Photo credit: Paul Goyette (flickr ID: pgoyette)

Deconstruction is no longer enough

I used to think that my principal job as a scholar and teacher of Buddhist studies was to critique. In my academic training as a medieval historian, I was taught to question master narratives, to debunk mythologies, and to expose hidden social and political forces behind historical events. My research was never expected to connect with present-day concerns. Questions of contemporary relevance and public engagement were mere distractions from the core mission of historical analysis.

When I began teaching, I brought these priorities into my own classroom, and imposed them on my students without questioning them. It was only gradually that I came to wonder whether this was the best approach.

The danger of a critique-only approach can be best illustrated by a story a colleague told me recently at a conference. At the end of an Introduction to Buddhism class, he asked students what the biggest take-away was from the semester. One responded by saying that they had learned that Buddhism was “all about power.” I had a similar experience when a student of mine began a paper with the observation that Buddhism is “primarily a method of social control.”

I can see how a semester of Foucault et al. could lead to these student responses. They are not wrong per se; they are understandable (if reductive) crystallizations of the main themes I and my colleague have, in fact, been emphasizing in class. But are these really the most helpful take-aways from a semester of Buddhist studies? If a student is only going to ever take one course on Buddhism, Asia, or religion more broadly, is this the core message we want them to remember? Most of my students are taking my classes as part of the General Education curriculum, and they will have only a small number of opportunities to be exposed to the humanities throughout their academic careers. Given these constraints, is this the one core message I want them to remember about my class 10, 20, 30 years from now?

You might think so, but I disagree.

At the core of my objection to critique-only teaching is how these critiques might be heard (or misheard) by different groups of students. What if the students who gave the above answers were white fundamentalist Christians? Did I squander a valuable opportunity to help them develop tolerance, empathy, and understanding of other religious traditions? What if one of those students came to a course on Buddhism because they were interested in the potential for mindfulness as part of a treatment plan for his debilitating anxiety? Did my emphasis on deconstructing meditation turn him away from what could be a beneficial life-long practice? Even more horrifying, what if one of the students mentioned above was the daughter of Cambodian refugees whose local temple played a major role in helping them acclimate and find community when they resettled in the US? Did the authoritative professor’s emphasis on deconstructing the power dynamics of Buddhism contribute to the sense of oppression that she has already been experiencing as a member of a marginalized community?

When I think about the question in these terms, it is clear to me that the crux of our work in the ever more diverse American classroom can no longer be simply to add one more example of the scholarly critique of narratives. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting we abandon our critical tools. Scholars must critique, analyze, and scrutinize. It’s what we do; it’s our vital service to society. However, I am proposing that instead of considering our job to be accomplished by simply burning down the metaphorical house, we need to start also sifting through the ashes to find the elements to construct new worlds of possibility for our students.

I am proposing that in the diverse 21st-century classroom, we need to not only deconstruct, but also to construct new narratives. Our narratives can provide purpose and meaning; they can empower and inspire. We need to make clear that humanistic scholarship has an entire toolkit that we can employ in the classroom for the benefit of the widest number of students. Some of those are critical tools, but there are also vital tools for empowerment, empathy, and meaning-making.

In another post I suggest one way that I have brought these tools into my course on American Buddhism. What about you? What tools, narratives, and pedagogical strategies have you employed?