Much attention has been paid of late to the apparent increase of interest in religion on the part of American undergraduates. College administrators, like political candidates, are paying more attention to religion, no longer assuming it will just fade away. But what does this mean for the individual faculty member, especially those in fields other than religious studies? Are there pedagogies that respond to students’ engagement in, or curiosity about religion in ways that enrich their liberal education?
I think there is a great deal of resistance to pedagogies that respond to students’ interest in religion, especially in the field of history. This may be a stretch, but I would guess that most professors of history, unless they are in religion departments, would most likely never admit to teaching religion, even though they may engage in questions of belief, faith traditions, and even theology in their courses on a daily basis. It may seem as if these instructors (especially those who teach the Reformation or the medieval church) misrepresent what they do, but the distinction remains an important one for a field that still holds to ethical standards of objectivity and critical distance. In fact, it is this critical distance that enforces a kind of pedagogy of disassociation—holding the object of our study at arms length, not caring what relationship we have to that object of study or what relationship (or beliefs) our students hold.
Let me give an example. I teach courses on 16th-17th century Europe where Christianity is central to the world view of the historical actors we study. Many classes begin with an explanation of what beliefs and values these people held and how the Church (or other minority religious communities) structured their daily lives. My aim is to give students a sense of the past that includes not just a chain of events but the meaning of these events and explanations for change. The work I do also includes painting a mental landscape of time periods and cultures that are distinct from our own; it is meant to engage the historical imagination of our students—to imagine what sin and salvation really meant for these people who lived in a “world we have lost.”
This approach to historical studies, summed up by the “father” of historical profession, Leopold Ranke in late-19th Germany is to show history “wie es eigentlich gewesen
” (as it really was). Ranke held to this dictum, training generations of fact-finding archivists to uncover the evidentiary truth of the past. “The cultural turn” in the historical profession (with the influence of anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz) helped develop the methodology further to get historians to see “how natives think.” Yet, for many historians the postmodern critique of our own subject-position never entered the discussion of historical method. Instead, historians held to the desire to paint as accurate picture of the past as possible and enter into another way of thinking and believing without thinking of how our own values and beliefs might cloud (or further) the questions we ask, as if we were some unbiased, time-traveling investigators with no agenda of our own. This claim of objectivity is crumbling, even among Reformation historians who have been accused of carrying their own secular bias into their research. (Brad S. Gregory, “The Other Confessional History: On Secular Bias in the Study of Religion,” History and Theory
45 (Dec 2006): 132-49.)
Yet, even as we historians go through a kind of self-analysis for our own research purposes, I am constantly surprised by colleagues who find great discomfort in hearing what their students believe, or who ignore their students’ evaluative statements about theological positions of Luther or the Pope Gregory VII, still more by those who tell their students, “I don’t care what you believe. Let’s focus on what these folks did and thought” as if what these historical actors think and believe has no bearing on our own beliefs. It seems as if dismissing these comments and questions cuts our teaching short, especially as these questions of belief become more pressing to students in college today. By refusing to engage in these conversations, we forego opportunities to draw our students into the material, to engage them intellectually, and perhaps, a moment to have them re-examine their own beliefs. Maybe giving historians some training in religious studies would change this approach, what I am calling “a pedagogy of disassociation.” Maybe we need to let go of that critical distance, even for a moment.
Sydney Watts is assistant professor of history at the University of Richmond and leader of a Teagle Big Questions working group on The Pedagogy of Belief and Doubt