Shock Over a Textbook

Co-author of wellness textbook says he meant to inspire people to know their self-worth and lead healthier lives. But critics say his book implies that those who died in the Holocaust were weak and that cancer is a choice.

August 2, 2018
 

Ron Hager, an associate professor of life sciences at the Brigham Young University, says he co-wrote his first textbook, 21st Century Wellness: The Science of the Whole Individual (Perceivant), with good intentions -- namely, to add a whole-person perspective to the generally cut-and-dried wellness book market.

But the approach apparently backfired, as at least one institution is reviewing the use of his book for this fall. That’s after some students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill complained that the ebook seemed to imply that Holocaust victims who didn’t survive were somehow weak, and more.

Doubting that his critics have read the book in full, though, Hager in an interview said he’s a victim of “fake news” who’s unfairly been called a woman-hating Holocaust skeptic and cancer patient blamer. He said he guessed that a small group of students "got together or colluded to report me." But it's mainly members of the public, not students, who have contacted him since news stories about his book began to appear last month.

“One woman wanted some clarification about anything that might have been said about Holocaust victims because she heads a Holocaust survivors’ organization,” he said. “She was worried I was a Holocaust revisionist.”

Hager is not, in fact, a Holocaust revisionist -- he adheres to the facts of the Nazi atrocities. But in the book's section on managing stress, Hager wrote about the work of the late Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and Holocaust survivor, in a way that's proven controversial.

Frankl, who also practiced as a psychotherapist, founded “logotherapy,” based in part on the belief that life, however bleak, always has meaning, and that people choose their attitudes in the face of even the most traumatic events and conditions. He wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, for example, that he spent his days in Nazi concentration camps trying to stay alive to be reunited with his wife and using his medical expertise to help others. But he observed that some other prisoners seemed to give up, hastening their deaths.

Trying to draw on that message, Hager wrote that Frankl “realized deep down that his life had meaning no matter how inhumanely he was being treated by his captors. The people in the camps who did not tap into the strength that comes from recognizing their intrinsic worth succumbed to the brutality to which they were subjected.”

Some have said the passage implies that those who didn’t survive (at least those who weren’t murdered outright) were weak, amounting to a pernicious form of mass victim blaming.

At Chapel Hill, student complaints have led to a review of the book for this fall. The book has been used since last fall across all sections of the institution’s one-credit lifetime fitness course, required of all undergraduates. The wellness course replaced a required swimming test and two physical fitness electives for all students in 2006. Some 2,200 students take the course each semester, fall and spring. It’s taught by teaching assistants, who adapt it to include different activities, such as aerobics, jogging or swimming.

Abigail Panter, senior associate dean for undergraduate education, said in a statement that the university “understands the concerns and sensitivities around certain excerpts” of the book. Once the department of exercise and sport science received student feedback this spring, she said, the department "discussed those concerns with the publisher as part of an ongoing curriculum review process."

Edits couldn’t be made in time for use in the upcoming semester, but, “as previously planned, the course material is currently under review for use this fall.”

She added, “In our work to protect and promote academic freedom, we respect the process of departmental curriculum review. As is consistent with our process, we will work collaboratively with the department on any proposed or recommended changes.”

Similar student criticisms were levied against the book’s language on chronic and other diseases, such as cancer, particularly the term "diseases of choice."

"Some experts have begun calling these diseases diseases of choice because how we choose to live, in large part, determines the risk of being diagnosed with disease like heart disease, cancer, dementia, and others,” Hager wrote with co-author Barbara Lockhart, a former BYU professor and retired Olympic speed skater.

Hager said at least one person responded to news coverage about the story by daring him to attend a pediatric cancer ward to talk about cancer as a “disease of choice.” But he said that’s absurd, and that he in his own classes talks about how a family friend of his died at 4 years old of brain cancer. In such a case, and in many other cases, cancer is obviously not a choice, he said. But is undisputed that certain lifestyle choices -- being overweight, not exercising, drinking too much, smoking -- impact one’s statistical likelihood of developing certain kinds of cancer.

Another much-criticized passage says that “when obsessed with weight, many if not most women and some men have become habitual dieters.” Some have read it to mean that most women are habitual dieters.

Hager said the book is does not actually imply that most women are habitual dieters. Rather, it states the statistical fact that more women than men are habitual dieters.

Over all, he said, “The message is that what we have found, just like Victor Frankl, is that that when people begin to relate to their inherent value and self-worth, and it’s with them at all times, it’s much easier to change their lifestyle habits, change their approaches."

Asked if that implied -- similar to the Holocaust question -- that people who are overweight don’t know their self-worth, Hager said, “Some people say, ‘My weight is not a problem to me.’ But we’re encouraging people to be honest with themselves. Some people might say the same thing about drug addiction.”

He added, “We’re not making accusations. We’re not making character judgments. We’re trying to be very supportive.”

Brian Rowe, a spokesperson for Perceivant, the publisher, said that 21st Century Wellness has been peer-reviewed "hundreds of times and never have the parts in question been raised as an issue in those reviews or by other instructors. Our books are updated every semester, if and when areas arise that give cause for concern or misinterpretation."

Perceivant's website offers praise from other institutions that use the book. And Hager said the book has been in use for several years at more than a dozen other campuses, and that people reach out to him regularly to say the book is "assuring" or otherwise a positive part of their wellness course experience. Still, Hager said he’d be open to revising the text. Yet at some point, he said, “You have to draw the line or you could spend an eternity editing it.”

Whether “obese or fat or short or tall, and we talk about this, ‘You’re important because you’re a human being and you deserve respect and fair treatment,’” he said.

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