One may explain water, but the mouth will not become wet.
One may expound fully on the nature of fire, but the mouth
will not become hot. Without touching real water and real
fire, one will not know these things.
Zen painter and tea master Takuan Soho (1573-1645)
Social science is about ourselves and what we do every day.
The classroom itself is a social space, in which authority,
power, and status games unfold between instructor and students,
and among students. The teaching of social science nevertheless
tends to be highly abstract and impersonal, with relatively
little grounding in the observed and lived experiences of
the instructor or students. Although social theories generally
begin with subjective introspection on the part of the theorist,
they are presented as facts in the classroom. Students are
presumed to lack relevant ideas or experience of their own,
and are reduced to passive note-takers and copyists. What
counts is not the students' ability to relate theories to
observed reality, but their capacity for hagiography. Contemporary
social science programs thereby retain much of the authoritarian,
hierarchical, and antiseptic intellectual dynamics of medieval
The distancing of instruction from the personal experiences
of both students and instructors, or "objectification"
of social science, deprives social theory of relevance, significance,
the ability to motivate students, and the benefit of real-life
observations which may contradict the relatively abstract
propositions found in textbooks. It also tends to obscure
the boundary between empirical and normative propositions,
disguising value-laden theories as factual while dismissing
students' own feelings and experiences as ignorant and emotional.
Why Teach? | We believe that the goal of post-secondary
education should be, at a minimum, to develop students' independent,
critical-thinking skills: their independence from authority
and dogma. Intellectual independence grounded in curiosity,
skepticism, and empiricism is the foundation of science. It
is also a condition of meaningful democracy. A first step
is building students' intellectual self-confidence, by encouraging
them to strengthen their practical understanding of the social
processes in which they participate directly.
Children [should] learn that they have a responsibility
for finding the best alternatives to a series of difficult
problems, problems that they themselves help to pose. The
process of stating the problem, finding reasonable alternatives,
and implementing what seems to be the best alternative is
education, in contrast to the present process of blindly obeying
(or breaking) rules and unthinkingly echoing back right (or
wrong) answers to questions raised by others. As long as the
certainty principle dominates our educational system, we will
not teach our children to think. Memory is not education,
answers are not knowledge. Certainty and memory are the enemies
of thinking, the destroyers of creativity and originality.
(William Glasser 1969: 38).
Unfortunately, social-science pedagogy is designed to have
exactly the opposite effect. Students are discouraged from
questioning the assumptions which underlie social theoriessuch
as the assumption that humans are "rational"or
from indicating that a theory seems to be inconsistent with
their own experiences. Students who challenge the assumptions
or empirical "fit" of social theories frequently
encounter silence or hostility, because they have challenged
the authority of the instructor and of the theorist. Students
thereby learn to separate school-knowledge from life-knowledge,
and to accept as normal that the two should be incompatible.
Theories attempt to reduce a complex social world to relatively
simple assertions of cause and effect. Most social theories
are consistent with some empirical evidence but have not been
tested systematically across a wide spectrum of cultures,
countries, and social classes. Serious questions have been
raised as to whether human culture can ever be understood
"scientifically" in the same way or to the same
extent that we understand electrodynamics or molecular biology
(O'Meara 1997; Feynman 1998). At the very least, we must be
candid with students about the limitations of our knowledge:
while endowed with vast accumulations of data, we continue
to repeat many of the theoretical debates that preoccupied
the Stoics and Confucians two millennia ago. Knowing what
theorists have said in the past is different from knowing
how people behave, furthermore, and distinguishing between
theory and observations is central to science. One way of
helping students appreciate the role of theory (as an attempt
to explain rather than to supercede observations) is to have
them compare theories with their own experiences.
Classroom as Laboratory | Students often do have experiences
with the topic under study, and they tend to be drawn to particular
social science courses because of their experiences. Students
should be regarded as important resources and fellow-explorers,
rather than passive receptacles of extant data and theories.
We teach in a small Canadian Prairie city where there has
been a significant level of racial violence, much of it gang-related,
which for the most part has gone officially unacknowledged.
One of us teaches at the regional university, with classes
divided about equally between Native American students from
nearby Indian reserves and non-Native students from nearby
small towns and farmshistorically hostile communities.
The other teaches at a tribally controlled community college
with older Native students who have school-age children of
their own. Violence and domination are on everyone's minds,
yet most students have learned to mask their feelings. Fear
and anger are thinly veiled in class discussions, behind talk
about "them" and "those people." Our interest
in teaching about violence grew from this experience.
Our teaching environment is not unique. In a recent test
of our approach at an Ivy League campus with ostensibly privileged,
considerably younger students, we found that nearly everyone
had experienced violence as direct participants, as witnesses
to violence committed against close friends, or second-hand,
through their relationship with a victim who was either a
close family member or an intimate friend:
Two other students reported being affected by sudden senseless
deaths of family members. The most severely traumatic experiences
ranged from the repeated rape of a student's sister by a schoolteacher,
to patricide by an intoxicated family member, to the painful
death of a best friend from "friendly fire" in combat.
Reported second-hand effects included emotional alienation,
failed relationships, and self-destructiveness. More than
half of the students indicated that they were continuing to
struggle with self-doubt, depression, fear, or anger within
themselves and in the context of intimate relationships.
Students with histories of violence and victimization may
be attracted to courses on violence, but this possibility
strengthens our belief that courses about violence should
address the experiences and feelings of those students who
have witnessed violence and suffered from its after-effects.
In addition, instructors should reflect on the reasons they
are attracted to the study of violence. Reflecting on our
own experiences with violence helps us locate points of contact
with the experiences of our students and forces us to confront
our own subjectivity.
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