Thursday, April 10, 2014

Critical Thinking, Secularism, and the Humanities in Higher Education

I just graded a bunch of midterm exams in a class I am teaching on women in the ancient world.  I am not fond of grading exams, but they do reveal interesting and important information about how my students' minds work.  They also reveal a lot about students' assumptions of their abilities, their insecurities, and their responses to adversity.

In our current age of grade inflation, especially at the grade-school level, students think that the work that got them Bs and As in high school will serve them equally well in college.  When it doesn't--especially in classes that challenge them to think outside the textbook and without the crutch of Wikipedia--students sometimes become truculent, or panicky (often the A students whose grades were slightly below perfect), or morose.  The ones I worry about the most are those who don't care:  their attitude toward a D or an F is a shrug and some eye-rolling.

American students have come to believe that access to higher education is a given, like access to public school.  This is particularly true of affluent students--who are also among the most lackadaisical in their attitudes toward their education.  In fact, higher education is a privilege, one that we provide to a large number of students (although never enough people of color) in exchange for money that is supposed to underwrite the educational expertise of instructors, staff, and administrators.  There is a lot wrong with higher education in the USA, including a woeful lack of preparedness of many if not most students entering post-secondary programs.  But one thing that I know we do well is to teach students to question:  to think, to argue, to disagree, and ultimately to open their minds to the possibilities of different perspectives.  This last idea is also considered by many conservative and/or doctrinaire critics as the most dangerous.

I am also watching the reboot of Cosmos on television, with Neil deGrasse Tyson following in the footsteps of the late great Carl Sagan.  NdGT is one of the strongest public voices for a natural worldview, a rejection of supernatural explanations for the universe and its contents, and a championing of critical thinking and creativity that is inherent in the best kinds of science and critical discourse.  In one episode, focusing on the process commonly called "evolution" he states the true intellectual's credo: that we are not bothered by the idea that we don't know everything, and that the true hubris in humans is claiming that one does know everything because of a belief in a supernatural being and some particular text designated by a particular population as "sacred."

Teaching ancient history in the Heartland is an interesting process because students who come from families and households that emphasize supernatural explanations find themselves confronted with our instructions (my colleague and I--not the royal we!) to consider ancient religions to be, um, religions and not "myths," one that are as legitimate as the religions celebrated today.  We talk about religious celebrations, such as the Thesmophoria or the Eleusinian Mysteries, as ones that solve the basic social and cultural reinforcements that modern-day Catholic masses, Jewish Friday-night services, and Islamic requirements to pray five times a day also address.  In addition, we present the development of religious perspectives as a normal process of human culture, similar to the development of other intellectual perspectives, not something that operates independently of the natural world and humanity.

As you can imagine, we get some pushback about this presentation of ancient religion, but we still persist.  Why?  Because it is the right thing to do:  it is part of my job to encourage students to confront their own assumptions, to evaluate them unemotionally, and to make informed choices.

Isn't that what true education is all about?