Fostering Holy Discontent and Re-creative Resistance: Towards a Virtù-esque Religious Pedagogy

A Response to Alexander Hanan’s Reimaging Liberal Education

Jennifer Lewis is a third year PhD student in Practical Theology at the School of Theology. In this CPT Today post, we highlight some of Lewis’s scholarship on religious education. 

Alexander Hanan, in Reimagining Liberal Education, argues for an understanding of education that acknowledges and embraces its role in shaping the beliefs and ideas that inform persons’ actions in the world. Education, Hanan underscores, is always an agent of ethics; to suggest otherwise is to appeal to notions of neutrality that no longer stand in the face of critical theory(ies) and philosophy. Given its ethical orientation, Hanan proposes that liberal education today take up a “pedagogy of difference” that initiates persons into the moral vision and virtues of particular traditions while also tutoring them in “civic virtues” necessary for practicing democratic citizenship in a pluralistic society (161). Yet what are such virtues, and how “good” might they be? In the following, I briefly introduce Hanan’s basic understanding of education, problematize his argument for a pedagogy of difference based on virtue theory, examine the possibilities for a critical pedagogy for democracy, and conclude by pointing towards what I see as a more ethical and “virtù-esque” pedagogy. 

To begin, then, Hanan understands education as involving “initiation into communities in pursuit of worthwhile knowledge (141).” Such a definition assumes that one holds to a conception of what is “worth knowing” and, therefore, a “concept of the good life,” since one’s vision of the good invariably shapes one’s conceptions of “worthwhile knowledge” (141). A pedagogy of difference, it follows, seeks to introduce learners into the particular concepts of “the good” that belong to their religio-cultural traditions while helping them develop the autonomy and “moral intelligence” to judge between and respect other ways of life (3). 

Hanan’s basic concept of education rests on three assumptions. The first is that reason is never neutral. All inquiry, for Hanan, is situated, guided by and pulled towards, in part, by one’s vision of the “good life”, of the life “worth living”, which itself is rooted in a set of values and beliefs. In other words, there is no disinterested mode of inquiry, which means that education is always an education in values, an education in ethics. Hanan’s second assumption builds on the fallacy of objectivity. Given the non-neutrality of all reasoning, Hanan assumes that education for life in pluralistic societies requires literacy in “thick” traditions, namely “robust and detailed cultural narratives, symbols, and artifacts that reflect the complexities and perplexities of real life…” (158). Such an education into particular traditions presumably equips persons to better exercise autonomy and agency – namely, self-determination, self-expression, and self-evaluation – because it enables them to develop the “moral intelligence” needed for evaluating between ways of life (159) in the absence of a “common rationality that can serve as a neutral meeting ground” (135). This leads to Hanan’s final assumption: namely, that making evaluative judgements and exercising critique first requires that one possess “strong subjectivity”, by which he means “second-order desires” about who one desires to be (135). By educating persons in “thick” traditions that possess “strong” values, they can develop a “sense of responsibility and accountability” that, in turn, helps them discern the kind of persons they want to be (159).

The problem with Hanan’s argument is that “cultivating the authentic self that democracy requires” requires an interrogation of the traditions – political and religio-cultural – upon which democracy and one’s traditions depend. In other words, a person cannot practice “authenticity” nor democracy unless she is also asking questions about the non-neutral assumptions, values, and visions that have informed the political and religious/moral virtues she is supposed to cultivate. It is somewhat ironic, given Hanan’s emphasis on the non-neturality of all reasoning, that he fails to recognize the non-neutrality of notions of “character and virtue” (c.f. 167-168). “Goodness”, like reason, is always particular, but its particularity does not mean it is “good.” Hanan’s affirmation of “expansive” character education completely bypasses the non-neutrality of political and religious/moral “virtues,” which have been and continue to be deployed in ways that suppress autonomy, encourage civility and consensus in place of conflict, and stifle creativity and human potentiality (such has been the case with women and minorities). Contra Hanan, then, I would argue that any education for democratic engagement today must not make a “virtue” of assuming the goodness or uniformity of “virtues.” On the contrary, we must make a virtue of “virtù”: namely, the practice of continually contesting, questioning, intervening and augmenting traditions and discourses, with a view to enhancing political and particular – particularly religious – life.   

Critical pedagogy is particularly necessary in this regard, though Hanan’s critique of critical pedagogy caricatures its educational intentions. Critical pedagogues, contra Hanan, do not seek to indoctrinate persons into a “new ideology of liberation or exposed hegemonic discourse (152).” Rather, critical pedagogy seeks to tutor learners in a practice of critique and attentiveness to power, inequality, and domination in order to create the possibility for choice. In other words, critical pedagogy takes for granted that persons enter into the educational process with value-systems and narratives about human flourishing, good and bad, right and wrong. Learners may or may not be aware of these value-systems and narratives, and some may have more sedimented moral assumptions than others. At the same time, critical pedagogy assumes that it is not possible to enter public education or any educational process without some working narrative of reality. Given this, the aim of education is not to tutor persons in a particular set of “civic”, cultural, or religious values but to equip them to recognize the gaps, silences, and oppressive potentiality of all discourses in order that they can re-cognize – namely, re-narrate, re-commit to, or re-conceive of – the traditions, narratives, and values they hold dear. Such a pedagogy employs a “hermeneutics of suspicion” for the sake of empowering persons to more fully authenticate, choose, and thus possess and express the criteria upon which they discern how they want to live in the world. In this sense, critical pedagogy fulfills all three criteria of human agency Hanan describes: “self-determination, self-expression, and self-evaluation” (142). 

