Friday, July 25, 2008

Difficult Socratic Dialogues

It appears that things have changed in Plato scholarship during the quarter century that has elapsed since I was trained as an undergraduate in philosophy and classical languages and, consequently, a book that I cannot recommend enough is Gerald A. Press, Plato: A Guide for the Perplexed, New York: Continuum, 2007.

What Press offers is a nuanced understanding of the philosophical project of Plato and his mentor. According to Press, Plato invented a particular mode of public inquiry (dialogue) that "evades what might be the reader's wish to be told the answer authoritatively, but at the same time and by evading this wish for intellectual dependence, [Plato] provokes the reader to philosophize" (p. 206). "Provocation," says Press, "not demonstration, is the Socratic mission of the dialogues" (ibid).

This is a dangerous mission, particularly in an intellectual climate where some students claim the "right" to be "educated" in a manner that does not offend them in any way. How is it possible to be constructively provocative? And how can both students and faculty learn to disagree without becoming themselves disagreeable?

If Press is right about Plato, Socrates and his school anticipated Marshall McLuhan's notion that the "medium is the message" and were far more concerned with the process by which dialogue was undertaken than with the conclusions that dialogue produces. That process amounted to Socratic pedagogy and was provocative of independent and often inconclusive thought: a kind of "open-ended" provocation that may be the most effective answer to students who complain that their professors are more concerned with "indoctrinating" them with a particular political or religious point of view than with "teaching" them a given subject.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The "Right" Not to be Offended?

Check out this article in today's Chronicle of Higher Education.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

2008 Carolina Summer Reading Program: A Place To Practice Your "DDI Chops"

This year, incoming students who participate in the Carolina Summer Reading Program will be discussing Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino, Professor of Law at Yale University School of Law.

The book fits well with the topics that I have been considering in this blog as a way to supplement CFE's Teaching for Inclusion manual. Peter A. Coclanis, Chair of the Carolina Summer Reading Program Committee and Albert R. Newsome Professor of History writes that:

In Covering, Yoshino deftly blends autobiography and legal reasoning to make a case for the profound importance of individualism, autonomy, and self-expression in our conceptualization of civil and political rights. By introducing sociologist Erving Goffman's notion of "covering" — how people are formally or informally coerced into toning down stigmatized identities, even when such identities are known — into the legal lexicon, Yoshino has both broadened and calibrated more finely the way we think and talk about identity politics and civil rights.

Yoshino, who is Japanese-American and gay, draws much on his own identity markers in Covering, but the overall thesis is applicable to any and all people whose identities, for one reason or another, are subject to stigma and who, as a result, are prone to "covering" behaviors. In Yoshino's view, such behaviors — based on differences in race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability status, etc. — are not only harmful psychologically to those forced to cover, but also morally impoverishing to socially-dominant groups, and threatening to the civil rights of us all. In calling for broad social acceptance of individuality and self-expression, Yoshino challenges us to think more clearly about who we are and about what constitutes true equality, social justice, and human dignity.


It will be interesting to see what sort of conversations take place among students and faculty around this book. Will readers of this book accept the definition of personal identity that underlies the author's arguments, or will they interrogate Yoshino's assumptions further? Developing the skills to encourage such discussions is one of the main objectives of the Difficult Dialogues Initiative.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Edward Scissorhands

This may seem to be a rather odd place to read about Tim Burton's 1990 film Edward Scissorhands, but I recently screened the film for my children (ages 9 and 7) and (re-)discovered how the story can generate conversations about sameness and difference and the contradictory ways in which people who are perceived to be different from others may fare in social interaction.

For those who haven't seen the film, it is a darkly comedic fairy-tale. Edward (played by the actor Johnny Depp, pictured in character at left) is the creation of a genius inventor/mad scientist who drops dead of a heart attack before he can put the finishing touches on his invention. Consequently, instead of actual hands, Edward is left with sharp and unwieldy shears at the end of his arms (hence, his unusual if descriptive name). Despite his rather bizarre appearance, Edward is a sweet and gentle soul who is adopted by a stereotypical white suburban family who live in a stereotypical white suburban neighborhood (circa late 1950's, early 1960's). The busy-body neighbors of the adopting family (the Bogs) are curious about Edward at first, then charmed by him; ultimately, however, they find him frightening and a threat. At that point, a mob-mentality takes over and violence ensues...

