Grounded, Experiential Teaching about Violence
Russel Lawrence Barsh and Chantelle Marlor
Barsh is Associate Professor of Native American Studies, University of Lethbridge and an HFG Grantee. Marlor is a graduate student in sociology at the University of British Columbia.
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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 seminaries.

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 theories—such 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 farms—historically 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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