Posted by: Kenn Hermann | March 5, 2006

“. . . but I don’t believe all of this stuff.”

“Being a Christian Student” #3

Since it is mid-term time, this might be a good time to share some advice from the other side of the lectern on taking exams without losing your integrity.

Christian students will continually be faced with being examined or writing term papers on course materials that are at wide-variance with beliefs, commitments, and convictions that shape their lives as Christians. Students will be faced with many courses, such as the following:

  • a course in “Educational Foundations” in which social constructivism is the in-philosophy this semester.
  • a course on “International Finance” that assumes that the World Bank and IMF set the appropriate parameters for development in the rest of the world.
  • a course on “Introductory Psychology” in which students are required to memorize Freud’s approach to human sexuality.
  • a course on “American History” that is silent on the role of Christianity in shaping slave communities.
  • a course on “Civil Engineering” that never establishes an appropriate ethical, political, and social context for engineering practices.
  • a course in “English Literature” that never reads any dead white males.
  • a course in “Introduction to Philosophy” that jumps over the ancient and middle ages in a few weeks and settles on the developments since Pragmatism in late 19th century and ends with Deconstruction.
  • a course on “Politics” that assumes normative political goals are derived from extensive polling.
  • a course on “Introduction to Economics” that never questions the ‘rational man’ model for understanding economic activity
  • a course on “Family Options in the 20th Century” in which marriage between one man and one woman for life is treated as an increasingly rare social option.
  • a course on”Modern Views in Cosmology” in which philosophical and even religious positions are taught in the guise of ‘science.’

You get the idea. The question is: how can you navigate through these courses and do well without compromising your understanding of what is at stake in these courses for a Christian? The basic answer is that it is always good practice to distinguish between understanding the material and agreeing with it’s premises and assumptions. Every good student should be able to say, for example, that they understand Kant’s categorical imperative without endorsing its ethical assumptions. I expect all of my Western Humanities students to understand the basic teachings of early Christianity, whether or not they live their lives in accord with those teachings. In the same way, I expect Christian students in my course to understand Machiavelli’s approach to politics while seriously challenging its premises.

  • Professors only have the ‘right’ to demand that students understand the material in the course; they do not have the ‘right’ to expect students to accept or endorse all of the premises and assumptions they teach. E.g. a professor of economics cannot require her students to accept the premises of the Chicago School of Economics approach to economic theory. She can expect all of her students to understand and be able to explain the Chicago School’s approach.
  • There ought to be a clear distinction between a university course that focuses on understanding and a catechism or evangelism course that focuses on conversion. You know, of course, that Christians are not the only ‘evangelists’ on campus. Unfortunately, many professors see their task as ‘deprogramming’ and ‘disabusing’ students of their childish beliefs and ‘evangelizing’ and ‘converting’ them to their more ‘adult’ perspectives and assumptions. They will not be content until students in their class are ‘converted.’ These will be the most difficult courses to navigate successfully since these professors see no difference between ‘understanding’ and ‘agreeing’ with the matierial.
  • Often-times professors themselves have merged the particular assumptions they bring to a field of study with the principles of the field itself. E.g. psychology professors, who are schooled in cognitive psychology, often cannot distinguish between cognitive psychology as a paradigm and the field of psychology itself. In our example, the professor may think she is just teaching basic economics when, in fact, she is teaching the Chicago School’s theoretical framework for understanding economics.
  • This problem is compounded by the presence of big, elaborate, and very expensive textbooks. Textbooks have the weight of authority behind them. Chapters seem to deal with the basics that must be learned and memorized. Often professors re-enforce this view by teaching from the textbook the way they were used in the Middle Ages: professors read, students memorize and recite. That’s the way that PowerPoint is increasingly used in the classroom. Who ever challenged a textbook?
  • All students, not just Christian students, are at a serious disadvantage in courses like this. They have no independent way of determining the philosophical assumptions and frameworks of the authors of the textbooks. How is an inexperienced and unschooled student to know anything about these assumptions? How are they to know the difference between the issues with which philosophy deals and a deconstructivist understanding of truth? Whom can they trust?

So . . . how should you answer those exam questions? Wherever you have the opportunity say something like, “according to the textbook, these are the five principles of xyz; Karl Marx believed . . . .; Steven Weinberg is confident that we can get back to . . . .; the most common approach to writing school curriculum is . . . .” Do you see the difference between saying “the textbook outlines 5 reasons for the causes of the Crimean War” and “there are five reasons for the causes of the Crimean War”? In the former case, you are showing the professor that you understand the points asked on the exam, but are purposely not committing yourself to its Truth — at this point.

This approach is especially helpful for textbook-driven courses where students are under strong pressure to uncritically accept the textbook’s version of the subject as ‘the way things are.’ If you are always distinguishing your understanding of the material from your endorsement of the material, you will at least be better prepared to examine it more critically in the future.

I endorse this practice even when you do agree or endorse a particular perspective. For example, I want my Christian students to say something like “Early Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead.” rather than “I believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” This emphasizes that the primary focus of the course is gaining an accurate understanding of the materials; it is not asking for your faith commitment.

This is more difficult to do on so-called ‘objective’ tests since you cannot often challenge the premises of the questions themselves. The questions simply test how well you have memorized the terms and concepts of the chapter. Even there, write in the margin something like ‘according to Joe Blow’s theory” or “the textbook authors offer these five reasons for . . . ..” If this isn’t possible, then repeat this to yourself as you check the ‘right’ answers. This is an acceptable practice that does not undermine your integrity.

If you adopt this simple strategy of distinguishing between your understanding of the material and your endorsement of its assumptions, you can do well in your classes while maintaining your integrity. Even so, you will have to watch for those rare professors who will interpret this strategy as a challenge to their authority. In those cases you will have to answer them very carefully, saying that you wanted to show that you understand the material, but were not yet sure whether you could endorse those positions. Who knows? Such an answer may even cause the professor to examine his assumptions about his field of study.

As for me, I admire a student who can accurately and clearly state their understanding of a position with which they disagree. In fact, all discussions in my classes have this as a basic rule of engagement: unless you can clearly state the position of the argument you are criticizing, you have no ‘right’ to enter the discussion. That is a basic academic virtue. Christian students should learn to practice this virture throughout their university careers.

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