A film such as Edward Scissorhands can be very useful where "Teaching for Inclusion" is concerned, because the characters in the film are complex enough that people can relate to them without necessarily identifying with them. In this way, the film affords the viewer critical distance: a relatively non-threatening space in which to confront questions of identity and difference--the stuff of which many contemporary difficult dialogues are made.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

ON THE WEB: Potential Resources for Interested Faculty

For the past decade, the Society for Values in Higher Education (SVHE) has advocated that colleges and universities come to understand themselves as training grounds for "deliberative democracy"--equipping students to participate effectively in democratic institutions. SVHE's "Democracy Project" was initiated in 1999 to "examine models of deliberative democracy and higher education's capacity to engage" them.

Faculty with a particular interest in aspects of religion and public life and the "difficult dialogues" that take place around them may wish to explore SVHE's web site.

Another potential resource is the Teagle Foundation. This Foundation is dedicated to "strengthening liberal education" by supporting projects that will, again, train 21st century college students to participate effectively in an open society and in democratic institutions.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Faith in the Classroom

Miriam Rosalyn Diamond has edited a collection of essays designed to help faculty prepare themselves to "turn" potentially difficult discussions that may touch upon students' deeply held religious convictions into "constructive engagement."

The book's title is Encountering Faith in the Classroom and it was published by Stylus Publishing, LLC. in Sterling, Va. (2008). The editor is a faculty developer and coordinator of the Society for Values in Higher Education's Religion and Public Life Project.

Many of the authors of the essays collected in this volume are seasoned teachers and all share an abiding concern with the problems and possibilities that religious commitments bring to non-religious educational settings.

Because this book is a collection of essays rather than a monograph, it encourages selective reading. There is, for example, an essay written by a Professor of Law at Northwestern on the "role of religion and spirituality" in the law school classroom. There is another essay on the "science vs. religion" conflict. Other essays address potential legal issues that may arise when religion enters the discussion in public education, the potential for service learning to be a way for students to explore religious issues in the context of their secular education, undergraduate versus graduate students and the role of religion in the classroom, an African-American perspective of religion's role in education, and an exploration of the perspective of a religious fundamentalist.

For faculty who wish to see how specific difficult dialogues may be addressed, or how they may be addressed in a particular context, this book may be just the ticket.

Friday, July 11, 2008

More Resources for Difficult Dialogues at the CFE

Lynn Davies, Educating Against Extremism, Stoke on Trent,UK: Trentham Books, 2008.

The author is Professor of International Education at the Centre for International Education and Research, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, England.

Her book proposes an educational strategy that differs from the prevailing "conventional tolerant multiculturalism" which, she feels, is inadequate for addressing the root causes of "extremism" among 21st century disaffected youth (i.e., those most likely to be attracted to extremist movements and organizations).

Her strategy takes into account the fact that global communications technologies allow extremist organizations to recruit young people and to organize outside of educational institutions. In other words, it recognizes that schools have been "cut out of the loop" where contemporary disaffected youth are concerned.

What Davies wishes to do is to make educational institutions relevant to the political thinking of young people. The way to accomplish this objective is to offer young people a political (i.e., politicizing) education--yet one that avoids the uncritical inculcation of single truths.

Such an education must make a secure place for alternative ways of thinking and ambiguity. Davies argues for the centrality of political education, media education, "active citizenship education" (taking the mandate in public education for "civics" courses seriously), critical and comparative religious education: all of which affirm "human rights" as a universal value.

And underlying the educational process is a belief that a strong civil society is one that encourages critique but not without equipping citizens with the skills and dispositions to engage in critical discourse without resort to violence.

Topics discussed in the book include:
  • The nature of extremism and its relationship to myths and myth-making
  • The role of identity in radicalization
  • The role of faith-based schooling and segregation in radicalization
  • The concepts of Justice, Honor, and Revenge
  • Free speech, satire and offensive humor
  • Critical thinking and what the author terms "critical idealism."