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The Cardus Daily

An intellectual demilitarized zone

Alissa Wilkinson  |  May 16, 2011  |  Education

The semester has just ended for me, and final grades are almost in. So I’ve been reflecting back over my classroom experiences in the last year, and thinking about how I can make them better for the students next year. Though I teach at a Christian college, my students come from all over the religious spectrum, and since I often teach first- and second-year students, helping them to form good classroom discussion habits is vital. Though they are undergrads, I like to get them used to thinking through ideas aloud, instead of telling them what to think.

In reading Alan Jacobs’ essay titled “Leon Kass and the Genesis of Wisdom,” I ran across this useful bit of advice for framing how I think about my classroom discussions:

. . . the seminar room occupies an intellectual demilitarized zone, where the text is confronted, wrestled with, puzzled over; where interpretations are offered, perhaps tentatively or provisionally, then debated, revised, withdrawn, or renewed. In such an environment it is vital that such texts not be explored as though understanding them is a matter of life and death; and while people of passionate commitment (to faith or unbelief) may often be frustrated by such a deliberate lowering of the interpretive stakes—certainly I have often experienced that frustration—environments that encourage such detachment are socially beneficial. There need to be discursive spaces in our society (spaces that, when functioning properly, can constitute a healthy and vibrant “public sphere”) where matters even of eternal life and death can be considered as though they were not quite that important. This is another way of saying that the Enlightenment project is not without value, even if it is deeply flawed and has never been well realized.

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