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Bias and Vulnerability

After six years of guitar lessons I learned enough music theory and practiced enough scales to play very rudimentary jazz. I could just glimpse, at that point, what it could be like if thinking and technique were ever to become transparent. Shear bliss as a musician must come when only an intention remains between you and what you wish to create. When music seemingly becomes an unmediated expression of the soul.

This kind of internalization is the goal of all education. It takes time and effort to learn the foundational concepts, facts, and techniques that eventually lift one to a point of owning something new. Bloom’s taxonomy comes to mind, suggesting that lower level learning objectives always have the upper story of human creativity in view.

In the beginning a student must make an investment of trust in a teacher. Who would sit at the piano and play those dreadful Hanon scale/finger exercises over and over if they did not trust it was accomplishing something important? The ones whose parents would not let them go outside to play until they finished perhaps (borrowed trust)? With persistence a moment of enlightenment comes, and it forever changes you – and the way you engage the world. Learning is life changing.

These posts are intended to present an internally consistent line of thought (a course) in the challenges associated with otherness. Why should you trust me as a guide into this domain of inquiry? I’m just a landscape architect. Not a theologian. Not a philosopher. Not even someone who is expert in literature or history. I have two answers. The first may seem a bit smug.

There is potential untrustworthiness in all teachers. Why? Because all teachers are finite human beings – just like you. And, at least at times, they are all mistaken. Moreover, all teachers have a view of the world (a dogma) that shapes the way they approach education. They all have in mind to get you to think certain things, or at least in certain ways. Letting these inherent limitations interfere with your ability to trust them will stunt your learning capacity for life. You must, for a little while, willingly suspend your disbelief. In time you will be able to judge the trustworthiness of a teacher just like you do an auto mechanic – by considering the experiences of others and by trying them out to see if they are knowledgeable and deal with you honestly. If it helps, some of my well-educated friends think I have something to say on this subject.

Second, being open as a teacher entails vulnerability because it requires acknowledgement of one’s own limitations and biases. There are three biases of mine you need to know about right away.

One: I think differently than most My life has been substantially shaped by whatever forces are at work when one hangs around a university. I was a college student for six years and my career as a professor spanned thirty-nine. I wanted to be a professor to help students learn. It seems I succeeded. I’ve won teaching awards in lecture/seminar, design studio, and outreach/service-learning settings. The subjects I’ve taught range from abstract to concrete - from design theory and research methods, to landscape planning and design, to the nuts and bolts of site construction. Scholars may look at my credentials and shake their heads – not enough fame, too few publications, and too little research funding. Nevertheless, I took my work in the academy seriously and can look back with no regrets. What others think about my level of accomplishment is their problem.

Landscape architects, like other environmental planners/designers, are integrative generalists. Our job is to make informed speculations about what will improve people’s lives in certain respects, and, to prescribe the realization of those aspirations in space and material. My professional education trained me to synthesize information across disciplinary and professional boundaries – to always question the question, to think at least one scale up and down from the apparent problem at hand, in short – to color outside artificial lines. One always risks criticism from experts when crossing over onto their turf in this way.

My natural habit of mind is to think conceptually and analytically. However, I deeply respect and often envy colleagues and students whose approach is more concrete, intuitive, and poetic. I see no grounds for the division of what is true, good, and beautiful but realize we all have our preferred ways of getting there.

