Upton Sinclair once quipped, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Rod Dreher—channeling a recent lecture by Joshua Gibbs—has outlined “the problem with worldview education.” As one who gets a paycheck from providing such an education, I’m aware that I’m not approaching the issue from a neutral position. But heck, I’m a worldview teacher; I know there isn’t such a creature as neutrality anyhow, so why not offer a brief defense?
To be clear, I wasn’t at the conference to hear Joshua’s lecture, so my critique is limited to Dreher’s summation, which begins:
“The problem with worldview education, [Gibbs] said, is that it closes off the possibility of wonder by providing a rigid ideological measuring stick for texts. Gibbs said it gives students unearned authority over a book. Hand them ‘The Communist Manifesto,’ they open it up, say, ‘Marxist!’, then case it aside. Hand them ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra,’ they open it up, see Nietzsche’s name, say, ‘Nihilist!’ — and cast it aside.”
Positively, I’m appreciative of the danger of “unearned authority” over a text. In my worldview class at least, we read Plato before discussing Platonism, we read Camus before discussing Existentialism. What I’m after is honesty—taking people at their word, not imposing an alien agenda onto them.
My decision to organize the curriculum as such has as much to do with pedagogy as it does integrity, however. It seems to me humans learn by approaching the world from the particular to the general. We don’t learn the “principle of sowing and reaping” and then act accordingly. Rather, we do or don’t study for a test and then do or don’t receive a good grade. From those experiences, over time, we come to understand sowing and reaping at a conceptual level. Likewise, before one identifies an “ism” associated with a person, one must do the difficult, honest work of first reading the person.
Dreher goes on:
“Gibbs was not arguing for Marxism on nihilism. He was saying that to truly encounter and wrestle with a great book (even a great bad book!), you have to enter into its world. For example — and this is me saying this, not him — in order to understand where Marxism comes from, you need to put yourself in the place of the man who hears something liberating in, ‘Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.’ Why did Marxism sound plausible and morally righteous to people once upon a time? What does it get right about justice? What does it get wrong? How do we know?”
Here, it seems Dreher is arguing contra Gibbs. Gibbs, If I’m understanding him correctly, is saying students should read the words “workers of the world, unite!” nakedly, taking no note of any plausibility structure (i.e. worldview) which may make such words intelligible and attractive. Indeed, such context would only prevent wonder, according to Gibbs. Now, I’m with Dreher here—it is worthwhile indeed to enter the man’s world, understand the given biases at play. When done well, such a worldview education doesn’t cause the student to toss the book aside; far from it! It rather opens the book up anew to the student. Making the word “worldview” synonymous with “lazy/dismissive thinking” is, ironically, lazy and dismissive.
You see, worldview education begins with the humble premise that we aren’t approaching the world “from above.” As the poet Anne Carson put it, “There is no objective place.” We are creatures, bound by space and time. We don’t offer some supposed “neutral” interpretation of a given book, painting, data point, or fact. Rather, conscious or not of our myriad prejudices, we encounter the world Christianly. Likewise, every other reader, connoisseur, or scientist comes to the world from their own particular angle.
Worldview education seeks, imperfectly no doubt, to give these angles a voice at the Harkness table. Could such an education make students arrogant as Gibbs fears? I suppose. However, does the alternative make the student any less arrogant: supposing that the texts they are reading are composed by context-less men, and that they are encountering them unencumbered by their own commitments, values, and motives? I think not.
In the end, having read countless articles by Gibbs over the years, I have no doubt that he and I share common educational philosophies and goals. Further, his fear of creating thoughtless readers is valid. I also see too many students quite willing to dismiss foreign ideas out of hand. However, training students in worldviews—teaching students the empathetic skills needed to see the world through another’s eyes—is not the problem. Indeed, worldview education is the solution.