adjunct lecturer at a public college, and have just one rating on ratemyprofessor.com. The first word in it was “terrible” and it went downhill from there. I think it’s hilarious.

  21. It’s a striking eval, and parts of it are very good. The middle portion in particular makes a detailed substantive argument in a relatively articulate way. One may disagree with the student’s conclusions, but he does set out an internally coherent argument against portions of Chris H’s teaching.

    However, the eval’s substance is completely undermined by the student’s penchant for adding insults and belittling asides at every turn. For instance, the description “frighteningly akin to Rome, fat-free milk and poser old men with dirty pony-tails” has no content in it whatsoever. It is 100% belittling insult, and is not a useful evaluative comment in any way.

    If a professor is bad, it’s easy to say so in simple descriptive words — “did not follow syllabus” or “does not return e-mails” — and that feedback can be helpful. This student’s extreme excess of sarcasm and insults suggests that he is not evaluating, but is engaged in some sort of personal vendetta and grandstanding.

  22. “extreme excess of sarcasm and insults suggests that he is not evaluating, but is engaged in some sort of personal vendetta and grandstanding.”

    Sounds like this kid is ready for the big league: BCC, T&S, WATCH OUT!

  23. “But, will the bosses at the Community College care whether you appreciate the difference between “lack of interest” and “disinterest”? : )”

    Shut up, Mark.

    The extreme excess of sarcasm shows that I taught her all that I know and something stuck. I prefer that the Rawls sticks, but I will take what I can get (set with a wink, chill everyone).

    If oudenos is correct, I must have succeeded. Heck, I am not even ready for BCC and T&S.

  24. As a former student of Prof./Bro. Henrichsen’s (BYU-I), I’d like to say a few words:

    I’m not a liberal, and only Libertarians would mistake me for such. I was one of the most vocal members of the College Republicans (whether they wanted me to be or not), I interned for the most conservative member of Congress, and since graduation I’ve worked with or been offered jobs with numerous conservative candidates and elected officials in Arizona. Ideologically, I’m a conservative communitarian.

    I’ve taken numerous classes with Prof. H, as a result of my being a PoliSci major, and while my experiences would lead me to suggest that the student in the OP is batshit insane, I believe such would be a slander to the batshit of the world (which, due to its usefulness in explosives, has a reputation that should be preserved).

    Never in his classes did I ever see him alienate, humiliate, or castigate a student in anyway that could be viewed as unfriendly. As a frequent instigator of distracting conversation, whether advocating the establishment of minimum wage or encouraging gun ownership by all, I often found myself on the receiving end of his jokes about the other side of the aisle, but never was it anything but in good fun.

    Of course his opinion entered the classroom, that’s the point of college. If I want to get a text book definition of an oligarchy I’d read a dictionary, if I wanted to know Rawls’ theories I’d read his books. Attending a University political class isn’t about getting a sterile understanding of the political process anymore than listening to Rush is about getting unbiased objective reporting. To paraphrase Good Will Hunting, you can get that much easier and cheaper at a library.

    University is a place of debate, discussion, reason, rhetoric, questioning, and seeking answers. It is a place where you seek out those who have gone before, listen to what they have to say as you personally study what they themselves did, then extract what wisdom you can while building your own opinion.

    The student claims their ideas were never allowed discussion, that contrary views never given voice. This claim is so absurdly foreign from my experience in Henrichsen’s classes, where the majority of classes were often spent discussing and debating the writings and issues raised by Chris, that it is difficult to not dismiss them outright.

    Rather, it seems likely to me that the student never attempted to speak up about their own views, never gathered the courage and fortitude to stand up to an authority figure and raise an objection, or simply found their own views so challenged that they felt the need to attack the speaker rather than having the intellectual honesty to confront the claims of the message. This student seems upset that their echo chamber was broken, that perhaps they might have to actually think about something other than the opinions they previously held, and is trying desperately to insulate themselves from outside thought.

    As a conservative, Republican Mormon I can’t help but think that the student and I would agree on many political and religious points. But, like an embarrassed protester standing next to an unabashed racist, I can’t help but feel a desire to distance myself from reasoning that makes me look bad by comparison.

    To the student: grow up, learn to act like an adult and you’ll learn that others were expecting you to be one all along. To Bro. Henrichsen: rock on, we might not agree on much, but you’re the kind of professor that the BYU’s desperately need.

  25. “Never in his classes did I ever see him alienate, humiliate, or castigate a student in anyway that could be viewed as unfriendly.”

    See… i only alienate in a friendly manner.

  26. Welcome to BYU. I was in this exact class. It this type of “if you don’t mesh with what I think it is affront to God” mindset makes this type of class very important to Provo.

    Chris is an excellent professor, teacher and person.

    Proof? His class was at 8am and I never missed.

  27. I mean that in a good way, friendly ribbing is what I consider to be a sign of respect towards the person, that though they two might not agree that there exists a friendly aknowledgment of mutual maturity and acceptence.

    If there weren’t jokes and ribbing then, to me, the class would have felt cold and you’d have seemed disinterested towards the students. That you took the time to mock without being mean meant that you cared enough about the student to learn what jokes to tell.

    Its also how I can get away with saying things like: of course you’re an affront, all godless communists are. 😉

  28. I’m can’t decide whether it’s awesome that he used Brandon Sanderson’s writing as an analogy, or disgusting that he would shame his work in this way.

  29. To Prof. H, post #31 redeems you in my opinion. Until that point all I got out of the OP and most of the resulting responses was that there seemed to be many smug twits congratulating each other on the intellectual torture of random students.

  30. John: Blake redeems me in many ways. Of course, I like to think that I played a part in him becoming a conservative communitarian (since he was once a conservative libertarian).

    Of course, I am a smug prick. Not a twit. Any intellectual torture here was self-imposed. Comments 16 and 33 come from students in the same class.

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