Magazine article Radical Teacher

Critical Thinking for the Modern Muslim Woman Psychology Student: A Summer in Islamabad

Magazine article Radical Teacher

Critical Thinking for the Modern Muslim Woman Psychology Student: A Summer in Islamabad

Article excerpt

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

   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. … 
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