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Controversial professor Norman Cornett sees his classroom as a laboratory

“I want students to see the full gamut of political thought,” Norman Cornett says. (Photo by Irwin Block)

“I want students to see the full gamut of political thought,” Norman Cornett says. (Photo by Irwin Block)

A group of 25 adults gather around a table in a church hall on a Sunday afternoon to engage with a Montreal professor and his guest.

Norman Cornett, 62, has convinced the usually private novelist Rawi Hage to attend a third session in what Cornett calls dialogic learning.

It is this approach that made Cornett, a PhD in religion from McGill, into a controversial professor—he was dismissed six years ago.

Students either loved his course or balked at its parameters, but as I sat through a session that afternoon where we discussed excerpts from Hage’s novel, Carnival, it became obvious why Cornett enjoys many devoted followers.

The controversy stems from the contrast in Cornett’s approach and the formal side of McGill pedagogy. Cornett did not give exams or assign essays. But he did insist students attend every cass, respond to his emails, express their views in writing, and participate in classroom dialogue with high-profile guests.

McGill has never said why he was summarily fired after teaching for 15 years and Cornett has refused to discuss a severance package because it included “a golden gag,” a non-disclosure clause. “Since I’m all about dialogue, I said no,” he says.

But many have said a resounding “yes” to his pedagogical integrity and intellectual scope. Support from an online petition, signed by 747 students and professors, and a fascinating film on his career by Alanis Obomsawin failed to dissuade McGill.

A cavalcade of distinguished guests has given him an effective vote of confidence. They include former Parti Québécois premier Lucien Bouchard and his brother, historian/sociologist Gérard Bouchard, pianist Oliver Jones, former prime minister Paul Martin, Likud supporter Rabbi Reuben Poupko, and the anti-Zionist Université de Montréal professor Yakov Rabkin. Both appeared in a panel on the conflict involving Israel.

Putting that session into context, Cornett observes: “We broke barriers and we have no taboos. How on Earth can a religious scholar not address the Holy Land? I don’t invite them for controversy; I invite them because of their qualifications.

“I want students to see the full gamut of political and religious thought and what is the relationship between politics and religion,” he says, noting that separation of church and state is a laudable principal that often conflicts with religion.

His main McGill course, an elective in the Religious Studies department, was occasionally referred to as Religion and the Arts. He had students reflect on profound themes in literature, the law, arts, music and science.

His students examined and wrote about their own moral and cultural centre. “We essentially morph into creative writing workshops.”

He adds context by sharing his profound knowledge of history and the Western intellectual canon.

At our session, Cornett explains he had asked a previous class to write one word that comes to mind after reading a Hage excerpt, then one sentence, and finally a paragraph. Hage was impressed by the writing as he discussed his philosophy.

Cornett met the Lebanese-born author when Hage was driving a cab for a living, and they developed a friendship before Hage’s first novel, De Niro’s Game, was published in 2006.

Born in Texas, Cornett did his undergraduate degree in history at University of California Berkeley and wrote a thesis on the representation of Roman Catholic priests in French novels of the Romantic Era (Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas).

After living in Nice for two years, Cornett and his wife, Laura, who died in 2010 after a lengthy battle with cancer, came to Montreal in 1973. He was encouraged by a leading McGill professor to undertake graduate studies. He began to research the papers of Lionel Groulx, the controversial Quebec priest, nationalist historian and intellectual.

“I lived in the Lionel Groulx archives for 10 years.”

He completed a 425-page thesis on Groulx’s theology—“a fascinating figure who brought together my interests: theology, philosophy and history. I chose him as my case study of where Quebec was, where it is now and where it’s heading.”

His first chapter discusses Groulx’s anti-Jewish views. Cornett argues that Groulx was a supersessionist: “In theological studies (that) means that the Church supersedes Israel. The people of God in the Old Testament were the Jews, the people of God in the New Testament, the new era, are the Christians.

“Groulx actually takes the perspective that the French Canadians are the Jews of North America and this is their promised land.”

Cornett describes this view as one of “literary allegory,” saying this is why he is fascinated with Rawi Hage, whose stories are built on allegory and figurative language.

Cornett supported his family, with three children, during the 12 years it took to obtain his PhD. They lived in Rosemount “very frugally—the key to financial success is not how much you earn, it’s how much you spend.”

He started lecturing at McGill in church history, and based on his success as a pedagogue taught year-round.

“I take an inter-disciplinary approach. One of the biggest challenges we face in higher education is to establish a dialogue between the arts and the sciences. I started inviting scientists, such as neuroscientist Ivar Mendez, a pioneer of brain repair, to see how they perceive issues under the umbrella of a sociological approach to religious studies.

“One of my banner courses was The Soul in Soul Music, which I taught concurrently with the Montreal International Jazz Festival for 15 years.”

It will continue this summer, featuring major musicians as part of the Sunday morning services at St. James United Church on Ste. Catherine St. W. in which Cornett integrates scripture, instrumental and vocal music.

“I consider the classroom a laboratory of learning and I conduct experiments in pedagogy. I am very concerned about Teflon teaching that just rolls off. I teach for life, what will stick with you.”

As for tackling tough issues like the conflict in the Middle East, Cornett is firm. “Like justice, education must be blind. There is no way they are going to learn unless we expose them with the very best in each field and challenge them. It’s not to have them memorize and repeat like parrots. The greatest good we can give them is that they learn to think for themselves.

“Where is the textbook on life? You’ve got to write it yourself.”

As for possible reasons for his firing, Cornett answers: “On academic freedom and freedom of expression, I make no compromises.”

For events with Cornett, including $5 per person dialogic sessions, email normancornett@gmail.com or call 514-256-2483.

POET BRUCE MEYER, CORNETT HOLD DISCUSSION SESSIONS

Bruce Meyer, noted Canadian poet and literary scholar, joins Norman Cornett starting Sunday, April 21, 2-4 pm, for the first of three dialogic sessions.

During these sessions, continuing April 28 and May 5 at St. James United Church, Cornett will examine Meyer’s writing and discuss the creative process with him.

Cornett’s approach involves engaging all participants through reading and commenting on the writer’s style, relating it to Western literary canon and history.

A PhD in religion, Cornett taught courses in religion and the arts at McGill University for 15 years before he was fired without explanation.

He continues to teach to those interested in interactive learning here and across Canada and leads discussion groups, including truth and reconciliation sessions with Canada’s aboriginals.

The sessions with Bruce Mayer are at the church, 1440 St. Alexandre, between Ste. Catherine W. and Mayor. Info: normancornett@gmail.com. 514-256-2483 x 090.

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