Thursday, September 1, 2011

To a Student's Call for Action to a Sluggish Class

I couldn't agree more--and I wish I knew what would get people writing more.  But in my experience as an online teacher, what we've got is typical.  The conversation is generally carried by far less that half the class, with the rest coasting or scared to write. The good part for me is that it makes it easy to tell the A students from the C students from the F students.  A lot is riding on whether or not they respond.  But it's a free country and no one has to engage their mind, much less write in a course they paid for.  They can get out of it what they put into it.

I think there's a deep fear of this subject, and I can certainly relate, having endured many vicious arguments myself. Politics and religion get people angry, and there's a certain reserve in the classroom when students come up against something that's going to be unpleasant. But this is YOUR university experience, and one of the goals is to learn how to debate ideas without coming to blows.

Several times in the discussion we've come up against the idea of "freedom of religion" and Mr. White has even quoted the Establishment Clause. In addition to making a long study of the mythic writings and languages of the ancient world, I've made a deep study of Medieval and Renaissance history, particularly the 14th through 18th century in England. When the Establishment Clause was written (by a group including Deists as well as a variety of different kinds of Christians), it came as a transition from many bloody centuries of religious debate. There's a deep historical reason why we prohibit the establishment of a state religion, and it has to do with the millions (yes--millions!) of murders that have been committed in the names of various systems of interpretation. The Congress included descendents of Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Puritans, Quakers, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and others, all of which groups had suffered persecution because of some interpretational difference or other. We're not talking about different races of people, or even people who spoke different languages.  We're talking about brothers and sisters in the same families who would argue to the point of blows or even to the point of murder a point of interpretation.  Shall we drink wine with Communion or grape juice with the Lord's Supper?  Shall we sprinkle infants or emerse them when they reach a certain age?  Shall we read the Bible in Latin or in English?  Do we believe in miracles and a supernatural ordinator or insist on a natural world with natural laws?
The deep exploration of textual history is a fascinating study, but it's very complex. The simple answers one carries from childhood serve some, but they lead to crisis when one is confronted with the realities of life. Not that deep study will make you happier--it won't.  And not that we get to a place of understanding--we don't.  It's easier for those who can simply agree to a master narrative and then hold to it against all comers.  But a flat earth is not a true vision of reality, and a denial of scientific reasoning doesn't aid one in living a healthier or happier life.

The point of a course like this is to train minds in understanding the levels of complexity and the differences of discourse. Science and history do different things from parables and prophecies. Truth can be gleaned from all of these modes of literature, but none is comprehensive, working in all cases.

There is, after all, a vast divide between describing the Sun in a verse and in what actually happens within that massive ball of exploding gases.  Say what you will--the reality will always be far more complex than you can ever approach through words.

Part Two:

You asked: "Do you think age/maturity level is a factor in relation to participation in your classes?  I have seen so many students afraid to have a voice in class, but freely use it in the hallways and bathrooms and I've been wondering if it's a generation gap."

I wouldn't call it a generation gap but I DO think age and maturity is a factor.  I've long thought that every American should be required to serve the country in some capacity for a period of time following high school because they (1) aren't mature enough to make decisions regarding their future yet and (2) they haven't got the experience it takes to take education seriously.  I, of all people, would deeply resist any sort of mandatory service, and generalizations always have flaws, but it was my own personal experience and I have observed it many times as well--people benefit more from education once their brains reach a certain stage of maturity.

That said, I had lunch today with a former student.  He just got back from London, where he participated as one of twelve Fulbright Scholars in a program that selected him from among hundreds of applicants nation-wide.  At the age of almost twenty-one, he's operating at full speed.  And he's living proof that age and maturity don't have near as much to do with it as desire.  He doesn't have a lot of money. His father died when he was young. But he has a desire to engage this world of the intellect, and he's looking for ways to make it happen.  He's really young and inexperienced, and life is going to do things to him he can't imagine, but he's on the intellectual track and running.

The bottom line really has to do with you.  This is your life, wherever you are in your journey.  What are you going to do with it?  Young or old, makes no difference.  It's what you do with what you have right now that counts.

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