“Experiential Learning” in RELS courses

There has been considerable discussion of late, motivated by Dr. Glass-Coffin’s Shamanism course, on the merits of experiential learning in Religious Studies Courses.  It does not seem to me to be a good idea, and I will here endeavor to explain why.  Click “Continue Reading” to see my account.

I. Educator vs Priest or Education vs Practice

We are not our students ministers and priests.  We are educators and there are limits to that role.  I understand and embrace the ends of liberal education and think that liberal education concerns the “whole person.”  Since spiritual development may also concern the “whole person,” we might think that the lines here are blurry.  But I want to explore what I take to be the essential differences between the two.  The distinction, ultimately, boils down to a distinction between education and practice.

Education is about ideas.  I do not mean this in some abstract or impersonal sense.  Ideas matter; they have existential import.  One need look no further than the course evaluations for various courses in our college (courses, I hasten to add, that do not use experiential learning techniques) to see that this is true.  We should not be surprised to have our students challenged, pushed, and discomforted by some of the ideas they encounter in a university education.  We should not be surprised to see our students grow in intellectual and even moral virtue as a result of their education, nor is it surprising to see students grow in their own spiritual journeys as a result of a university education.  The reason for this is plain enough: Students that are paying attention will note that these ideas involve them in the deepest possible way and that means that education can really change people (as opposed to just filling them up with facts).  Educators, then, play an important role in bringing students into something like an “examined and full life.”

But I would distinguish all of this from what a priest or a minister does.  A person’s priest is directly and immediately invested in their spiritual development and this spiritual development occurs within the context of various religious rituals and practices which are led by the priest/minister.  Now this guided process of spiritual development may well include moral and intellection development as well, but those are indirect ends rather than immediate ones.

The order of priority of ends and the methods are different with the priest as opposed to the educator.  First, the educator has a different immediate end than the priest.  As educators, we are directly and immediately involved in the intellectual development of our students and only indirectly involved with their spiritual and moral development.  I certainly believe that this intellectual development will have (for those students who are paying attention to what they are studying) influence on their moral and spiritual development.  But those influences are, from my point of view, symptomatic; they are indirect roles for the educator rather than direct ones.  Bottom line: Educators are not gurus and we need not be everything to our students.

Regarding method, while there is a kind of “liturgy” to a classroom in some very broad sense, it is a civic and non-sectarian “liturgy.”  Our rituals and practices in the classroom are essentially different that religious rituals and practices.  One difference is that a religious ritual flows out of (a) authority and (b) a community bound together by a shared set of practices and/or beliefs.  A classroom has an entirely different notion of authority and the classroom does not require a shared sets of practices and beliefs beyond basic decorum and fair play.

Thus, the priest and the educator are essentially different in both method and immediate end, even though we might say of both that they are ultimately concerned with the “whole person.”

The concern with the sort of experiential learning Dr. Glass-Coffin is using/proposing is that it appears to require a blurring of this boundary between educator and priest, if not an outright rejection of the distinction (I am thinking in particular of the story she shared of her leading a spirit journey and the student dragon experience which supposedly connected the student to a spiritual dimension).  A shaman is a sacerdote.  If the shamanism course is performative/experiential, then the teacher must be functioning as a sacerdote.  When an experiential teacher in a shamanism class is not being a sacerdote, then the performative/experiential force of the course is lost.

II: Personal Integrity

One of my main reservations about experiential learning concerns the personal integrity of our students.  I am very troubled by the idea that a professor could and should require a student to pray, worship, or bow to something that they do not think it genuinely divine.  I am all for the professor exposing students to ideas.  I am fine with a professor requiring students to observe various rituals.  I am even okay with a professor inviting students to participate (though I worry a bit here about peer pressure and perceived pressure from the professor).  But, in my view, a student might reasonably believe that participating in an experiential RELS course violates their own personal religious integrity.  If that is right, then I have a hard time justifying those practices.

The counter-argument was made in our discussion that since some students get offended just by being exposed to the ideas in our ordinary teaching, that by itself is not a good reason to not allow performative/experiential teaching.  (I know first hand that students get offended by ideas – I had a slow but steady drip of students leaving my class the other day as I pushed hard on the problem of evil as we discussed Job).  But I think there is a difference in kind here, and it is the difference between requiring students to learn and requiring students to worship. Requiring that students be exposed to ideas and such things does not look at all problematic to me.  A student who thinks it is sinful to simply be exposed to ideas other than his own is not going to do well at university.  We might reasonably call such a person “close-minded” or “intolerant.”  But a student who is willing to be exposed to a wide range of ideas, who is open-minded and tolerant, might still find performative requirements (being required to worship in a certain way) to be the sort of thing that violates their own personal integrity.  Refusing to be exposed to challenging ideas does not, to me, look reasonable.  But I think it is reasonable for a student to think a requirement to worship is way beyond the line.  Point is, I think there is a real difference in kind between, say, (a) a philosophy course where ideas are introduced that challenge and discomfort students and (b) a RELS course where students are discomforted because they are required to worship in a manner discordant with the dictates of their own conscience.

Now it may well be true that if students do not participate in certain religious rituals that they cannot then understand that religion as well.  One might have in mind a Kierkegaardian truth is subjectivity / inner experience of religiousity point here.  I am willing to sign on to that claim.  But I don’t think this limitation justifies requiring students to worship in a way that violates their own personal religious integrity.

I have tried to make this “personal integrity” point with the use of reductio ad absurdum arguments, though I am not sure this has been particularly effective.  I’ll try once more.  Here is the basic idea: Taken to its logical conclusion, if you cannot fully understand X without practicing X (and I would argue that this claim could be made of all or nearly all religions), then teaching a course on Christianity would require that they be baptized and take the Eucharist, etc. But this looks obviously absurd and unacceptable, so the principle which allows it must be wrong-headed.  The counter-argument to these was that the shamanism course has been made “metaphysically neutral” and students are free to pray to whatever they want (though they must do so within the defined shaman rituals).  I remain unpersuaded that shamanism in particular here, or really any religious ritual generally, can be so gutted of metaphysical content.  In fact, I think there is loads of metaphysical content in the course and in the rituals.

III: Program Perception Concerns

I might also add that there is a programmatic concern here.  As we know from the recent Redd chair decisions, one of the primary aims of our RELS program is to expose as many students as we can to the study of world religions in the hopes of broadening our students capacity to engage in a global world.  While I am sure some students are enjoying the experiential learning in Dr. Glass-Coffin’s class, my guess is that this is not a recipe for wide appeal.  How many of our students here at USU are going to be willing to study religion in a way that many will perceive as requiring violations of personal religious integrity?  Are we helping our students when we make RELS courses less attractive to them?  What of the perception issue if the perception (if not reality) is that RELS courses are akin to religious services?  I think we would all agree that we need to tread particularly lightly here at this campus and in this state.

If any of that is persuasive, it calls into question the very practice of experiential learning in a RELS course.


About Kleiner

Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
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