Friday, July 17, 2015

Black boxes

In our seminar on liberal education this morning, we were asked to think of a "key idea" central to our discipline and ways we might teach it in an engaging way in one of our courses. Sound easy? It wasn't, at least for me. Does my discipline have any key ideas like that? Everything I could think of was a second-order thing (we're comparative after all) or a negation, something you'd need at least two sittings to teach. ("Religion is not belief" is what I wound up saying.) Having by coincidence just read through Dynamics of Faith, the great book about religion as "ultimate concern" written by Paul Tillich when he was just across the street at Union Theological Seminar, I was rueful. A few generations ago the "key idea" question would have been easy to answer: the sacred, ritual and myth, ultimate concern, transcendence, etc. But my generation sees all those theories as falsely universalizing, rooted in (and rooting for) very specific western religious experiences.

And since those same "Protestant" conceptions are the common sense notions continue to animate American culture - and our students - our teaching involves a key un-learning. The place of the pleasing but problematic universals is not taken by new, better universalizations but by pluralism, local knowledge, and new questions arising within and between specific traditions... sometimes universal ones! And yet, of course, we (try to) teach this... To the extent we do, how do we do it?

The image is of an installation in the office next to our seminar room at Teachers College.

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