Wrestling with difference

Freakonomics’ Stephen J. Dubner recently did a two-part podcast on the true value of a college education. While part 1 gives convincing evidence for a strong correlation between one’s health, wealth, and level of education, part 2 takes a much harder look at the economic costs of a university education and, intriguingly, tries to get a handle on exactly what students learn when they go off to college. As someone who has been thinking about this question for the good part of a decade, I get tired of hearing the old chestnut that college “teaches people how to think.” It’s lazy and vague, and frankly, I can’t see how that would persuade people to fork out increasingly higher tuitions for their children’s education if they themselves haven’t had a transformative college experience. For this reason, I really appreciated how Dubner pushed his guests to spell out what they themselves got out of their college experiences, and what they hoped would stay with their students long after they’ve earned their degrees.

The most provocative response came from Amherst president Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, who spoke of her experience growing up in rural Virginia, in a family that really worried that higher education would be a “negative force” in her life. Although her parents eventually did support her decision to go away to college, Martin admitted that her family’s concerns were not entirely unfounded. Education, she explained, is often thought of as an additive experience—as something that enriches you by collecting inside you and adding to who you already are. But as she finished her bachelor’s and went on to graduate school to earn a doctorate in German literature, she saw that the transformative character of education propelled a dual process of learning and unlearning. Her academic progress came at the price of realizing many of her family’s worst fears: that she would move away from home, alter her political views, change the way she spoke, and such. Learning new things, she concludes, is not a process of simple acquisition, but requires “upending a whole set of assumptions about how to see things, what’s possible, what’s real…”

The posts categorized under “Big Ideas” are devoted to explaining exactly how my undergraduate education really taught me  transformed my relationship to the world around me. Martin’s comments reminded me of another big lesson I learned in college: how to grapple with difference. In line with the idea that people tend to think of learning as an unproblematic process of acquisition is the notion that exposure to new places, new people, and new ideas will reduce one’s fear of the unknown. To a certain extent, that is very true. Dubner himself talks about how he was able to avoid cementing a provincial outlook by befriending international students in college. Without contradicting him, I would caution that it is easy to overstate our common humanity while sidestepping earnest intellectual engagement.

I’ll explain by way of relating my experience as a first-semester freshman in RELI 101. I was expecting an introductory course in religious studies to be taught as it was in my high school, as a survey of some of the world’s most important religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, maybe a bit of Buddhism. I also assumed that one went about this course of study primarily by reading the major texts of these faiths, and supplementing those readings with a bit of historical context. I was sure that I was going to emerge from RELI 101 with the sense that all faiths outlined for their followers different, but equally valid, ways of leading moral lives—kumbaya and all that.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

Intro. to Religious Studies could just as accurately been called Intro. to the Anthropology of Religion. By the end of the semester I saw that what the professor was trying to teach us—aside from the implicit lesson that it would be simplistic, inaccurate, and irresponsible to package different religious experiences in neat little bundles—was to shed whatever preconceptions we had of what religions looked like, and even what “being religious” meant, so that we could really begin to make sense of religious practice in its myriad manifestations.

The one reading from that course that has stayed with me to this day is J.Z. Smith’s treatment of Jonestown in his book, Imagining Religion. In “The Devil in Mr. Jones,” he reminds us that the modern discipline of religious studies was born of the enlightenment belief that everything in the world could be rendered intelligible, and he tests that principle by attempting to comprehend the mass suicides at Jonestown, a scandal that seems—on the surface and by most accounts—so utterly irrational. I won’t reproduce his argument here (it’s an astonishing chapter, and you really should read it), but I will say that it was from Smith that I first learned to open my mind.

That isn’t to say that having an “open mind” means forever suspending judgment. As Smith himself writes, “[t]o interpret, to venture to understand, is not necessarily to approve or to advocate” (104). As students of religion, we should strive for tolerance, not relativism. And if we do find ourselves morally at odds with a certain practice (human sacrifice, to take an extreme), it should be because we have measured it against a universal rule of reason, rather than by reference to our own cultural standards.

So there you have my personal “testimony” for how college opened my mind: not by reinforcing any facile, Hallmarky notions of our common humanity, but by teaching me how to approach the bizarre without fear so that I can make more informed and intellectually honest assessments of the world around me.

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