How Homer Simpson Can Enrich Philosophy Class

Article excerpt

Jon Eddy always had been a religious skeptic and critic. So when it came time to choose a required religion class at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., the psychology major thought he'd take the easy way out.

The senior signed up for "Religions of Star Trek" last semester and thought, "Here's my out. I'm going to destroy this class," says Mr. Eddy, joking that he would ace it.

Eddy did earn an A-, and something else he didn't expect - an altered wold view. "My eyes opened to just how much spirituality plays into everything - from belief structures to organizational structures," says Eddy.

Wait a second. Religion and "Star Trek?" Isn't that a stretch? Well, not for some religion and philosophy professors. To grab students' attention, many find they must integrate TV and movies into the curriculum. "It connects the familiar with the unfamiliar," says Tim Hunter, a philosophy lecturer at Mississippi State University, who plans to use Homer Simpson to explain Aristotle's philosophy. Others have used "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to examine ethical dilemmas and "The Matrix" to illuminate points about ancient and modern beliefs.

But are Spock, Homer, and Neo the most effective teaching tools? While many agree that pop culture figures can engage students and elucidate abstract concepts, critics say they should be used sparingly.

"It can have the effect of 'dumbing down' the course," says Todd Penner, who teaches "Biblical Heritage" at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. "I don't have any qualms about making references to movies in class. When I do show movies, however, I try hard to make it a thinking experience by having them watch material very few of them are likely to view on their own."

In most cases, students aren't awarded college credit for simply watching moving images. Many students get the wrong impression when they hear about "Religions of Star Trek," says Susan Schwartz, who teaches the course at Muhlenberg College. After a few classes, they quickly learn that they don't just sit there and watch TV.

"I use 'Star Trek' as a lens through which we can talk about major ideas," says Professor Schwartz, who also teaches the psychology of religion and religions of India. "There were certain 'Star Trek' episodes that helped me give students access to concepts they were struggling with. So I hatched this plot to teach an entire course as an introduction to the academic study of religion."

In her class, Schwartz discusses religion and ethics; the struggle between good and evil; and religion as a transformative experience. "It broadens the way my students think about religion because when we think about religion, we think about particular religions only," says Schwartz. Her goal is to "step back and look at religion as part psychology, part philosophy, part artistic expression and performance ritual. I find that 'Star Trek' works very nicely this way."

Hunter had a similar experience while teaching a freshman class at Mississippi State University. The philosophy lecturer noticed that when he mentioned "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," it inspired thoughtful discussion. …