Learning the Value of Risk

A week ago I published my first newsletter to about a dozen friends and colleagues. You can read it here. I wrote about the unusual intersection of classrooms and religious sites as both educational spaces and places under attack. I’m still finding new news stories about antisemitic attacks. There were several in nearby Massachusetts just around the time I was finalizing my email. German Jews were warned not to wear kippah openly in certain areas this week. Attacks are rising in both American and Europe according to The New York Times, and my local radio is carrying stories about police training on Hate Crime policies in Maine

This morning I read this excellent piece by Jane Coasten about the many uses of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s ideas about Intersectionality:

It presents one of the things that has really changed in my thinking over the last decade of teaching and work. The study of religion has often presented theories as lenses for understanding and explanation, but we usually stop when it comes to using these theories as tools. It’s a fine distinction, however, and maybe a better angle is this one, presented to me by a colleague in a teaching workshop:

What happens to students of faith during your work deconstructing the categories of religion? 

We were talking about how to measure whether a teaching intervention was effective. With backwards design, I know one learning outcome I have is to show students that “religion” is a constructed category. This learning outcome’s effect can’t be limited to the course. In fact, one of the primary ways to test the depth of student mastery of this outcome is to ask them to apply it to new data beyond the class. 

If one of our students comes in a devoted Catholic, it is not our goal to deconvert them. But their Catholicity won’t be the same after we talk about global demographics or current trends. Perhaps by comparison and learning about other religions students will deepen their own sense of the scope and shape of religion in their own lives. 

The risk is clear though: If your class work deconstructs the category of religion, then it’s likely student preconceptions will get at least implicitly deconstructed. As a community of scholars we think the risks are worth it. The value of seeing religion as constructed is that it frees us to talk about its roles, creation, proponents, and so on as a human product. You know what they say about that, right? 

Two Faces for Two-Face

Perhaps not. 

So we’ll see the world, describe its two faces, and show the coin’s two sides. But we won’t flip the coin. We’ll stop short or use an abstraction and frame the enterprise as an experiment. But our premise’s natural consequence is that students will experiment outside the classroom when the stakes aren’t grades but jobs, romantic partners, and participation in society. If we didn’t think any of this were true, that learning didn’t change us, then what would be the point of education? 

So how are we missing the lessons that would prevent hate crimes or religious persecution? Why aren’t we doing better at helping folks learn how to be better humans? If we don’t see that as one of our outcomes, then what are we doing this for?