Location: Cheshire, Connecticut, United States

devilishly handsome, screamingly funny, overly modest

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Academic Evangelism

When I was a child I was raised in two small towns, one in southern Illinois and one in northwestern Connecticut. In both cases there were fewer than 5 Jewish families, so I was subjected to the hegemony of the overwhelming Christian majority. Most of this was an unconscious process, the singing of Christmas carols in school (Christ wasn't MY Lord, in song or out) and the chanting of the Lord's Prayer before class every day. This erosive process did little damage to my self-esteem, as I considered then, and still do, that blind faith and rote learning are marks of intellectual weakness, although I couldn't have expressed that thought in elementary school.

This feeling was re-inforced watching my grandfather argue with the evangelistic Fundamentalists at the Elk's Club in Illinois. He was an intellectual well-versed in biblical study of both testaments, having been a Rabbi in Russia and being schooled in classical Greek, Latin, Aramaic, and of course English and Hebrew. Watching him destroy Fundamental arguments with multiple literal interpretations of the supposed Word of God (which Word in which language?) taught me a prime lesson; intelligence trumps faith in trying to understand the unknown, and the organized religions of the world are a very weak link in that process, with agendas of coercion and power outstripping pursuit of knowledge.

The problem is that dogmatic coercion extends not only to religious areas but also to academia. I've observed in my graduate studies in creative writing that the poorer teaching involves sets of "rules" that stifle creative thought. When judgment of excellence is based on conventional form rather than insightful thought, learning and creative ingenuity are both stifled in the same manner as theological theory is quashed by rigid Fundamentalism.

A good example of this is my class on "Slave Writing", which should have been a perfect fit for an old civil rights activist like me. The content of the course was fascinating, but the professor's application of her version of academic writing left me feeling stifled and inept. She insisted in examining a minute detail of weekly reading and applying restrictive methodology to the writing.
When I wrote my (of course brilliant) interpretations I was told I was being too broad, B minus. Aside from the fact that no other graduate professor gave alphabetical grades and that in none of my other classes had I received other than a Distinguished(A+) or a High Pass (B+ to A-), my conclusion was that the problem was the professors lack of perception, not my own. I felt that I had learned little in the class other than my reading. A sampling of my graduate school classmates revealed that they shared a similar low opinion of her methods.

I've found traces of this syndrome in other courses. Even excellent professors fall into the habit of relying on elitist and non-creative academic methodologies. A dogma developed by a few educators, whose agenda seems to consist mostly of techniques for exclusion of creative thinking, has a large dominion over the academic world, and in many cases has become the standard. Arise and be heard, you free thinkers. Break the binds of academic stultification.

Somehow that trumpet call doesn't match up with "We Shall Overcome".



Anonymous blue girl said...

"Arise and be heard, you free thinkers."

Great post, Papa Bill. Love that line.

7:59 AM  

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