In a 2007 edition of Phi Beta Kappa’s American Scholar, William Deresiewicz published a provocative essay on the state of “Love on Campus.” Though aspects of the argument are problematic, the central thesis was particularly compelling and resonates well with my own teaching philosophy. Drawing on the Platonic dialogues, Deresiewicz argues that teaching is ultimately about relationships and that, at its best, the bond that develops between students and teachers can be described as a form of love.
This language may seem melodramatic, but my own experience as both a student and teacher suggests that it is not altogether inappropriate. In my mind, the goals of education are best met when teachers are able to move beyond imparting information and training students to perform certain tasks. Liberal education becomes truly liberal when it is able to move students to reconsider their deepest convictions about themselves and their world in the face of new ideas and perspectives. Because these moments are most likely to arise in the context of relationships founded on trust and affection, I consider the development of these bonds to be my primary task as a teacher.
There is no doubt that my areas of study have shaped my teaching philosophy in this regard. Indeed, the study of religion and morality seem to be unique in that they are intricately tied to the existential self-reflection that is the hallmark of a liberal education. Whether I like it or not, the material we discuss in my courses provokes my students to question many of their foundational beliefs. It is my task to help them explore these uncharted waters and this task is, at times, deeply personal.
Many within our field are anxious about this style of teaching. Given the discipline’s complicated history with theological education, some worry that this approach might facilitate an all too easy slide from education into proselytization. These individuals argue that religious studies courses should be limited to the presentation of historical information, “bracketing” normative debate about the truth value of religious claims. Though this approach is well intentioned, it often reinforces an authoritative model of instruction that liberal education was designed to circumvent. When students are asked to memorize information presented by an instructor, traditional authorities are simply replaced with the authority of the academic expert.
A truly liberal education, on the other hand, provides students the motivation, information, and tools necessary to “liberate” themselves from the dictates of authoritative truth—academic or otherwise. This means, incidentally, that I am just as concerned about avoiding proselytization as my colleagues. If my teaching philosophy prioritizes any values, they are the values that provide the foundation for intellectual diversity. Thus, the primary goal of normative debate in my classroom is to encourage students to learn how to think for themselves. In the end, they may accept the value of authority and continue to hold the positions they held when they entered the classroom. The hope, however, is that they will have secured better reasons for doing so. Put simply, my central concern is not what my students think, but whether and how they do so.