Students Share the Burden of Education, by David W. Montgomery

The priorities of the university are changing and these changes put at risk one critical dimension of the university’s role in society as a place of reflective (self-) learning. Much has been written about the marketization of education and the trend toward running universities as businesses concerned with efficiencies and bottom lines,[1] pushed even further by recent proposals of the Obama administration to rank universities by the “value” they provide.[2] What it means for students to receive a “well-rounded” education is increasingly constrained by economic pressures and the politically biased devaluing of certain fields of learning. We see this in Florida Governor Rick Scott’s statement deriding the value of anthropology[3] and the University of Pittsburgh’s decision to cut programs in classics, German, and religious studies due to declining enrollment.[4] The shifting of resources toward STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) classes is representative of the changing university.

It can be persuasively argued that disciplines such as those listed above, and humanities and social sciences in general, are essential to teach students the intellectual rigor that will best enable them to meet the future’s unknown needs with flexibility.[5] But even in a consumer-driven society where service providers readily respond to customer demands, students must see themselves as sharing the burden of schooling if they are to receive anything resembling a well-rounded education.

The imperative for students to view themselves as actors in their own education can be seen in a recent petition by the University of Pittsburgh’s Muslim Student Association (MSA). The petition protests the cancelling of four classes on Islam for the fall 2014 academic term.[6] One of the classes mentioned, Anthropology of Islam, is a class that I have taught at the university for the last five years, the last four of which have been in the spring term. Regardless of whether the course is taught again, there is some validity to the ideals of the MSA’s petition. The University of Pittsburgh is a major research university that is decidedly weak in the area of Islam. While I fully believe resources should be directed to increase opportunities for learning about Islam, the way in which the university “values” its resources is influenced by the students themselves.

The MSA petition emphasizes the importance for students of the opportunity to learn about Islam, the religion of 1.6 billion people in the world. Yet in the last five years I have regularly taught Anthropology of Islam, which has had an enrollment cap of 40 to 50 students, at half capacity. Very few Muslims have taken the course—in some years one or two, in some years none—and there has never been noticeable participation by students from the MSA. Regardless of the priorities of the university, basic economic theory suggests that a real demand by students for classes on Islam would make the provost and others more inclined to increase funding for such classes.

When I taught introductory courses on religion in the past, it was the case that students invariably performed worse on the exams that covered the religious tradition with which they identified. This makes sense, for having grown up in a particular tradition, one generalizes the familiarity with that religion without appreciating the diversity, historical controversy, and more doctrinal explanations of its rituals and beliefs. We think we know about our own beliefs and want others to learn about them so that they understand us better. The problem is that the corollary assumption does not hold: having others learn about our religious tradition does not in any way guarantee that we know about ourselves.

I support the MSA’s call for people to learn about Islam. But I wish to push them further: classes on Islam should also be filled with Muslim and non-Muslim students seeking to understand the diverse ways in which different religions provide frameworks for morally engaging with the world, ways intended to overcome the banality of misunderstanding. A rounded education is one that not only teaches the skills of a bureaucrat but also imparts a way of thinking that facilitates the ability to make morally engaged judgments. Though they are not taught with this end exclusively in mind, the humanities and social sciences should be seen as applied disciplines that prepare not only for work but also for life.

Students should learn about others’ traditions as well as their own, for what they will discover is that the assumptions and beliefs they hold will be challenged. And it is in preparation for such challenges that the university should engage its students. As concerned as we may be about our place in the world, we must also realize that the responsibility of education is not simply for others to learn about us, or even for us to learn about others, but also for us to learn about ourselves. Understanding is, after all, appreciating the difference of the other and recognizing the prejudices that keep us from seeing those differences as something—even when uncomfortable—to be tolerated.

David W. Montgomery (ISSRPL 2003) is CEDAR Director of Program Development and Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.


References

[1] See Kendzior, Sarah. 2014. “College Is a Promise the Economy Does Not Keep.” Al-Jazeera, May 14.Available at http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/05/college-promise-economy-does-no-201451411124734124.html, last accessed July 24, 2014.

[2] See Shear, Michael D. 2014. “Colleges Rattled as Obama Seeks Rating System.” New York Times, May 25, A1.

[3] Anderson, Zac. 2011. “Rick Scott Wants to Shift University Funding Away from Some Degrees.” Herald-Tribune. October 10. Available at http://politics.heraldtribune.com/2011/10/10/rick-scott-wants-to-shift-university-funding-away-from-some-majors/, last accessed July 24, 2014. For a response to Gov. Scott, see Gomberg-Muñoz, Ruth. 2013. “2012 Public Anthropology Year in Review: Actually, Rick, Florida Could Use a Few More Anthropologists.” American Anthropologist 115 (2):286-296.

[4] The memorandum announcing these cuts is available at http://www.provost.pitt.edu/announcements/01-30-2014.html, last accessed July 24, 2014.

[5] Roth, Michael S. 2014. Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[6] Petition available at http://www.change.org/petitions/dr-patricia-beeson-offer-courses-about-islamic-thought-and-history, last accessed July 24, 2014.

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