Friday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger ran an op-ed piece by Phyllis Zagano entitled “Teaching how, not what, to think.” The essay concerns a tale of two professors, one at the University of Illinois and one at Seton Hall. Both have come under fire for teaching on the issue of gay marriage, one from, one against, a Catholic viewpoint. Zagano’s point of view, evident from her title, is that professors should teach students how to think, but not what to think.
This is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching religious studies. I am in my eighteenth year of teaching in the field. In that time I have taught at both religious and secular schools and, in both settings, presented the material objectively. There are those in both settings who complain. Students at Nashotah House frequently wanted me to bend the Bible to fit conservative Anglo-Catholic teaching. Under immense logical pressure to accept what reason told them of the world, they wanted an authoritative book to back them up in a pre-decided outlook. A theological ace of spades to trump the uncomfortable conclusions of rationality. At the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and at Rutgers University students frequently want to know my religious outlook so that they might know how to categorize what they are learning: is it sanctioned or is it anathematized? We need to know who you are so we can evaluate your authority in such delicate matters as faith.
I frequently ponder the issues raised by Zagano. I know of no other field of study where the stakes are so high, with the possible exception of political science. Religion is an all-encompassing phenomenon. All of life must conform to religious teaching, often with eternal consequences. It therefore makes an enormous difference what you are being taught. Like Zagano, I try to teach students to think for themselves. Both at the seminary and university I refused to reveal my personal outlook on the issues; I try to kick-start the thinking process. I have paid the price for this in the past, but it is a non-negotiable component of education. If the truth is uncomfortable, it is always possible to let someone else do the thinking for you.