At the beginning of every semester, I spend some time talking to my students about the curious, asymmetrical relationship between those who are enrolled in classes and those who teach them. I lead them through a brief examination of such terms as “doctor,” “doctrine,” “indoctrination,” “professor,” “student,” “instructor” and “educator.” I try to help them understand the very large differences between terms that many of them have been using interchangeably, as though they were synonyms. I do this in order to clear a path that at least some of us can walk together on a journey of discovery.
I tell them that they’re going to have plenty of chances to get to know me over the coming weeks or months, as I’ll be standing in front of them running my mouth for hours on end. It’s a little tougher, however, for me to get to know them. With that end in mind, I hand out a brief questionnaire that I ask them to complete and turn in at the end of the first class. Here are the questions I ask, with appropriate space for responses after each in turn:
Who are you? (How do you like to be addressed?) Where are you from? What is your major? Why did you choose that major? What three things do you find most interesting? What is the most interesting book you’ve read during the past year? What is the biggest idea you’ve ever had to come to terms with?
Can you read music? Tell me your favorite joke (use the space below plus the back of this page if necessary).
Those questions are designed to afford me a glimpse into my students’ souls, in addition to gaining an idea of whom I’m dealing with in terms of intellectual and musical preparation: it helps me sculpt the subject matter appropriately, tailoring it to my students’ strengths and addressing their limitations. In those rare cases where a student possesses a finely-calibrated sense of irony – a quality I prize very highly – that sense usually reveals itself in this questionnaire.
The answers I get are often alarming. Many have not read a single book during the past year. (They are often the ones who “text” incessantly during my classes, my repeated admonitions notwithstanding.) For some, the things they find most interesting include “hunting,” “bull-riding,” “stretching,” “football,” “my body,” “the way the stock market works,” and so forth: these are actual answers I’ve received and read with a shudder. For some, the biggest idea they’ve ever had to come to terms with is “will OU beat Texas this year” or “how can I make an A in World Music” (again, I’ve seen both answers). Many simply leave that one blank, or respond to it with a string of question marks (a single question mark would convey their meaning adequately: does a string of them betray resentment at the question?). Many don’t know a single joke, and most of the jokes I do read tend to be grammar-school stuff. I’m not, for the most part, dealing with fans of Patton Oswalt.
I often encounter “daily Bible reading” in response to a couple of those questions. In every case without exception, those who give me that answer are – I’m sorry to say – among the most rigid, unimaginative students in my classes: they never seem to raise memorized definitions to the level of working concepts – have no apparent gift of or inclination to synthesis or critical thinking, and no insights to share; and some of those daily Bible readers cheat on exams and turn in final papers that they’ve plagiarized or paid someone to write for them. It could be that some of the students who give me that response are in fact lying: they own a Bible, and have been told they should read it daily, so that’s how they answer my question whether or not they’ve cracked its covers since moving into the (athletic) dorm (or frat house).
I’m trying to keep cynicism out of this, but I know what I’ve seen.
Every now and then, I give some thought to that business of “daily Bible reading.” Some of my students probably really do that, perhaps the first thing in the morning or the last thing they do before turning out the light at bedtime. I wonder what method they use. Do they start at Genesis 1 and read a chapter a day, as though the Bible were through-composed by a single author? (Some seem to think this is the case.) Or do they use some kind of lectionary – a list of “approved” Bible passages that radiate high-mindedness or support a particular sectarian doctrine? Or do they – as some fundamentalist preachers I’ve heard claim – simply open the Bible at random, trusting the Holy Spirit to direct them to exactly the right passage for the day at hand, sort of like reading one’s horoscope in the astrology column of the campus paper? (The OU Daily – the campus newspaper – features a daily astrology column but no daily science column.)
For shits and giggles, I have on occasion tried this last method as a sort of informal, admittedly unscientific way of surveying the possibilities. I pick up my leather-bound Oxford Annotated Reference Bible (NRSV), close my eyes, open the “Word of God” and slap my right index finger down arbitrarily, then read the verse that the Holy Spirit has led me to. I’ve never bothered to record the results, so I cannot give you more than a loose, impressionistic account of what I’ve discovered thereby. Nor have I actually done it enough times to be able to lay claim to a large enough sample for statistical purposes. But my impression is that it’s approximately this:
- The majority of the time, the verse simply makes no sense; and even if I back up and read the chapter in which the gem is embedded, it often makes no more sense than when I read it in isolation.
- A fair percentage of the time, my divinely-guided index finger will have landed on an absolute horror: an instance of genocide, or of stoning, or of generalized divine malice, or a teaching that robs humans of their humanity and steps all over their dignity.
- A very small percentage of the time, I will read a verse that has more uplifting connotations: an admonition to address the plight of the poor, for instance.
Perhaps I’m expecting too much, but it seems to me that a book authored by the creator of the universe would be absolutely chock full of towering wisdom and radiant goodwill, and a random reading of it would be the most ennobling experience imaginable, far better than reading the Upanishads or listening to the Vienna-period piano concertos of Mozart. But it’s not. Most of the time, it’s opaque or disgusting.
I tried my little informal experiment just now. Here’s what came up:
“Even if you defeated the whole army of Chaldeans who are fighting against you, and there remained of them only wounded men in their tents, they would rise up and burn this city with fire.” (Jeremiah 37:10)
See what I mean? Try it!