The Place of the Private ("Deeply Religious"?) Self in Higher Education

I’m 10 days late to an important Twitter conversation that began when Brian Croxall sent a few holiday-inspired tweets about his reluctance to share his religious beliefs with his academic friends. Brian’s reflections elicited a lot of sympathy, and given the number of responses, it’s clear he struck a chord. I just saw this conversation today, but I wanted to respond because I think those of us who study and teach religion—and particularly those of us who study the intersection of religion and public life—should be part of this conversation.

Contrary to what many might think, we are not all on a mission to rid the world of religious commitments and conversation.  And this includes those of us who are not ourselves practitioners. Although we rarely agree about what it means, we are very interested in Brian’s dilemma and think about it quite a bit. 

So what do I have to contribute?  Two things. 

First, it seems to me that the tension Brian and others are feeling is a natural outgrowth of a certain vision of community whereby the “personal” (which, for most Americans, tends to include the broad category of “religion”) is privatized in an effort to preserve civility in the midst of pluralism.

The non-intuitive result of this approach to civility is that the more something means to us, the more likely we are to keep it private.  Given the intense conflicts that often accompany disagreement about matters of deep, personal concern, we are instructed to keep these practices and beliefs to ourselves.  The old adage that you should never discuss politics or religion at the dinner table is an extension of this principle.  And, interestingly, it suggests that even family dinner is a forum too “public” for these conversations—relegating our beliefs about such matters to the truly private space of individual reflection.

This particular (liberal) vision of public discourse has been critiqued for the reasons raised in this Twitter conversation (it diminishes civic friendship, creates clan-like mentalities, and impoverishes public discourse), but it still dominates the popular imagination of many in the US. [1]

I could say more about this, but the fact that most who are participating in this conversation are SoTL scholars makes me want to move this conversation in a second, slightly different, direction. More specifically, I’m curious how this particular understanding of professionalism and its relationship to our public and private selves also impacts our pedagogy

In short, I’m worried that this privatization of the personal has crept into academia (usually through the language of the “professional”) to such a degree that engaging students as whole persons—with both public and private practices, beliefs, and identities—is often labeled “unprofessional,” as well.

Speaking as someone who teaches about unavoidably “personal” matters (religion, morality, sex, etc.), I’ve often been amused—and, I’ll admit, slightly worried—by conversations about what is and is not “professional” within the classroom (or—God forbid—outside of it).  And in almost every case I can remember, the distinctions map pretty well on to the norms of public and private discourse highlighted in the original Twitter conversation.  Even in Religious Studies, where one might think these distinctions make less sense, students are often required to “bracket” questions of personal belief in the classroom.

While this bracketing of the personal is well-intentioned, it seems to be especially harmful in the classroom.  And I tend to think this is true regardless of whether we’re teaching religion, physics, economics, or literature. If we want students to learn in a way that has lasting effects, the ideas we’re teaching should make contact with their most cherished practices and beliefs—the practices and beliefs that sit at the core of their identity.  If faith is really as important to Brian as he claims it is, what better way to engage him than to ask him to connect what he’s doing in class to this framework?

More to the point, if we don’t engage the core practices and beliefs of our students, we are teaching them that learning is—quite literally—about surface changes.  By de-personalizing the classroom, students aren’t asked whether their mental houses are structurally sound; as long as they’ve painted each room an appropriate color, they’ve done their job.  And, sometimes, we’re not even asking students to paint their own houses.  As long as they know how to paint the appropriate rooms appropriate colors, they can perform well in our courses—regardless of whether this knowledge has changed their own patterns of thinking.

In sum, I wonder whether the same forces that move Brian to “be a half person” among his very close friends lead our students to be half persons in our classrooms.  And I'm curious whether those participating in this conversation think this trend (if it even is a trend!) could be as harmful to learning as I think it might be. And if it is, how can we convince our colleagues that the personal need not--and sometimes must not--be private? 

[1] Full disclosure: I’m a liberal, and I support a version of public discourse that places some moral constraints on how we communicate, but it’s far more complicated than this oversimplified version of liberalism makes it out to be.