new Mennonite Life logo    March 2003     vol. 58 no. 1     Back to Table of Contents

How then shall we teach a 'collective alternative imagination'?

by Jan Bender Shetler

Jan Bender Shetler is assistant professor of history at Goshen College.

As a professor of history at Goshen College, I was stimulated by Harry Huebner's address on "Christian Education" at the Mennonite University Faculty Conference in Winnipeg this summer. He expressed eloquently what I have been fumbling to conceptualize about our task at the Mennonite colleges: We are "engaged in the people training process," "empowering a collective alternative imagination." This is why we need Mennonite institutions, not just good Christian teachers at secular schools. This is a training process that must take place in community and beyond the classroom. It is as much about how we teach as what we teach; the medium is the message. The professor serves as a model for students, both in and outside of the classroom, "who embodies the faith in the discipline being taught." Christianity offers an alternative way of understanding the world, "a counter culture bearing testimony to our master." It is only by critically engaging "a plethora of competing discourses, each vying for authority," that we can humbly offer students the possibility of embracing a collective alternative imagination based on the Lordship of Christ. Affirming Huebner's vision of a "collection alternative imagination," what difference, then, does it make for teaching history day to day at Goshen College?

One difference is that I am compelled to also consider the alternative perspective of those that Jesus cared particularly about, those left out of most historical narratives, the poor, the marginalized, women, minorities. I teach a new series of "Comparative Studies in World History" courses at Goshen, including "International Women's History," "The History of Global Poverty," and "The History of Ethnic Conflict," that specifically focus on views from the margins. Speaking to history seminar students on faith and history, Alan Kreider focused his comments around the African proverb, "Until the lions have their historians, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter." I have also begun to include service-learning projects in many of my classes for some of the same reasons. Students should get past reading about the poor and marginalized in our society to interacting with them and learning from their experiences. All of these perspectives provide counter-narratives to the grand historical narrative that has been dominated by those with power in the world.

Many of my history classes also overtly question, as does Jesus' proclamation of his up-side-down kingdom, the normative perspective of those who hold power, including state authority. Rather than a triumphalist account of the benevolent state and progress in human society, I ask students to question their faith in human solutions and our ability to determine the future. When I teach the World History survey courses, I get the students to critique the assumption that empires represented the most advanced and "civilized" developments. What alternative governance structures do we see outside of a Eurocentric model that may help us to critique our own state systems? How was religion used to legitimize oppressive state structures built on the backs of slaves? Whether I use the biblical language or not, I ask the students to think about the principalities and powers of this world, the institutions that are created by people and fallen from God's intent, yet able to be redeemed by God. Forms of oppression like racism and sexism are historically created and, therefore, are not immutable natural facts of life but open to change. By questioning what has been considered normative, students are able to imagine the possibility of an alternative.

The ability to envision an alternate Christian reality depends upon an acknowledgment of the possibility of a spiritual dimension in the universe. Most historical scholarship exclusively assumes materialist causality in the universe. The faith of historical actors is all too easily dismissed by the assumption of economic or political motivation. Although we certainly do not want to dismiss economic and political motivation in religious histories, an alternative imagination would demand that we listen to what people are saying about their own spiritual motivations, to begin to "see all of life doxologically." When I taught "The History of Christianity in Africa and the African Diaspora" we looked beyond the nearly universal scholarly assessment of early Christian converts in Africa as opportunistic people seeking the power and resources of foreign missionaries or as colonial collaborators. I recently published a collection of local histories from my research in Tanzania that highlights common people "telling their own stories" about the past, rather than having it mediated through academic models. Perhaps the ultimate act of service for the academic is to respect the other enough to let them be heard on their own terms, in their alternative, sometimes spiritually based, visions of the past. In this act we, ourselves, become "capable of seeing the world differently."

Huebner's ideas about how to communicate this alternative vision to students involves a "pedagogy of peace," based on resisting the need to bring closure and conformity to the classroom. We engage in honest dialogue that leaves open even the possibility of rejection. He calls us to dialogical teaching in which we invite diversity and a variety of perspectives into the classroom. I have worked at finding ways to get students to engage each other honestly in the classroom, to make them active participants in their own education. Sometimes this only happens in very structured ways when I create discussion groups and lay out the rules of engagement. Other times it is sparked by a good set of readings and questions. Whatever the technique, we have to continue to find ways to draw students in that do not silence minority positions, that present paradox rather than easy answers and that complicate their understanding of the past. Yet amidst the multiplicity of perspectives we must consistently invite students, by simple confession rather than coercion, to Christ's alternative vision of the world.

A pedagogy of peace also means that we teach about other cultures in other times and places with respect and appreciation; to so seriously engage other world views, other religions, other cosmologies that a person from that background could be sitting in the classroom and find themselves well represented. Learning about the past in other cultures allows students to cross a number of different boundaries, making 'the foreign familiar as well as the familiar foreign.' Yet that does not mean that we suspend judgment in a kind of relativism in which everything is equally good. We can make moral choices and judgments while still respecting the human integrity of the other. We can never get outside of our own culture entirely, but we can attempt to see the incarnation in other cultures and times. The concern for respecting people's integrity also calls us to care for the students as whole people, beyond the classroom. Perhaps our most important role toward this end, as faculty and, indeed, as the institutions, is to model the reality of Christ in our lives.

Although much of what we do as faculty in Mennonite colleges may not look, on the surface, much different from postmodern deconstruction by caring and ethically committed professors, we must clearly and consistently offer a specific alternative vision, that of following the way of Christ. This doesn't mean that we use the classroom as a podium for preaching or imposition of a particular position, but that we make clear to students, by both word and deed, our own motivations and commitments that animate the kind of alternative visions we offer in the classroom.