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MEDIEVAL-RELIGION  May 2004

MEDIEVAL-RELIGION May 2004

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Subject:

Re: Teaching objectively

From:

Dennis Martin <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 7 May 2004 11:09:55 -0500

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text/plain

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medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

If one is a practicing Marxist or a practicing channeler or a practicing
cynic or a practicing Neo-Pagan or a practicing New Historicist, would
one be expected to to announce this and then announce that one would
take an agnostic position toward historical materialism or channeling or
New Historicism during the course because one is a professor at a state
university?  Wherever did this notion come from that one may not teach
out of one's convictions, whatever they are, as long as one has
disclosed where one is "coming from"?  In practice we do not expect the
same level of disclosure for all of the above.  Often, I think that
those who do disclose tend also to be the ones who really do hope to
influence their students to agree with their feminism, New Historicism,
post-colonialism or progressive Leftism or whatever.  With traditional
Christians, because of the double-standard I try to demonstrate below, I
think the fear of being perceived as trying to influence students has as
much to do with disclosure as does an actual genuine desire to
influence.  Those who hold their postcolonialist, Marxist, feminist,
High Enlightenment, scientistic, Rational Choice or cyncial beliefs more
lightly and are hence less interested in persuading their students, tend
to see themselves as very  much in the center and hence objective and
neutral and hence have no need to discose anything.

But in fact, I think, we all wish that others would be persuaded of the
truth of whateve theory or religious or political convictions we hold.
If we did not believe they were at least truer than alternative
positions, we would not hold these _convictions_.  People do hold
convictions with greater or lesser intensity, of course, and their
desire to persuade others will vary in intensity accordingly.

Yet our convictions, deeply or lightly held, postcolonialist, neo-[agan,
pragmatist, cynic, Christian, Muslim or HIndu will color the way we
teach, necessarily.  To try to set them aside is impossible.  To admit
them up front is the honest way to handle it, but it should apply to
everyone, feminist, postcolonialist, Christian, secular or religious
Jewish, traditional Buddhist or Hollywood Buddhist etc.

In practice, however, those with some of the above beliefs are viewed a
priori as guilty of proselytizing until proven innocent whereas the
proselytizing of others (e.g., New HIstoricists or Marxists or feminists
or postcolonialists) tends to be indulged, unless it becomes "too
strident."  But the trigger for unacceptable stridency, it seems to me,
has a double standard: much more is tolerated from some political and
cultural directions than from others.  Prof. Greene's obvious
nervousness indicates that the trigger for stridency for practicing
Christians is of the hairline standard.

The source of this is, in my view, twofold: (1) The animus against
traditional Christianity since the Enlightenment has made academics very
nervous about the matter.  This, in turn, at least in the United States
and (even more so, in recent decades, in Canada), but also increasingly
in Europe, has led (2) to court decisions (in the United States since
the 1940s) that have effectively ruled out the "free expression of
religion" clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution under the,
in my view flawed, reasoning that _any_ expression of one's Christian
views in a tax-supported school constitutes an "establishment of
religion" which is forbidden by the same First Amendment.  The two
clauses of the amendment have been pitted against each other and the
"free expression" one has been the loser.  (Ample documentation of this
is available, most
recently a teacher's aide in an elemntary school in North Carolina who,
when directly asked by a child whether she believed Jesus was in heaven,
simply answered yes--religious expression--and for that lost her job.)

Surely one can present history, art, literature etc. from one's own
perspective, in a manner respectful of those who hold different beliefs
and convictions, without proselytizing.  I do not see why one should
have to play "agnostic" with regard to one's own beliefs in the
classroom, nor do I believe it is even possible.

But if, indeed, it is necessary to play agnostic in order to avoid
proselytizing, then I insist that everyone do it according to the same
standard.

Acknowledging one's convictions then teaching respectfully, honestly,
fairly out of them would seem to me to be the most practical approach
and, in the long run, the approach most conducive to genuine pluralism,
mutual respect, and learning.  But everyone should be held to the same
standard for disclosure, fairness, avoiding manipulation etc.

What is that standard?  Ah, here the plot thickens.  What one person
thinks is fair, respectful teaching out of one's acknowledged
convictions, someone else might see as an attempt to manipulate or
proselytize.  But could the problem not possibly rest in the listener's
unreasonable pricklyness (out of whatever fears, anxieities,
indigestion, late night escapades)?  If teachers have an obligation to
avoid proselytizing by disclosing their convictions (including
postcolonialist, Neo-Pagan and Hollywood or ivory tower Leftism), then
students and ambulance chasing civil rights lawyers have the same
obligation to fairness and respect.

Since students and colleagues also have convictions, beliefs,
perspectives, whether of the feminist, New Historicist,
I'm-out-for-a-good-time-howevr-I-can-get-it Cyncism, or
National-Public-Radio-soccer-mom Leftist varieties, it is just possible
that they might also be seeking to persuade people around them of the
slightly greater Truth of their convictions.  So when they protest the
supposed unfair proselytizing of the other guy (either a fairly mousy
Christian variety, a rather standard conservative [nearly always
rubriczed as a "right wing extremist"] or a very strident Marxist or
feminist or Leftist), it's just remotely possible that they themselves
would cut the corners on self-disclosure and honesty and try to
manipulate the situtation by claiming the other guy has crossed the line
from teaching out of his perspective to proselytizing.

And, of course, someone will likely explain what I have just written as
arising from an unnecessary touchiness or defensiveness (it has happened
before--why, people ask, are you so exercised about this?).  To meet
that dismissive response head-on, let me conclude by saying that, _from
my perspective_ over many years of serious and careful observation, a
clear double-standard with regard particularly to traditional Catholics
and evangelical Protestants, exists in the academic world, as described
above.  I recognize that those who hold very different convictions _by
definition_ would not perceive the double-standard.  So, to respond,
"what's the problem, I don't see this as such a huge problem; if you do,
it must be something wrong with you" only illustrates my point: if a
double standard does exist, it would be perceived by those on the short
end of the stick, not the long end of the stick.  In order to decide
whether such a double-standard exists, one has at least to be open to
its possibility and listen carefully to those who claim it does exist,
not respond simply "well, you are thin-skinned."

Dennis Martin



>>> [log in to unmask] 05/07/04 10:09 AM >>>
medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and
culture

"A number of members of this list are clearly practising Catholics - how
difficult is it to achieve objectivity when teaching the development and
history of Catholocism?"

I always announce to the class that I am a practicing Catholic but, as a
prof at a state u, I must take the position of an agnostic. This
protects me from charges either of proselytizing or of insulting the
faith, and protects students' tender faith from bruises. At least, it's
worked for me. And, of course, even as a person of faith, I recognize
injustices and absurdities of the past for what they were and don't
hesitate to say so. But I deal more with church art than religion (as if
the two were really inseparable) so I'm a bit more insulated than those
who teach history of religion per se.
MG

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