Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Semester's Reflection

It has been a while since I have written here at Educated Soldier focusing on the sort of subject matter that follows. I know that many people that read here, do so because my situation in life allows me to provide a fresh glimpse on American academia that many have either missed or are far removed. So, today, I would like to reflect and talk a little about higher education (from the perspective and experiences of the minority – the conservative, war veteran student). If you are more interested in reading my current views on politics (which, of course, I love to discuss) please check out my two latest updates, accessible HERE and HERE.

I would encourage you to continue reading with an open mind. While reflecting upon the courses that I completed this past semester, I am also attempting to present questions for reader consumption. I would hope that these questions would be intriguing enough to stimulate broad, intelligent, and interesting discourse. PLEASE, feel free to comment at the conclusion.


First a self-congratulatory note: I received my grades from this past semester yesterday and was happy to see that I had received the full 4.0. So, to date, I have completed around 65 credit hours and have maintained a cumulative 3.8 GPA. I am proud of my collegiate success and genuinely enjoy all that it means to be a university student.


Besides a course in Arabic that I took during my freshman year, this past semester has had the most demanding classes. The most challenging was also the class that I found the most interesting, “Development of Religious Studies.” Because of budget constraints, the class was actually a combined graduate / undergraduate course. Both levels read the same texts; the graduate students simply had more demanding work requirements.

The dilemma that developed with this class: I tackled such a large selection of material that I left knowing too little about too much. The course was designed to introduce the budding religious studies scholar to the interdisciplinary dynamic of their chosen academic field. In an attempt to meet this objective, students were directed to read material from a wide arrange of contributors; from sociologists to anthropologists, from psychologists to phenomenologists, and so on. I read excerpts from many famous scholarly thinkers including Hume, Tylor, Spencer, Frazier, Freud, Jung, Berger, Otto, etc. However, with minor exceptions, I can no longer recite with confidence any of the particulars of the individual proposed theories. Instead, I left the class with this all-encompassing thought:

Everyone has a theory concerning what religion is, how it should be studied, where and how it developed, and what affect it has on society.

Despite the “fog” that remains from the depth of the class material, there are general principles presented by the scholars that warrant discussing. For example, I have found that the origin of religion is much more complex (and even more interesting) than one would first conclude. There is the suggestion, for example, that religion grew as a tool for man to use to manipulate nature. In this theory, religion replaced the shortcomings of magic. The end-result presented in this theory is that, eventually, science will replace religion as the only adequate tool in man’s desire to control / understand nature.

There are others that suggest that religion is a phenomenon that grew from the ancient totem worship. Totem worship, in turn, grew from the father-obsessions in patriarchal communities. Still others would describe religion in a wholly different manner. I do remember this: Berger described religion as the externalization of one’s inner self. Man needs “ultimate man” (my terminology, not Berger's) to endlessly strive after. So, in god, we have ultimate happiness, complete lack of sin; all the things that “regular” man cannot be in the presence of the omnipotent god (but could be, in fact, should the omnipotent god not exist as a measurement of the ideal).

And, of course, there are those like Hume. He - although a believer in a god himself - claimed that religion developed from early man’s fears. Man had to explain why he feared death and sickness and other not-apparently justified phenomena. Religion provided the explanations.

While I found interest and criticisms with all of the presented theories, I am in no position in my still early studies to make a conclusion with any sort of conviction. The origin of religion is something that will always be in debate. Perhaps, I will never be able to present a conclusion that I will be able to stand behind whole-heartedly. Are there any out there more candid in their theories? Please, direct your comments at the appropriate place below. I am genuinely interested in the available discourse.

It was in another religion class that I “learned” the most. “Introduction to Judaism” was offered as an upper-level course and was only an introduction in the sense that a completely Judaism-ignorant student could successfully tackle the course material. The workload, however, was that of an advanced religious studies major course (which it was). While Dr. Neusner has since left USF, I would encourage you to read about him HERE or HERE to see the legacy that he has left in the religious studies department here; especially in the field of Judaism. My professor for “Introduction” was, for better or worse, the young scholar following in the footsteps of the highly (and internationally) influential Dr. Neusner.

That Judaism-ignorant student described above was I prior to this semester. While far from an expert now, upon the conclusion of the class, I feel that I could enter a conversation concerning Judaism and at least listen with some level of comprehension. I gained the most knowledge from this class because I entered knowing so little about the subject matter. What’s interesting, however, is the question that was left to linger from the class:

What is the essence of Judaism?

The class was very thorough and, through directed readings, conversations, and lectures, we traveled through the many stages of the Jewish tradition. Study focused on the Israelites, the Temple eras, Exodus/Diaspora influences, post-Temple Rabbinic Judaism, Middle-Age Philosophical Judaism, Enlightenment Judaism, the effects of the Holocaust, the influence of Israel, and the modern traditions (Reconstruction, Orthodox, Conservative, etc). Because it is such a highly developed tradition, I again refer to the question above.

What is the essence of Judaism? And how would the different actors in Judaism answer this question? I am sure that the answer presented by Rashi would be vastly different than that suggested by Maimonides, both of whom would surely disagree with Mordecai Kaplan’s response. Is it about spiritualism? Is it about dedication to duty; the mitzvoth? How about common study of the Torah? It sure seems that the essence of Judaism is held at the level of the believer. This dynamic particular to Judaism (at least of the Abrahamic religions) is, perhaps, what I found most interesting this past semester.


Finally, I would like to discuss the most contentious of classes that I completed this past semester. As an international studies major at USF, a core class in our curriculum is “International Issues and Actors.” One can imagine the material covered in class: The influence of actors such as states (nations, countries), transnational corporations, non-government organizations, government organizations (think: the U.N.), et. al and the importance of issues such as world health, global poverty, international economics, etc.

What you probably could not imagine is how strongly my professor made the case for socialism throughout the semester. At one point, in fact, we were subjected to an hour-long video that told how badly capitalism has left the condition of third-world countries. Of course, the video skipped capitalism’s many successes: such as (among so much else) encouragement of growth, production, and research.

The professor, a scholar from Sierra Leone was off-the-wall. He was, more or less, a nice guy but he spent entirely too much time speaking “tongue-in-cheek” about the apocalyptic calamities confronting the world. “Tongue-in-cheek” with quotations because he was deadly serious. However, the professor recognized the level of absurdity in his beliefs and also realized that lecturing on such theories without doing so sarcastically would surely result in the termination of his tenure.

Worse, his mid-term exam contained such nuggets of importance as these questions: During the first six months following the invasion, Operation Iraqi Freedom had cost the U.S. how much? And: What is the name of President Bush’s foreign policy initiative in regards to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Which, I swear to you, the answer was “Wishful Thinking.”

At least international studies programs in America’s south aren’t pandering to the same left-wing biases as their counterparts at institutions in the north….

THE CONCLUSION (a.k.a. The REAL Value of a College Education)

Oddly, despite my objections to the professor’s personally held convictions, I still escaped the class with the highest grade of all students. I know this because he made it a point to post the grades after each test anonymously. The highest grade each time would be presented along with the number of people that received that grade. Each time, there was only one recipient for the highest grade. Each time, it was I.

Do I tell you this to gloat? Absolutely.

While I tend to gather a wealth of useful knowledge and intellectual stimulation from my religious studies classes, my international studies classes teach me a far greater skill: How to play the game.

Should I hope to be successful upon completion of collegiate studies I am sure that my proven ability to read those persons in positions to assess me and then perform adequately to their expectations will far overshadow my ability to describe Hume’s theories on religion.

That’s sort of sad.

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