Sunday, January 02, 2011

“Very Revealing….” – II

“That’s just your opinion…”


“the professor is very liberal. Read his blog. It is revealing.”

While I appreciate this plug for my blog and I welcome my students along with the rest of the world to read it (what other reason would anyone blog in the first place?), the plug’s juxtaposition to the comment “he’s very liberal” suggests that the invitation to read the blog has an agenda. So, a little context and critical thinking here, please.

First, this comment occurs in a culture where trade unions have been emasculated, where the major providers of news are controlled by a handful of global corporations with vested interests in a particular presentation of information and where the opinion polls consistently show that those who label their ideological inclinations conservative by far outweigh the fairly small number who have the temerity to own up to being liberal. What does liberal mean in such a context?

Anyone who has been outside the US – even across the border into our neighboring nations in either direction – knows that American culture is decidedly skewed to the right and lacks any kind of real counterpart to the far right voices which regularly find a place on talk shows and in editorial columns. When moderate means liberal and mere left of center is deemed socialist, calling someone “very liberal” probably says more about the labeler than the one they would sum up.

Second, while I would readily admit to holding what in American terms is a liberal perspective on a number of issues, (I am frequently nonplussed to find myself viewed as conservative in my trips to Latin America) ironically, the issue at hand is decidedly not among them.

In American pedagogy today, a consumerist vision of minimal expectations coupled with maximal entitlement reigns and the unquestionable worship of technocratic means such as online technologies and multiple choice exams which provide quick and easy results (and major opportunities to cheat) are the norm. In such a context, a college instructor who insists his students actually read the texts assigned, creates assignments to insure they do and that they come to class prepared to actually participate once there, who still takes attendance and doesn’t allow students to engage in rude, distracting behaviors with their technological toys is not a liberal. He’s a true conservative, holding students to traditional standards of behavior, manners, performance and insisting upon individual accountability.

But perhaps most troubling about this comment is the unarticulated but clearly indicated normative understanding of how college classes should be taught. If “he’s very liberal” suggests something out of the ordinary as it appears to here, clearly the expectation is that the instructor – if not the class – is supposed to be conservative in orientation. Why would that be?

Of course, this unarticulated, perhaps even unconscious, presumption is not terribly surprising given that the subject of the course is religion. While increasing numbers of Gen Y students are joining the ranks of the “none of the above” when asked to describe their religion, Americans who remain attached to religious institutions increasingly tend to be the most conservative in their belief systems.

If I had to guess, based upon the comments they made in class and in their self-descriptions in written assignments, I’d say that about a third of this class held to some kind of evangelical to fundamentalist Protestant views with another quarter of them holding to rather conservative Roman Catholic views. In short, over half of the students enrolled were identifiably conservative in their religious inclinations coming into the class. No doubt a class which demands people critically consider their foregone conclusions about religion provided a bumpy semester long ride for a number of them.

That conservative bent was reflected in the comments of about the same number of students in their end of term reviews for the honors college which suggested they did not feel comfortable offering their opinion in class given what they perceived the opinion of the instructor to be. While this recovering lawyer admits to the potential of engaging in a little cross-examination during discussions in class from time to time, it is, in fact, the job of the instructor of any academic study of religion to prompt students to think critically about their views. That most students have never had to do so previously, find they have little to say about the religions most of them have simply inherited and become uncomfortable when required to do so does not somehow exempt them from that obligation. Nor does it make their instructor an opinionated tyrant.

Not just any opinion....

This concern about opinion also points toward a couple of other issues. Clearly, it is true that I, along with most other graduate educated college instructors, do have opinions about various aspects of our subject matter. Indeed, that is precisely a major reason we endured so many years of long and costly higher education - to be able to offer an educated opinion on our given areas of expertise informed by our own studies and reflection as well as the most recent developments in our fields.

As such, this is not a matter of “that’s just your opinion,” and to suggest it is reveals a failure in critical thinking. Graduate educated instructors do not simply offer one more opinion just like anyone else’s. When speaking of their area of expertise, their opinion is generally based upon reasoned arguments and evidence to support it. While one may disagree with that considered opinion, simply dismissing it as just another opinion suggests avoidance out of a lack of ability to adequately respond. It also evidences a fundamental though common confusion of the right to form, hold and articulate opinions with an expectation that all such opinions must be equally respected and valued.

