Intellectual Diversity or Nonsense?

Ashley Thorne

Two professors at Pennsylvania State University at Abington have published an intriguing article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required). They tell about a class they team-teach, "Religion in American Life and Thought," from two fairly divergent perspectives:

We could not be more different. Mel Seesholtz has a reputation for criticizing the dogma-based sociopolitical agenda of organized religion; Bryan Polk is the chaplain at Abington College. Mel is a James Joyce scholar; Bryan prefers to study Neolithic stone circles in England. Although we both teach English classes, Mel focuses on literature and courses on science, technology, and society; Bryan teaches religious studies and mythology. Mel is a laid-back facilitator of classroom discussions; Bryan is a more formal lecturer. Mel is a vegetarian (heading toward vegan); Bryan is a gourmet cook who enjoys virtually every kind of meat.

The professors describe how their teaching method - of listening to and learning from one another's views - captivates students' attention:

For instance, during a class discussion of the debate over the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, Mel suggested that the phrase turned the pledge into a public prayer. Bryan then opined that, for him, the problem was not with the word "God" but with the word "under," because it privileges faith systems that believe in a masculine, sky, warrior deity. The students immediately picked up the "aha" expression on Mel's face, and his "I never thought of it that way" restarted the dialogue with a different focus.

They boast, "Our classroom has become an arena for the free exchange of ideas in which everyone's opinion is welcomed and respected." A free exchange of ideas sounds wonderfully refreshing...but what about the second half of the sentence - "everyone's opinion is welcomed and respected"? Should everyone's opinion be welcomed and respected? Is that what intellectual diversity means? Hearing different arguments and making no judgments on the merits of any? Or should we, after hearing various sides of the issue, weigh each one's accuracy?

One commenter on the article brought up the problem: "But how the word 'under' can be construed to 'privilege[] faith systems that believe in a masculine, sky, warrior deity' is beyond me. In fact, it's nonsense."

Another commenter rebuked the first one:

What we need are fewer people declaring that the viewpoints of others are "nonsense" and more people learning to disagree in a way that promotes constructive discourse. How about saying that you can't understand this idea or how it could be supported? By admitting that as soon as you read something you disagreed with (i.e., found "nonsensical") you stopped reading, you've demonstrated your unwillingness to "engage in a civil debate."

Still another supported the "nonsense" theory: "I'm certain that calling anything 'nonsense' offends the delicate sensibilities of many in our profession, but a fair amount of what passes for discourse today is nonsensical, narcissistic rambling, unsupported by anything except strong feeling and emotion."

So readers, what do you think? Does the method employed by the two professors in the article stimulate debate or simply proliferate relativism? How should scholars present and evaluate diverging viewpoints? What does it really mean to listen to and learn from different perspectives?

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