A teacher's Point of View
"Sir, should we apply critical thinking to all areas of our lives, including our faith?" The young woman in full niqab asks me this question as we sit around a small table: a couple of professors from the women's campus of the International Islamic University--Islamabad (IIU-I), a number of women students who are considering taking two short summer courses with foreign professors, our host, Junaid Ahmad, now a professor at Lehore University of Management Services (LUMS), me, and the other visiting professor, Robert Jensen from University of Texas Austin's Journalism School.
It's 2008, and while I was expecting this type of question to come up at some point, given that I was asked to teach a course on Critical Thinking at the Islamic University, in Islamabad, in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, I wasn't expecting it to be the very first question at a preliminary meeting before my course even met.
"In the course," I start carefully, "I'll talk about critical thinking in different domains. Critical thinking is something you can do--pay attention to evidence, make and follow logical arguments. Your faith is a value, in many cases a fundamental value, so there need not be any contradiction."
This, as it happens, is not my personal view. I believe that religion is based on unsupportable claims, and that accepting some irrational and supernatural beliefs, even benign ones, makes it more difficult to use the tools of critical thinking to question claims which might be oppressive or harmful. But teaching at IIU-I was an opportunity to sharpen both a skill and a distinction that all committed teachers must learn. The skill is knowing where your students are and figuring out how fast and how far you can push them in the time you're given. Push too fast or too far, and you'll turn them off. Push too slowly and you've wasted opportunity. The distinction is between teaching, which is potentially transformative, and pushing one's personal views on students, which is an abuse of power and ultimately counterproductive.
As a pair of thoroughly secular foreign guest professors, Bob Jensen and I found the distinction emerge over and over again. It emerged most dramatically not in anything we taught, but in the very environment we were teaching in. IIU-I has two architecturally identical campuses: a men's campus and a women's campus. As visitors, we were allowed to teach our classes once, instead of twice, and have both men and women students in our classes (that strange thing called "co-education"). Still, the problem of gender never disappeared as became evident during one of the frequent power cuts (called "load shedding" in Pakistan) that occurred in Islamabad. In an article he wrote at the time (1), Bob described what happened:
When we arrived that morning and found our classroom dark, we looked for a space with natural light that could accommodate the entire class. The most easily accessible place was the carpeted prayer area off the building lobby, and one of the female faculty members helping me with the class led us there. I sat down with the women, and one of the most inquisitive students raised a critical question about one of my assertions from our previous class. We launched into a lively discussion for several minutes, until we were informed that the male students had a problem with the class meeting there. I looked around and, sure enough, the men had yet to join us. They were standing off to the side, refusing to come into the prayer space, which they thought should not be used for a classroom with men and women. Our host Junaid Ahmad, who puts his considerable organizing skills to good use in the United States and Pakistan, was starting to sort out the issue when the power came back on, and we all headed back to our regular classroom. I put my scheduled lecture on hold to allow for discussion about what had just happened. Could a prayer space be used for other purposes such as a class? And given that the space is used exclusively by men here, is it appropriate to use it for a coeducational classroom? A debate ensued, in which the women overwhelmingly believed that the space could be repurposed for a coeducational classroom, and the men did not. To Bob, the debate was revealing about patriarchy:
What struck me about the exchange was how ill-prepared the men were to defend their position in the face of a challenge from the women. It was clear that the men were not used to facing such challenges, and as they scrambled to formulate rebuttals they did little more than restate claims with which they were comfortable and familiar. That strategy (or lack of a strategy) is hardly unique to Pakistani men. My class was scheduled after Bob's, but the incident was still ongoing when I arrived that day. Bob and some of the local faculty filled me in, but since my students were also not involved directly they said nothing to me about it that day.
Inspired by this incident, I added to my critical thinking reading list a piece by Chinese revolutionary Lu Xun on women's rights, a talk given in 1923 ("What Happens After Nora Leaves Home?"). In the essay, Lu Xun, who was a very independent-minded intellectual in the period of ferment before the Chinese Revolution, looks at Henrik Ibsen's play, A Doll's House. At the end of the play, which premiered in Norway in 1879, the protagonist, Nora, leaves her stifling marriage in order to discover herself. Several decades later, for an audience of Chinese women, Lu Xun's lecture argued that for women to be truly free, they had to have the material means to support themselves--that freedom was an economic proposition, not solely a philosophical one. In its assumption of female equality, its embeddedness in Asian cultural norms, and its practical discussion of how to achieve freedom, I thought the essay was an excellent choice for my class, and one that would not have occurred to me to assign had the incident in Bob's class not happened.
I asked my students to guess who wrote the essay. Most guessed a Western woman, writing in the 1960s, which gave me the opportunity to show that feminism had roots that were deeper and more local to Asia than they had been led to believe.
ost of what I taught in Critical Thinking had to do with trying to determine what the claims were in a piece of writing, what the logic of the arguments were, and what the evidence for the assertions was: the same kinds of skills that are taught at universities everywhere. The situation's unique challenges--trying to navigate political and religious taboos that were also the topics of greatest interest to the students--were a product of the unique opportunity we were given, through the IIU-I's Iqbal Institute fellowship: Bob and I stayed at the guest house, worked most of the time on our own projects, and taught one course each at the IIU-I.
Though my class was called Critical Thinking, in retrospect it might have been called Critical Thinking for the Modern Muslim Woman Psychology Student. For some reason, even though the university had students in Islamic Studies...