Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Funny Thing Happened in My Class Forum...

A funny thing happened to me in my class forums last week. I presently teach part-time at two colleges: a small state college and a somewhat prestigious private technical institute in the "great" state of New York. In the first week of class I have each class I teach watch Louis Theroux's documentary "The Most Hated Family in the America" (1 April 2007, BBC 2).

In the "Most Hated Family" BBC documentarist Louis Theroux and his crew travel to Topeka, Kansas to spend three weeks with the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, the Calvinist church that believes it and only it interprets the Bible correctly and that America has fallen from its covenant with God due to its "fag enabling" and is now being punished by God though deaths associated with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Louis, who has spent many a "weird weekend" in the US with groups ranging from white supremicists in Idaho to Southern wrestlers, to fundamentalist dispensationalists in Dallas, has described Westboro members in an interview with BBC News as the "most extreme people he has ever met, quite a statement for someone who has, as I mentioned above, spent a lot of time with American extremists. Louis would spend three weeks with the Westboro Baptist Church and return for another visit with church members several years, a visit which also resulted in another documentary on the church, "America's Most Hated Family in Crisis" which aired on BBC 2 on 3 April 2011.

I show my students "The Most Hated Family in America" because I want them to understand cultural history, how culture can be brought to bear in order to understand human life, human society, and human culture, all of the things that constitute history, and how most humans, through culture and ideology, create their own reality. I also show it to students because I want to teach students how social scientists and practitioners of the humanities even, when faced with a group like the "most hated family in America" need to check, at least initially, their ideologies and prejudices at the door in order to understand a group like the Westboro Baptist Church as they understand themselves, Clifford Geertz's going native.

Many students, just like Louis Theroux, have a difficult time doing this. For most students their initial reaction, like Louis and most of Louis's viewers one presumes, is that they hate these people and that the Westboro Baptist Church is a church of brainwashed cultists, something Louis asks one of the leaders of the church Shirley Phelps point blank. One of the differences between the reactions of my American students to Westboro as opposed to those Brits who watched Louis's documentary is, I suspect, that many Brits see Westboro as yet another example of the idiocy of Americans.

One of the problems with students describing Westboro Baptist Church as a "cult" is that few of them know what a "cult" is in sociological discourse. For most of them a "cult" is something to be feared, something to be hated, something to be made fun of, something that brainwashes. They use the term "cult", in other words, in the same way that most newspapers use it, sensationally. It is difficult if not impossible for most of my students to escape this normative and ideological use of the term "cult".

Scholars have tried to escape this prison house of ideology. Sociologists, for instance, have developed a more descriptive typology of religious groups: church, denomination, sect, and cult. A church is a religious body that has a monopoly on religion in a particular environment such as the Catholic Church in Mediaeval Europe and Wahhabi Islam in Saudi Arabia. A denomination is a religious group that exists in a pluralistic religious environment though there may be an ideological perspective in which some denominations are labelled "mainstream" such as Baptists, Methodists, Disciples of Christ, Roman Catholicism, and Orthodox Christianity in the contemporary US, while others are not such as the Hutterites and the Amish. A cult is a new religious movement or an old religious movement in a new religious economy or environment such as the Unification Church and Buddhism in the US. A sect is a religious body that originates out of a church or denomination in the hope of returning their religion to the way it was in the good old primitive days by purifying it of the perceived accretions that have become a part of it since its origins. In this typolological schema the Westboro Baptist Church is clearly a sect rather than a cult since Westboro is a primitive Baptist and Calvinist Church that believes that it and only it is teaching the Bible as God and Jesus intended.

When I told all this to my students the reactions were fascinating at least to me. My private school students in my War in Afghanistan class, or at least some of them were able to generalise from Westboro to the Taliban in Afghanistan recognising that Mullah Omar's Afghan Taliban are a sect given that they believe they are attempting to purify Islam of the post-Mohammadian elements that are perceived as having entered the religion in the wake of the death of the prophet Muhammad. My public school students in my Comparative Modern History course weren't able to do this or at least they didn't seem able to do so. And it is this, this literalism of far too many of my students, this inability of far too many of my students to engage in systematic analysis, and this tendency of far too many of my students to be unable to make connections, which is, in my opinion at the heart of the problems associated with education and learning today and which raises questions about what students are learning or not learning in the US before they come to college and whether everyone should be forced to partake or are qualified to partake in a liberal arts education. I am also, by the way, concerned that transformations in our communications forms are manufacturing young people who are not particularly interested in reading much more than a text message and can't comprehend messages they read which are longer than a text message. But hey, its simply easier for politicians, pundits, and parents (no mote in their eyes right?) to blame teachers, teachers who work basically 24-7, for the problems of youth isn't it?

Interestingly, this literalism and this inability to make connections is not only a problem among students. Many historians, given their historical aversion to theory, often fall into the same trap as many of my students. This aversion to theory and typologies generated out of theory is, in my opinion, one of the fundamental flaws and one of the fundamental problems with the historical profession itself and is why, on one level, I find the historical profession to be the most dismal of academic disciplines. Wish it were that more historians would replicate the work of their celebrities and grasp that theory, sociology, and cultural anthropology could and can add to our understanding of human life, human society, and human culture. This understanding of human life, human society, and human culture, at least in my not so humble opinion, should be and must be what history is about. The only way we can fully grasp human history is by ridding the historical discipline itself of its aversion to theory, its tendency to write history narrative without theory, and its nefarious tendency to teach history via little nationalistic boxes replicating, in the process, even if not intentionally, nationalist ideologies of exceptionalism.

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