[This entry will be cross-posted at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion.]
I’ve been asked to expand on some brief comments I made a little while ago in a Facebook thread. They pertain to the institutional context of the humanities – including philosophy and especially religious studies – in academia. Since my new job involves supporting an entire university and not only the humanities, I no longer have a professional stake in these debates. But they remain important for me as someone who cares deeply about the subject matter of philosophy and of much religious studies, for the academy remains central to the work done in these fields, for now at least. It may be that in my lifetime “philosopher” and “religionist” do not primarily mean “professor of philosophy” and “professor of religious studies” respectively. I would welcome such a day, but it is not here yet.
The comments I made stem from a newsletter recently published by the AAR on the topic of teaching and learning. The newsletter highlights Martha Reineke, a professor of religion at the University of Northern Iowa. In explaining Reineke’s views, it identifies some questions important to her with the introduction: “At a time when liberal education in public universities is being challenged as governing boards, state legislatures, parents, and students press for majors with narrow vocational application, questions that keep Reineke awake at night include:”. Of the questions listed there after the colon, I’m particularly interested in this one: “When others increasingly ascribe to public higher education as a narrow economic value, how can we demonstrate that knowledge of world religions builds intercultural competence that undergirds successful economic development and supports strong communities?”
My response to this question was as follows:
The rhetorical move of “When others increasingly believe that higher education should be X, how can we convince them that we are a form of X?” is an interesting one to take. When others increasingly believe that higher education should be an ice cream sandwich, how can we demonstrate that we are an ice cream sandwich?