Two: I read ucky stuff

Some time ago, a former Head of the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech remarked that figuring out how to include religious perspectives in the political discourse of liberal democracies is the cultural problem of the 21st century. He observed that we are living in the “post-secular present” – a time when people in highly secularized modern societies are realizing they are unhappy. Soon after, I learned that philosopher Jurgen Habermas coined the term. He was grappling with the practical problem of integrating substantial numbers of conservative Muslim immigrants (some of whom now live in areas of European cities that are governed entirely by Sharia law) into European liberal democracies. His writing led me to a related body of literature discussing secularization theory. It is a social science theory, developed in the late 19th century, claiming that the advance of science and technology in modern societies will inevitably lead to the demise of religious belief. A wide-spread resurgence of religious fundamentalism in the 1980s caused scholars to question it. I had previously taught a course on theology of the built environment entitled Christianity, Community and the City. These readings on the sociocultural challenges resulting from global pluralism, combined with knowledge of its implications for the planning and design of cities, were the beginnings of my interest in the topic of otherness. For at least four decades designers have been lamenting the loss of meaning in the built environment. The legibility of meanings embodied in architecture and built landscapes depends on shared cultural narratives. You must be an insider to apprehend them. So, there is a parallel between the debate over secularization theory in the social sciences and designer’s laments over loss of meaning. It centers on the loss of shared cultural stories. I was seeing signs that this issue was not just theoretical. It was directly impacting student’s performance in my design studios. So, I took a sabbatical to dig into these topics and the relationships between them. I came to believe that forming a solid foundation for their future careers is the most important challenge confronting today’s university students.

Three: I'm a Conservative Christian misfit

If you’ve read About Me, you know I’m an evangelical Christian involved in ministry through the Bradley Study Center. Its primary mission is to help Christian students and faculty to jointly address this challenge. If you are a non-Christian reader, please don’t assume there is nothing here for you. You should consider that some Christians have criticized me for being “too deep”, “esoteric”, and placing too little stock in the Bible and a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. I’d rather readers think of me as biblically orthodox, intellectually curious, open to dialogue, and genuinely concerned for the welfare of others.

Part of what I hope to demonstrate through these posts is that no knowledge is possible apart from personal commitment. While some may object to the term, religious people often call this faith. The idea that faith (personal commitment) and knowing can be separated is unbiblical, and it lies very near the root of our contemporary struggles with otherness. My intention is to speak the truth in love. I won’t always meet that standard – but it’s my aspiration.

Audiences and Intentions

In a pluralistic society it is super important to understand the context and purposes of the various kinds of conversations we have with each other. Writing on the internet makes this difficult. I do not know who is reading and in what relation they stand to me. The best I can do to bridge gaps between us is state my goals for different kinds of readers.

Perhaps you are not a Christian, but you are interested in my perspectives regarding otherness. I’ll try to operate based on this quote from Peter Kreeft.

  • “My real opponent is not made of flesh and blood. My opponent is ignorance, and I hope that is the opponent of my dialogue partner too. If so, we are fundamentally friends, not enemies, since we seek the same thing.”

Maybe you are a student who wants to know how my findings relate to your field of study. You will have to do some interpolation from my examples to your own field. It should not be too difficult. My end goal is to encourage you to accept the possibility of transcendence as a source of reliable moral knowledge. If you find yourself able to, even provisionally, accept this possibility it will open the door to consideration of both classical philosophers and the writings of all great religious thinkers. You can begin to compare claims and have some hope of finding a solid grounding for your work. What I mean by solid is one that lies outside of yourself and/or your sociocultural group. I hope to encourage you by showing you why this is necessary and how it is possible.

Perhaps you are a Christian high school student about to enter the university, or the parent of one. These posts may be a good place to begin if you want to know how you can openly engage the multiple perspectives you are sure to encounter on a public university campus. How you can learn from them. And, how you can do these things without losing your faith.

Perhaps you are a Christian faculty member, or university student, searching for the bridge between your faith commitments and your field of study. There may be some things you need to learn that stand outside of both the covers of the Bible and the boundaries of your disciplinary silo. If so, I hope these posts help point the way for you.

Perhaps you are a member of a local church. You know that organized religion in America is rapidly losing ground, but don’t understand why. I would like to help you see that all American Christians now operate in a cross-cultural context. We face practical challenges in communicating that are even greater than international missionaries have historically encountered. It takes a degree of special preparation to be ready to take on such a challenge. Maybe I can help you unpack that challenge a bit and offer you frameworks for better understanding the world as it is seen by those you are likely to encounter. In the process, you may even discover the basis of your Christian faith has newfound strength.

That’s a lot to aspire to in one little old blog. We’d best get started.

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