Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Overcoming illiteracy

I've been curious about MOOCs for a while, and have found an opportunity to try one. HarvardX recently unleashed a set of courses on "World Religions through Scripture" with segments on several traditions by impressive scholars. The anchor is a section taught by Dianne L. Moore, whose work on "religious literacy" in public education I've been aware of and impressed by for years. The premise of the project is that "religious illiteracy" produces ignorance and antagonism inimical to peace and social progress, which is surely right. Her examples of illiteracy trace, in reverse, a "non-sectarian religious studies" approach which I find congenial. Religions are multiple, change over time, deeply enmeshed in culture, not private - yes! And although the contrast of religious studies with "devotional expression" is too simple, Moore makes a compelling case that religious studies makes an indispensable contribution - and one nobody else is likely to make. People within religious traditions are as liable to overlook or deny the multiplicity, change and cultural implications of these traditions as those outside!
But can religious studies make that necessary contribution through a MOOC? I've completed the first of the course's eight days, and have worked through brief modules in a number of media - video lecturettes, excerpts from a video documentary on Islam involving women in Turkey and Malaysia, readings from academic and press sources on the multiple tellings of the Ramayana, an archive of changing Southern Baptist resolutions concerning abortion from the 1970s and 1980s, and a lovely Ted talk by a Nigerian writer about the danger of having only a "single story" about a people. I've been invited to contribute a self-introduction, reactions to the approach and to several of the segments (at each stage able to see and comment on the reactions of the 4000+ other participants), and examples of religious holidays and monuments in public calendars and spaces where I live. A most promising start!

I might note that most participants' comments on each other's comments have been of the "lovely!" "well put!" type - what you might expect from people signing up for something like this, and just finding their bearings in it - and that my initial reaction is like that too. I've not stopped being a religious studies specialist of my own, with particular reservations about categories like, well, "world religions" and suspicions about scripture-centered understandings of religion. But still: so far so good.

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