Thursday, November 2, 2006
The question arises often about what is being taught in college classrooms and what kind of climate exists on campuses. I can't speak for any college other than the one I teach at and I won't pretend to write about what happens in classrooms other than my own.
I generally spend most of my intellectual energy thinking about two things: Kellogg, Idaho and my work as a teacher. I'm a devotee to the ideal of a liberal arts education. To me, this means that a student should investigate, in every discipline, the nature of knowledge in that discipline, what the discipline assumes knowledge and the ways of knowing are, and what the discipline generally understands the nature of reality to be.
By looking at books and writers and writing itself through these basic questions of epistemology and metaphysics, then the question of what we can study is really opened up. For example, because my students know that the central question in the Freshman Composition class they are taking from me is, "What is a well-lived life?", they also know that the reading we do and the movie(s) we watch will be discussed in relation to this question. Part of examining what it means to live well is to look at possibilites for doing so and to look at what the world looks like from the perspective of those possibilities.
For example, when we try to understand epistemology and metaphysics, I am as likely to illustrate the different views of knowledge and ways of knowing by discussing Marxism as I am Christianity. In a classroom devoted to the principles of a liberal arts education, the idea is not to encourage students to become Marixists or Christians or anything else. It is to teach the students how to think about these world views and understand how they work philosophically.
So, I don't ask my students to tell me what a Marxists "believes" or what a Christian "believes". When my students in the argumentation course read a Buddhist text, *Being Peace*, I don't ask them to learn what a Buddhist "believes". The question I ask is, from a Christian point of view, what is knowledge and how is knowledge arrived at and what does reality look like? Likewise, from a Marxist point of view, how is knowledge arrived at and what does reality look like? It's a way of looking at the difference between a perspective that understands reality to be both material and immaterial and a perspective that is fundamentally materialist. Reality, human nature, death, the place of humans in the world all look different from these two perspectives and by seeing the epistemological and metaphysical foundations of these perspectives, we can see what they value, what their ethical perspectives are.
Do I promote Christianity? Marxism? Feminism? Capitalism? The Resurrection? The idea that all things are connected? Godlessness? Science? Evolution? No. It's not my job to promote world views. It's my job to help students investigate them, and, more important, investigate themselves and their world views. Many times this means helping students see that they have world views. Many don't know that they have a world view. Many don't realize that reality looks different to someone who sees life coming from death in the world over and against someone who sees reality only in terms of the senses.
If my classes were judged for their "liberal" or "conservative" bent by looking at reading lists, what would someone infer? In WR 121 we watch Tupac:Resurrection and read Drinking: A Love Story, Buffalo for the Broken Heart, and A Reckoning. My idea is to look at the idea of a well-lived life from four perspectives: a young man, Tupac; a woman in her thirties, in Drinking; from a middle-aged rancher; and from an elderly woman dying of cancer. The woman dying of cancer is a widow, has three children, and the love of her life is another woman. Does my assigning this book, then, represent some kind of gay agenda. My answer would be only in the sense that this woman's sense of reality is affected by who she really loves.
If the college classroom is assumed to be a political place and a place to be understood in terms of the instructor's political practices, that's a very limiting perspective. Seen politically, the classroom is seen not as an arena of ideas, but as a battleground of ideology, with one side winning and the other losing. I think it's difficult for the person whose inclinations are to understand reality in terms of politics to even understand a classroom like mine that is apolitical. I think it's difficult for a person whose inclinations are to understand reality in absolutist terms to understand a classroom like mine which looks at perspectives not at absolute values.
The "lib" in liberal arts has the same root as the "lib" in liberty, liberation, and even libation! The idea of a liberal arts education is that the more fully we see and understand the different possibilities for how something can be understood, the freer we are. My favorite conservatives are committed to the breadth and intellectual freedom of a liberal arts education. George Will is the best example I can think of. My favorite liberals, likewise. Bill Moyers is an exemplar. Will and Moyers may arrive at different conclusions about the nature of the world, but both are vigorous in examining questions liberally and from a variety of perspectives.
So, I hope my classroom is a place where students with all of their variety of perspectives can join in mutually enjoyable inquiry. I'll never ask them to agree with my politics or my religious convictions. I only ask them to read, listen, inquire, self-examine, and in their writing, be fearlessly honest and authentic.