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Unteaching Student (Mis)Conceptions

September 15, 2010

I just finished reading Tim Murphy’s essay, “Cultural Understandings of ‘Religion’: The Hermeneutical Context of Teaching Religious Studies in North America.” In this article, Murphy considers why it is that we have such a difficult time teaching our students “theory” in religious studies classes. Some of the reasons or explanations include:

  1. Our teaching requires unteaching or unraveling their existing and deep-seated ideas or conceptions of “religion.”
  2. The existing education system leans toward “utilitarian and positivistic” approaches “not disposed to thinking very highly of conceptual analysis.” To put it another way, people tend to have a “just the facts, ma’am” way of thinking about religion.
  3. Learning theory is like learning a new language—it takes years of “practice” to get it right. Murphy quotes Best and Connolly: learning theory “is like learning a foreign language with no one else to talk to and no certainty of ever reaching the country where people do talk that way.” In addition, “When journalists, television commentators, educators, and politicians persist in interpreting the issues of political economy [or ‘religion’ in our case] through conventional categories, the task is even more difficult.”
  4. This is all exacerbated by the fact that many professors aren’t adequately trained in theory, and when they are, it is introduced in the undergraduate curriculum only sparsely—for instance in a single “theory and method” course or a senior seminar.

I’ll leave you with a great quote. Murphy considers the fact that students tend to slot new knowledge or new information into their existing conceptual scheme or taxonomies:

By projecting their own cultural understanding onto those of others, our students, and their cultural cohorts, misunderstand these “others,” misunderstand otherness in general. The consequence is clear: to teach religion effectively we must teach against this taxonomy [i.e., the superficially binary taxonomy between “religion” and its others—such as “spirituality,” “politics,” etc.]. Given the degree to which this taxonomy is both an expression of, and embedded within, bourgeois civilization’s self-understanding, in order to teach religion effectively, we cannot help to teach against this civilization’s self-understanding.

It’s a good essay, and I encourage you to check it out, especially the section titled “Everything you know is wrong.”

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