The other issue I hear at work here is a rather common conservative strategy of obfuscation and subterfuge engaged when one’s intellectual arsenal proves empty. One sees this process at work in conservative responses to evolution (“It’s just a theory. There are other theories that must be given equal time”) and climate change (“There are many scientists who disagree with global warming theory.”) The reality is that in both cases, the overwhelming majority of people who actually study these phenomena may be hard at work finding the various manifestations of these processes but they’re not wasting a lot of time debating their existence. Similarly, media’s talking heads who simply assert something is “controversial” are subtly signaling to their viewers “therefore, you should not take this seriously.” In all of these cases, it is little more than avoidance compounded by intellectual dishonesty.

The reality is that this instructor, like most who teach college classes, has spent a good bit of time reading, reflecting upon, discussing and testing the understandings he brings to the classroom. While that may prove daunting to students who hold other understandings and don’t wish to be responsible for them in class discussions, it’s really disingenuous to suggest that this somehow means the instructor prevents other ideas from seeing the light of day in class.

Indeed, it is a display of great respect for any given understanding when the instructor requires its offeror to explain and support it. It suggests that the instructor considers it valuable enough to use class time to seriously consider it. Moreover, it’s entirely possible that students could prompt their instructor – and their classmates - to think about a given idea in a new way. As I often say, I learn something new from my students every semester.

At the beginning of each semester in world religions, I tell my students that they do not have to believe anything to succeed in this class and they can ultimately believe anything they wish. But they do need to learn what the instructor they have chosen to help them learn about world religions determines to be essential for them to learn. That may draw some of their beliefs into question, indeed, it often does. But at the end of the term, there are no creeds recited, no pledges of allegiance, no loyalty oaths to any given understanding, only an exam which tests whether students understand the subject matter. If a student encounters cognitive dissonance in between those two points, all the better, for that is the teachable moment.

Why not simply meet the human being?

So, if students want to read my blog, welcome. I’m not sure what great revelations you will find here but welcome anyway. In all truthfulness, I thank G-d for blogs. They provide an opportunity for thoughtful, considered responses to what are generally cryptic and often pretty superficial postings on consumerist sites like (this posting to which I am responding here providing a welcome exception to that rule). I certainly have nothing to hide and you’d hear many of the same things from me in person if you actually come to my office to talk during office hours.

But what you might discover if you actually came for an office visit is an award winning instructor who truly loves teaching, who greatly cares for his students even as he persistently pushes them to achieve their potential. You might discover an instructor whose bookshelves in his office and at home bulge with the latest books and journal articles reflecting an intent to remain well-informed on the latest developments in his fields which immediately find light of day in class discussions.

You might also discover an instructor who spends hours of his own time each term advising hundreds of students on some of the most important aspects of their lives from graduate education to career choices to legal and spiritual questions. You might discover an instructor who goes out of his way to assist his students in everything from teaching independent study sections to help students graduate on time to writing some of the more persuasive reference letters one will ever receive. In short, you might actually discover a human being who is one of the more devoted educators you will encounter in your lifetime. All of that, of course, presuming you care enough to actually find out who this instructor really is rather than relying on the shallow, self-serving caricatures one finds on consumerist online sites.

One last comment. Given that some of you will actually read this blog entry at your classmate’s suggestion, let me suggest something to all of you. Rather than wasting your instructors’ time on these online sites with what are ultimately irrelevant considerations like your perceptions of their worldviews or your feelings about their person, why not give them something they actually need? Instructors are here for one purpose and one purpose only – to assist students in the process of becoming better educated human beings. The consumerist concerns many of you obsess over – work load, grades, whether you feel comfortable in class, et al – ultimately are beside the point when it comes to the process of education.

What we need to know, ultimately, is simply this: What did you learn? What do you understand differently now than when class began? How have you changed as a human being as a result of these new understandings? What will you do with what you have learned? Provide the answers to those questions and I assure you that you will have my complete attention every time. And I’d venture a guess that will be true for most of your instructors as well.

In the meantime, happy revelations seeking. And thanks to the student whose unusually balanced post provided an opportunity to give this response.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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