Plotinus in the Jungle

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Rumble in the Jungle

The rumblers

The rumblers

In this blog, we have gotten into the habit of mostly reporting about our trips and cultural experiences and not much about our actual work at the seminary. In part this is because our daily work is rather normal – Rebecca reconciles bank statements and I teach philosophy, mostly systematic courses (i.e. Ethics, Philosophy of God, etc). Now I would enjoy writing up for you Plato’s argument for why it is better to be just rather than unjust, but I’m not sure if some of you would continue reading . . .
In this entry, I want to talk about the difficulties I’ve experienced teaching philosophy in PNG. First, PNG culture is a very practical culture. The trade language, tok pisin, for instance has almost no abstract vocabulary. Most of the tribal languages are only oral languages. Thus literacy and the habits of thought that come from being comfortable with the written word have not really taken root in the culture. Second, for my students, English is their third or fourth language. Most of them were also taught by under-qualified teachers. Rebecca and I went to a literacy day at the local primary school and not a single book was mentioned besides the dictionary!
For me, philosophy is primarily about learning how to live reflectively. My focus is on getting my students to think in universal terms about big questions like ‘what is justice’, ‘can God’s existence be demonstrated’, ‘how do we come to know something is true,’ and in enabling them to read primary texts on their own and form their own judgments about what the author is saying. For my beginning students, I tend to only assign them a few pages of a philosopher which we then work through in class. I have them write weekly reflections (about 125 words long) and give some short oral presentations. For my third year students, I assign them sizable sections from the philosophers and I try to guide them through the texts with class discussions, lectures, question and answer time, etc. I do not give exams, but assign papers on the main idea of the philosopher and oral presentations on very exact selections of the text.
For example, for my Ethics class (third year, first term), I tried to lead my students through Plato’s account of justice in the Republic (II, IV, XIII-IX), Aristotle on moral virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics (I-V), Thomas Aquinas on natural law from the Summa Theologiae (I-II, 90-96), and Kant’s categorical imperative from the first two part of the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Now I know that some of my students only grasp in a very vague way the ideas being studied, and I am always having to seek better ways to help them understand the ideas, but some of my students did understand the general concepts and, in my Ethics course, we generally had good discussions and good presentations. I am confident that most of them are able to understand the philosophers in a general way, since I have seen the understanding in their papers and presentations. However, they do have to work hard and wrestling with ideas can be painful for them.
However, the third year students have had enough of my attempts to lift them into the reflective life. They have written a letter to the dean saying that I am unqualified to teach them Ethics and a course this term on Economic and Political Thought. They claim that I am using the course as means to advance my own research and that it is obvious from my course readers (primary texts) that I do not understand the material. Thusly, on the first day of class this term, after I told them I was happy to be teaching them economic and political thought, they all walked out. So now we are at an impasse. The dean and rector support me and have told the students that those who refuse to take the course will get F’s for it. The Archbishop who has direct oversight of the seminary calls the students’ complaints nonsense. However, even if the students do submit, I feel that it will be an uncomfortable class since they have decided that they do not want any more philosophy classes with me.
Reflecting on my time teaching here, I freely admit that I am in no way a perfect teacher. I have often underestimated how hard the readings would be for the students, and assignments that would be simple for Americans, like filling in charts based on a reading passage, seem to be alien and torturous for my students. I once lectured for three classes on Kant’s epistemology only to realize that they had no idea what I was talking about (it was simply too counter-intuitive for them). When I taught Ethics the first time, I focused on Aquinas, thinking that the students already had a basic understanding of Aristotle’s theory of virtue, only to find out that it had not been covered in their Ancient Philosophy course. But I am dedicated to trying to understand the level my students operate on and to trying to reach them and lift them up. I honestly don’t think they will be happy as priests unless they are able to engage in some speculative thought and critically assimilate new ideas, after all how can one preach on Scripture everyday unless one is able to continuously learn?  How can they creatively respond to the modernization taking place in PNG without critical thinking abilities.  At the same time, and I hope this is not hubristic of me, I feel a bit like Socrates in the Apology. My students think that if they can get rid of me then they can go on sleeping; that their education should be nothing more than repeating back lecture notes; while I, out of a genuine love of them and their priestly vocation, seek to wake them up. [The administration themselves say that the students are sleeping.]
But this situation has, more or less and to my sorrow, always been my experience teaching philosophy. I enjoy thinking about philosophical ideas and reading philosophy texts and arguing about their meaning, but most people don’t. I am excited to share with my students this level of discourse, but only a few respond with any enthusiasm. In the U.S., most would just dutifully do the work. Here, at least among this one class, they resent me for my efforts, despite the fact that some of them have done quite good work for me.   And so I cannot help but wonder if academia is actually for me. Now, I intend to stick it out here for at least another year and to finish the old dissertation, but what I do and where I go after that, I commit to the Lord’s hands.
In sum, I ask your prayers about this situation, for my students, and for my teaching.

Ironically, the current dean of studies just asked me last week if I would be the dean of studies next year. This is the third time I’ve been asked this!

1 Comment

  1. Rebecca says:

    Oh dear! Thanks for letting us know. I am glad you are being supported and standing strong. That sounds so hard. Praying for your heart and for the conviction of the Holy Spirit for your students.



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