The Invisible Classroom: Seeing Religion’s Importance to 21st Century Humanities Pedagogy

classroom-1699745_960_720“Well, clearly, no one believes in souls anymore,” our professor smirked to a classroom of freshly minted graduate students. Humanists, Christians, atheists, and agnostic students alike shared glances with one another, some snidely (or nervously) laughed in agreement, while others stared with tilted heads, narrowed eyes—a few with curious smiles—wondering whether the professor had minced words or humored us with a metaphysical joke? The professor didn’t flinch: “no one,” he repeated, “believes in souls anymore, clearly.” The class moved on. I, however, did not: “no one”?

What our instructor had “clearly” meant was that no humanist academic worth their salt would ever return to otherworldly questions of religion ostensibly settled long ago in the Enlightenment or in scholarship past. For this professor, religion was now deemed out-of-step with a modern, public academe. So too, the future of the humanities now belonged almost exclusively to studies in materialisms and class economics, gendered bodies and embodied sexualities, (de)constructed racial fantasies and post-humanist ecologies, hyper-scientism and digital technologies, and so forth. Put far too simply, the “body” was in; the “soul” was out.

Much like the de-spiritualized, mechanistic worldview that followed the eighteenth century in the West, the humanities in many respects has become a similar world wary of religion. Now, more often than not public humanist intellectuals have not wholly eschewed religion like the zealous “new atheists,” nor avoided it as historical fact; rather, the study of religion has been more or less displaced by imperceptible, glacially-slow movements to the periphery of the humanities as more politically-conscious, economically-motivated, and socially-aware discourses entered humanities’ classrooms. Today, review the average course syllabus, class lecture, or assigned reading and topics of race, ethnicity, class, gender, or sexuality will surely turn up, but look for arguably one of the most essential markers of human identity—religion, or a lack of it—and one is a bit puzzled to find only traces, if that.

In my field of American literary studies, this conspicuous absence of religion is a particularly pressing problem, what Jenny Franchot has termed the “invisible domain.” I extend her notion to what I call the “invisible classroom”—religion’s absence from the content, pedagogy, and discourse of the humanities classroom. But, far from outright hostility, I have found most humanities folk to approach religion with genuine curiosity and openness, even if many also express indifference, angst, or misinformation. Wherein lies the problem stems from the erosion of religion as a subject of academic legitimacy exchanged for more “secular” preoccupations. In today’s world, this fact needs a counter-balance as issues like religious violence, religious pluralism, and religious globalization are becoming ever more prevalent and inescapable. More than ever, the study of religion will afford students the opportunity to understand the motivations, desires, identities, and behaviors that drive these phenomena, matters which surely impact our students’ own (non-)religious lives. In short, it is time the ‘invisible classroom’ be made ‘visible’ again.

If our humanist credo values the full diversity of human experience, we then must take seriously religion’s return to the heart of humanities education, regardless of personal persuasions for, or against, it, while balancing our other academic commitments. The public humanities classroom, then, becomes not a space to occlude religiously-interested persons from the table of inquiry, but forms rather a powerful site where collaboration between religion, and interests otherwise, work together to produce the best solutions to our most complex, relevant, and ultimately human questions.

In this way, we can have both a robust secular zeitgeist and a religiously-mindful classroom. Without this, our students become ill-equipped to bridge the many religious and secular divides that plague the nation and global community. Students stripped of religious study will also struggle to understand, and even empathize, with those of other (ir-)religious takes. More importantly, this intellectual disadvantage (and it is so) inhibits students’ ability to engage the plethora of religious positions in an increasingly pluralistic society. For as Stephen Prothero has shown, religious literacy in America is remarkably low and an urgent educational problem.

However, if one fears religious inquiry may slip into (ir-)religious bias or indoctrination, we must remember: re-centering religion in the humanities classroom does not mean the curriculum functions to elevate one religious or non-religious tradition over another. In fact, quite the opposite is true: the ‘visible classroom’ democratically foregrounds all religion as viable and meaningful. For this is precisely what it means to prioritize inter-faith and inter-paradigm dialogue in the classroom.

But, how do we implement the study of religion back into the humanities’ classroom? What steps can educators take right now toward a more inclusive classroom environment? Here are a few ways to get started:

  1. Inquiry-Based Teaching, Open-Ended Discussion: Curriculum organized around complex, relevant questions to student life produces meaningful learning. By structuring your curriculum around some of the most personal questions about human existence (e.g. questions of religion), they can serve as powerful lenses to address what matters most to students and generate open-ended discussions.
  2. Assign a Diversity of Religious-Affiliated Materials: Expose students to a variety of books, scholarship, artwork, readings, images, interviews, documentaries, and films on religion. Determine which materials are best suited for your class. If it is an English course on Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, what outside theoretical texts, historical and cultural contexts, or biographical insights could one use to address Vonnegut’s treatment of religion in his anti-war novel Slaughter-House Five? The key lies in offering students diverse resources from multiple perspectives.
  3. Get Students to Experience Religion in the “Real World”: High-quality pedagogy that promotes powerful learning comes from experience. Knowledge is extended beyond the classroom through application to “real world” circumstances. Much like class visits to university archives or historical landmarks, taking a class to a religious site or inviting guest speakers from various religious or non-religious traditions help make religion “real” for students.
  4. Analyze the “Sacred” and “Secular” Together: The West in the twenty-first century is not split into “sacred”/”secular” divides, but instead is best understood as an era pervaded by complicated, overlapping networks of “sacred” and “secular” relationships. Just as the idea of ‘intersectionality’ considers race, class, gender, and sexual identity in various configurations of power, religion marks another valuable intersection to be considered. Otherwise put, the humanities classroom must adopt a both/and—not an either/or—approach when it comes to the “sacred” and “secular.”
  5. Use Religion as a Source of Knowledge, and Empathy: Lastly, the humanities classroom should transcend content knowledge in order to generate empathy for believers, disbelievers, and the rest. If we wish to extend our humanist belief in cultural understanding to all, re-establishing religion in the humanities pedagogy will require fostering a greater sense of sensitivity and empathy toward all beliefs within the nation, and elsewhere.

Both undergraduate and graduate students deserve a humanities education that encompasses the vast spectrum of human life, religion included. To turn this ‘invisible classroom’ into something more ‘visible,’ humanities educators may heed the suggestions I provide or begin somewhere else. But regardless, to teach the humanities well, we must always invite our students, and ourselves, to see religion’s ‘visible’ and vital role in shaping the perennial questions over what it means to be human. This is surely evident, “clearly.”  

Ryan David Furlong is a Ph.D. Candidate in English at The University of Iowa, specializing in American Literature on issues of religion and literature, Christianity and post-Christian culture in the West, and the intersections between religion and education.

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