Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Patterson School Should Get More Religious

We here at the Patterson School are forced to take at least one class in statistics as a graduation requirement. Having successfully (and very intentionally) navigated my way through four years of undergrad without even walking past a stats classroom, I must say a little piece of my soul died the day I first sat down in Whitehall and opened my $158.95 stats book to the "Mean, Median, and Mode" section. I, along with the rest of my colleagues who were not fortunate enough to test out of this requirement, spent a good chunk of our first semester at Patterson talking about standard deviation, R-squared scores, and how we couldn't understand a word the TA was saying in lab. (Side Note: saying math is the universal language does not make your English-speaking students understand what you are saying any more than before you say it.) Nevertheless, we all made it through and (I admit this begrudgingly) will probably be at least slightly better for it.

That said, I recently came across an interesting interview in which Dr. James Ron, a professor at the Norman Paterson School for International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, says that his students are entering the world of international affairs at a distinct disadvantage because they are not "religiously fluent." Interesting. He says they don't seem to know much about the religions of the world or, for that matter, their own religions. He argues that if his students are going to be effective partitioners of international affairs, they should be able to navigate through the terminology, stories, and traditions of the major world religions.
They should recognize and embrace the understanding that religion is an important part of people's lives and thus, an important part of their jobs.

I happen to strongly agree with this. Diplomacy, Development, International Commerce, and National Security are all deeply affected by religion because ultimately the study of international affairs is the study of interactions of people in a particular context and people are, by and large, religious and getting more religious. I mean, how can you expect to effectively interact, do business, negotiate, or argue with someone when you don't possess even a basic understanding of what, for them, is foundational? I think Dr. Ron would argue that you can't.

This brings us to our next topic and my point for
this blog post. I would argue that this picture to the right represents a concept that, for students of international affairs, is misleading, naive, and will get them in trouble when dealing with "religious foreign people." Yes, I just opened this can of worms. The picture implies the American foundational belief in the separation of church and state. Further to this, it implies that religion and politics can actually be conceptually separated, that religion can be placed in a box next to the philosophy box and social interaction box. I would argue that this construct is not reality for those who truly believe their said religion. For these "true believers" (I know, I know, minefield, but just go with it for the sake of argument), their religion permeates everything, influences every decision, and guides every thought. Their religion isn't something that can be made separate from their politics; their religion is their politics, their philosophy, their social interaction. They would argue that your religion, the religion that is separate from the rest of your life, isn't really a religion at all. To not possess an understanding of this concept is to possibly risk ending the conversation with your counterpart from another country before it's even started.

How does all this relate directly to National Security? I'll answer your question with another question. Would US national security strategy in dealing with Islamic extremism have been different if, in say 2001, if we better understood the role that Islam plays in the lives and decisions of Islamic extremists? I think so. Another question. If you are working for DoD based out of the US consolate in Belfast and your devote Catholic counterpart wants to have you over to his house to celebrate Easter weekend with his family, do you think it would help to know a little about Easter? I think so as well. Actually, I would argue that you could only reach a certain level with your Irish counterpart if you only understood the basics of Easter and that level might not be enough to get the job done.

Admiral Mike Mullen recently stated that America's national debt is its #1 national security threat. I would propose a close second on that list to be the widespread absence of religious
fluency and understanding among American international affairs policymakers and practitioners.

Thus, in conclusion, if the bottomless abyss of a subject that is statistics is required before Patterson sends us out into the world of international affairs, I think the Patterson School should require a Introduction to World Religions class as well. Funny thing is, there is no such class taught at the University of Kentucky at any level. I guess a lot of really smart people disagree with me.


Cassandra said...

I'm inclined to agree that religious knowledge is important especially given the general international character of our chosen career pathway.

Perhaps you remember this Pew survey from earlier this semester:

I'd guess that our cohort knows more about world religions than the wider American public. Still, I'd rather take world religions than stats :-)

Aurelius said...

sing it brother (also, you should have gone to for your stats book- I got an older edition for $5 bucks).