The most influential teachers in my own education have combined a personal commitment to me as a learner with a clear criticism of my work. They pushed me to engage as an equal in creative argument with the best minds, and to achieve high standards of excellence in my own work. While I am deeply grateful to my teachers and hope to inspire in my own students the same dissatisfaction with mediocrity that they inspired in me, I am also conscious of the particular situation and role of higher education in the 21st century. In particular my approach to teaching is geared towards three issues that I perceive to be vital in higher education.
Firstly, I am conscious that what I perceive to be the key problem of the 21st century—how to maintain ecological sustainability and achieve a more just distribution of resources while the world’s population approaches ten billion human beings—is not one for which there is historical precedent. The deep uncertainty with which current students must face the future demands that the overriding goal of higher education should be to equip students with skills not simply to adapt to and survive through unpredictability, but to exercise responsible leadership in it. My role in this is to encourage students who have amassed a great deal of knowledge from various disciplines to think about how to integrate what they know and make responsible choices grounded in science and geared towards sustainability.
Secondly, the processes of globalization have now brought about the situation where it is not possible for people in Canada to make these kind of responsible decisions without reference to the ways they impact and are impacted by people across the world. My own area of research is China, and it seems clear to me that the decisions that China takes over the next generation regarding its own sustainability will be significant for the sustainability of the human species in general. It is vital for the next generation of western leaders to be educated about China, its language, culture, and history.
Closer to home, I am also concerned about the role of higher education within a democratic society. While there has been much debate about the value of higher education for personal career development and economic innovation in society, there has been less said about the important role played by education in terms of forming responsible citizens. The Enlightenment conviction that adult human beings are autonomous rational individuals capable of exercising responsible choice in a democratic society seems to me to be an admirable hope at best. I prefer the Confucian notion that moral responsibility is developed and extended over a lifetime, and that higher education is an ongoing project of self-cultivation. While this was an obligation chiefly imposed upon scholar-officials in Confucian China, I believe that this becomes an obligation for all citizens in a democratic society.
Finally, in terms of my own area of study, I am conscious of the particular role that a department of religious studies should play in educating people about the nature and function of religion. In particular I believe that it is my role, as an employee of a publicly funded research institution, to advance the study of religion from a secular perspective. This involves a critical analysis of the dominant community discourse about religion that is provided by religious institutions and authorities and which, in turn, influences broader public discourse about religion.