Of course, Hanan argues conversely. Yet, the reason, in part, that Hanan reaches the opposite conclusion – namely, that critical pedagogy suppresses the above elements of human agency – is that he creates a false dichotomy between critical pedagogy’s emphasis on conscientization and the interests of a “particular child” (153). He argues, 

By advocating that children ought to be liberated from or made conscious of hegemonic culture in order to serve ideological interests or new discourses they may not necessarily embrace, radical curriculum theory employs such terms as ideology and discourse in an amoral sense; and since all truths and values are relative to class, culture, race, or gender…there is no way to assess whether the interests of a particular child…are in fact being served by this new ideology of liberation or exposed hegemonic discourse (153). 

One of the several problems with this sentence – and Hanan’s larger dismissal of critical pedagogy – is that it inaccurately conceptualizes what critical pedagogy seeks to do. Critical pedagogy is not interested in co-opting learners’ agency to “serve ideological interests or new discourses” nor does it uniformly aim to dismantle all narratives so that people can live value-free, or, conversely, take up values that do not align with their personal commitments or beliefs. On the contrary, the practices of questioning and exposing allow for the un-covering of aspects of domination and exploitation in cultures, traditions, and modes of education and thus serve as tools by which one can make more conscious choices, imagine alternative ways of living, and develop one’s own value, whether those of one’s “tradition of origin” or other sources. In this sense, critical pedagogy, while it prioritizes un-covering the incongruities and power dynamics at play in our discourses, dismantles for the purpose of re-mantling, though in ways that are partial and preliminary rather than universalistic. 

In sum, Hanan’s argument that critical pedagogy indoctrinates and therefore undermines human agency does not make any sense. Yes, critical pedagogy makes normative assumptions about the “good life”, particularly as it connects to “liberation”, by which most mean conscientization and empowerment for choice and action. Yet, I imagine many would, much like feminist pedagogues, happily “own” the subjective and normative impulses of their educational philosophy, especially given that one can only fully embrace agency if she is aware of the circumstances that condition her actions or knowledge. In fact, it is ironic that critical pedagogy’s practice of critique and exposure, which are inextricably tied to its assumptions about “the good life” – namely, that persons can and ought to be able to choose ways of life that do not lead to the silencing and oppression of other ways of life – aligns with the assumptions that energize Hanan’s work.

That said, I resonate – to a degree – with Hanan’s fear that “radical curriculum” does not sufficiently help students challenge, affirm, extend, or even realize the values and moral assumptions that shape their identities and inform their choices. In prioritizing the work of unveiling elements of inequality, oppression, and erasures in dominant discourses, critical pedagogies often leave little room for the self-reflection and re-constructions of moral values that are not only necessary for living in a pluralistic world but also invariably influence one’s perceptions and actions, whether one concedes to it or not. Moreover, many versions of critical education exhibit a tendency to dismiss certain narratives, traditions, and cultural practices as fundamentally opposed to the project of liberation, especially those institutionalized and majority religious traditions. The problem with this, besides the obvious overgeneralization, is that critical pedagogy often dismisses such traditions without 1) attending to the particularity and plurality of religious praxis and 2) recognizing that the multiplicity, tensions, and conflicting discourses and resistances within such traditions are sources of its vitality and catalysts for its augmentation.

Yet, I do not think Hanan’s proposal – a “pedagogy of difference” that cultivates “intelligent spirituality” for the sake of “peaceful co-existence – fully addresses either of the above issues while also cultivating the kind of critical self and communal attentiveness to issues of domination and manipulation in traditions, cultures, and politics that obstruct freedom. I also think that Hanan’s approach leads to a more passive orientation towards public life than is necessary for democracy’s preservation. Rather than equipping learners to influence and re-shape the relations and institutions that shape life in a pluralistic world, Hanan’s approach valorizes “peaceful co-existence” without clarifying what such peace looks like and on whose terms. 

So where does this leave us? If we take Hanan’s claim seriously – that education is an agent of ethics – while rejecting his pedagogy of difference, then what kind of religious education can best equip persons to lead “ethical” lives? Building on Bonnie Honig’s notion of virtù politics, which encourages person to seeks out the silence, gaps, fissures, resistances, and “unruly elements” of private and public narratives and values with the purpose of augmenting and re-birthing them, I argue for a pedagogy of “holy discontent and re-creative resistance” that bring together practices of unknowing and re-creating reflected in the apophatic and kataphatic modes of the contemplative life. Specifically, such a pedagogy would connect Nietzsche’s call for “self-responsibility” and Arendt’s notions of “action” and “authority” – two vital practices for political life – with two contemplative modes of religious learning – apophaticism and kataphaticism – with the aim of equipping persons for continually resisting and re-creating notions of “virtue” in both the religious and public realm. Cycles of remembering, unknowing, resisting, disrupting, undoing – the apophatic – would be paired with practices of re-cognizing, re-constructing, re-creating, and cultivating response-ability – the kataphatic – in order to advance the self-responsibility, action, and authority characteristic of virtù politics. Thus rather than cultivate classical and “civic” virtues, such a pedagogy would tutor learners in postures – agrupnia, aphobia, humility, holy listening, holy indifference, and holy foolishness – that simultaneously equip them to seek out “fissures” and “silences” in public life, theological narratives, and self, while also providing them the self-reflection and communal affirmations, for re-birthing them and the virtues that can re-vitalize the public and religious realms.

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