One of the clearest explications of what's at stake in online education today has been made public as an open letter from the San Jose State University's Philosophy Department to Michael Sandel regarding the use of the EdX MOOC on Justice.
I sometimes liken studying humanities at Newcastle to engaging the ocean beaches here. In the beginning of your studies you learn to swim, avoid riptides, and maybe start to body surf a bit in the waves. More advanced students eventually learn to make surfboards with wood lying about and some become quite acrobatic. Later even boats can be made and whole crews join massive research vessels that take off to sail the ocean blue. However, it seems to me that advanced studies in philosophy, religion and theology are something more akin to scuba diving. We study those ships that sink, interrogating their integrity under extreme conditions. Our task includes the various disciplines that surf and sail, maybe even sublating them to draw on Hegel's terminology. However, our aim is to look beneath the waves. It might be called an interest in substance, but probably best to leave it vague given how many ways we've come to think of being since Aristotle first identified metaphysics as such.
To some surfers it's hard to tell what we're doing, as we're invisible below the water. To others who care to peak, it seems rather odd that we might be interested in such de(con)struction. Still the passion for scuba is so strong that I've even known some of my colleagues to sink old ships intentionally and wait for the coral to grow. It's messy at first, but soon, whole new ecosystems develop. New schools of fish come to swim and eek out an existence (new sharks too). I've come to think that some of the new things we're doing in religion and theology at Newcastle require some sinking and settling. But there's a reef waiting for us if our wreck catches those age old ocean currents.
A slew of articles have been posted the past few weeks about the "revolution" in online education ventures like Coursera and Edx, but also more widely in universities around the world. I thought I'd just post a few of these articles here in one go as well as provide a few comments.Read More
I finished an annual review document for theology programs here in Newcastle. We've had some successes with some of our pilot courses, which blend online and face to face learning. The feedback we get from students is consistent with what has been coming through in the analysis of new online courses cited on The Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as in a recent article just posted in the New York Times this week, which summarises some quantitative studies done on this issue.
I was reading in philosophical hermeneutics this past month for something I was writing. I came across an excellent essay by Anthony Thiselton on "New Testament Interpretation in Historical Perspective." What jumped out at me was how much time political philosophers like Locke and Hobbes spent interpreting the bible to promote their own rationalist aims. Mark Lilla makes a similar point in his recent The Stillborn God. Whereas some secularists avoid theology for the sake of the political order, Lilla contends that the key to a healthy secular society is a certain degree of sophistication in political theology. He cites Hobbes in particular as a master at using political theology towards secularising ends. In any case, whether religious or not, theological literacy is valuable to thinking and engaging the claims of religion in public.
This March 21, Russell Blackford will be giving a Religion in Political Life seminar at the University of Newcastle's Cultural Collections. He'll discuss his new Blackwells Press book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, where he explicitly discusses Locke's proposal. In any case, here's how Thiselton puts it:
This time of year I often feel the need to say why the humanities matter in a university. It's linked to why I get up in the morning or do what I think I am doing as a lecturer in religion and theology. But I also feel obligated to explain its value for incoming students. Implied here is the question, "What do I do with that degree?" To some degree this is an economic question of sustenance. But, so too, implied in this question are metaphysical suppositions about what "matters." Increasingly, our understanding of the world is shaped by a rather limited materialism which refuses to face questions of love, beauty, history and cultural and religious beliefs. Terry Eagleton's recent Faith, Reason and Revolution addressed this, and I don't mean to suggest that there is not a live debate here. Quite the opposite. It seems increasingly important to raise the materialist question again and again in order to avoid the rather banal assumption that degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM subjects, can do without the soil of the humanities.
Of course, nobody would deny that we need more engineers to help design better buildings, more efficient transport, and biologists to keep working on cures to the pandemics we face. Some of the most complex mathematics sit behind one of the most simple buttons we click each day, Google's search. However, what good are such things when people fly airplanes into buildings, or unleash biological disease upon a rival population?
As I introduced the incoming students studying religion and theology this year, the key value I hope they learn is cognative empathy, that ability to step into the shoes of another and really understand their disposition. Reading others well, especially those we disagree with, is crucial to this habit. It seems to me that the humanities are about training students in the habits of the mind which underwrite civil society. They provide the historical, literary and cultural understanding to examine and interrogate the human condition.
To use another analogy, one of the great challenges in physics today is to develop a theory which can account for newtonian and quantum mechanics together. "God does not play with dice," Einstein quipped, at the rather probabilistic whacky-ness of the quantum view of reality. The challenge can also be summed up as the relationship between two forces. While gravity is a weak force which nonetheless orders planetary movements, the atomic forces which quantum mechanics accounts for are incredibly strong. The world that seems solid and stable to us is actually mostly empty space held together by atomic forces, electrons, neutrons, etc. The analogy is that whereas the STEM subjects seem to be rather strong forces building, healing and creating, the humanities function like weak gravity. Cultural and religious understanding, the ability to empathise with the positions of others, is a weak force. However, our everyday sense of decency in civil society utterly depends upon it.
As so many recent philosophers have understood, the enlightenment values which undergird democratic societies are fragile. The so-called postmodern critique of the likes of Derrida were meant to call our attention to this fragility, not undermine it.
Upon looking for a download of Rowan Williams' "Farewell to Canterbury" documentary on the BBC, I found this debate with Richard Dawkins, chaired by Anthony Kenny. I'm reminded again what a gracious interlocutor Williams was as Archbishop, a public voice who will be greatly missed in that capacity.