Association of Theological Schools
Wesley J. Wildman
Contents of this page
1. Goal of the project
The goal of the project is to increase the effectiveness of a first-year seminary course in Western philosophy by introducing scrupulously researched and carefully constructed stories that are optimized for conveying abstract philosophical ideas to the many concrete thinkers in seminary. Since this challenge is widespread in seminaries, in part because of the nature and background of the student population, the results of this pedagogical experiment should be of use to teachers of philosophy and theology in other seminaries. This web site is designed to disseminate information about and examples from the course for interested teachers.
In the 1996 version of this course, I concentrated on increasing the effectiveness of illustrations used in the lecture phase of this course. It is important to note that is not what this project is about. Discovering and constructing stories about philosophers and philosophy that will help concrete thinkers grasp abstract philosophical ideas accurately and memorably was and is a far more difficult task. The aim is not merely to entertain, to increase attention, or to engage the imagination; rather, the stories must convey subtle philosophical concepts.
"Western Philosophy in Theological Perspective" is a Fall semester Boston University course. It is grand tour of major figures and themes of the Western philosophical tradition, focusing on their influence on theology, and customized for the entering class of seminary students. The course is not typical of the "Intro to Western Philosophy" species in two respects. On the one hand, carefully selected, bite-sized chunks of primary texts in English translation are read for each class. The very act of encountering such great literature is an important and potentially transformative experience. On the other hand, everything in the course is aimed at illuminating connections between philosophy and theology. The course thus serves as preparation for the students' first theology course in the following semester.
The double contention underlying the course is that ideas are important and powerful, and that understanding ideas is an essential aspect of learned ministry, which-in the finest tradition of Methodism-is the aim of ministerial training at Boston University.
Teaching the first-year seminary class is a pedagogical challenge. A wide variety of students enter this seminary (and most other seminaries, too). Some of the dimensions of this variability are:
Much has been done already to sensitize the design and execution of this course to the diverse individual learning styles of class members. In this process, I have been greatly influenced in my thinking about pedagogy by the research and literature in learning styles that has been available since the early 1980s. I have in mind particularly works such as:
Of the many ideas to which I have been introduced through such literature, the elementary yet crucial distinction between concrete and abstract thinkers is essential to the conception of this project. Abstract thinkers take to philosophical ideas relatively easily. Concrete thinkers, by contrast, have a stronger need for a learning environment in which an important abstraction can be introduced and mastered in stages, with due attention to its relevance for their lives and work. The research on thinking and learning styles complements and enhances common sense judgments about feasible techniques for conveying abstract concepts to concrete thinkers. In relation to this course, a particular type of story is the key.
It is relatively easy to determine who are the concrete thinkers, since even a brief conversation with a student about a concept they find troubling or about their progress in the course discloses strong indicators. Given this kind of non-scientific evaluation of the class, analysis of course grades indicates that concrete thinkers do worst with this course material.
This seems unnecessary to me. I am ready to allow both that philosophy and theology are more congenial to some people than others, and that some will learn abstract ideas more easily than others. However, I am less willing to yield to the common assumption that concrete thinkers can safely be assumed to be among those less suited to philosophy and theology. In fact, my experience teaching this course suggests otherwise: concrete thinkers have often been among the most enthusiastic members of this course, in part because they had never previously realized that abstract ideas were both exciting and intensely practical for life and ministrythat they could relate to abstractions. Moreover, the research in thinking and learning styles supports that contention, especially by drawing attention to the tendency of many educational processes to identify the difficulty concrete thinkers have in learning about abstract ideas with their interest in and aptitude for them. This is a false assumption fostered even in the self-interpretation of students themselves.
I am arguing that it is a prejudice to assume that concrete thinkers are less suited to philosophical ideas. Suitability must be settled on a case by case basis, and not as an inference from learning style. However, I am not contesting the more obvious fact that concrete thinkers have difficulty approaching philosophical and theological abstractions, no matter how potent they may prove to be for analysis and transformation of lives and societies in ways that concrete thinkers appreciate as much as anyone. Their experience of alienation in many educational settings that deal with abstract ideas may be unnecessary in principle, but it is genuinely difficult to address effectively in practice.
This is no small problem in a seminary setting with so many practical business people, or other second-career folk, many of whom have little or no background in philosophy. Success in tackling this challenge at Boston University may prove useful elsewhere.
This project adopted the hypothesis that stories ought to be a central feature of any strategy for helping concrete thinkers to grasp abstract and important ideas. These stories cannot serve merely to amuse or to help people concentrate; they must actually convey philosophic content. The principle is the same as an effective illustration in a talk or sermona far more difficult proposition than even most preachers and public speakers assume, as the literature in rhetoric and homiletics has been at some pains to demonstrate. (See David G. Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (1987), for example.) Discovering and creating the right stories is really quite difficult to do, therefore, even as bad or "slightly-off" sermon illustrations are common. Nevertheless, I think that this avenue for teaching abstract philosophical ideas has been greatly under-explored, and I would like to redress that lack.
To explain what I mean by effective stories, and why they are difficult to find and construct, consider the following examples of stories about philosophical figures that help to explain abstract ideas. Each illustrates a principle for constructing stories well suited to the needs of concrete thinkers.
First, while many entertaining stories can be told of the life of Descrates (pictured at left), one is useful for explaining his fascination with clear and distinct ideas as a path to certain foundations for knowledge. It is the story of a mathematical dream he had as a young man, a dream of a perfect philosophy that had all the certainty of mathematics. To tell this story in the right way is effectively to convey the passion of his philosophy; it is biography and philosophy all at once. Most stories about a thinker's life are of little philosophical use, however, and this leads to the first principle: biographical stories typically do not convey much philosophic content, as useful as they are for other purposes, and thoughtful research is necessary to construct appropriate stories.
Second, Zeno's story of Achilles and the tortoise can be used as a way to explain how Parmenides (pictured at right) could possibly have thought that motion is ultimately illusory. Some pre-Socratic background must be in place firstespecially regarding the problem of being and becomingbut then this story can be acted out with people playing the three characters (Zeno as narrator, Achilles, and the tortoise). The result is hopefully the illumination of one of the subtlest debates of ancient Greek philosophy: real motion presupposes the intuitively paradoxical result that an infinite sequence of positive numbers adds up to a finite number. This made no sense to Zeno because of his rejection of the infinite divisibility of space, wherein lies both the solution to and the ongoing interest in this philosophic problem. In this case, it is the acting out of a simple drama that drives home the Zeno's point for concrete thinkers, and the image stays with them whenever they think of the otherwise obscurely abstract assertions of the Eleatic philosophers about the illusoriness of change and motion. Parmenides is thereby resuced from the garbage heap of ridiculously abstract and irrelevant philosophers, which is where many of my students might otherwise be inclined to consign him. The second principle is that dramatic enactments of philosophic concepts help concrete thinkers understand the issues.
Finally, a debate between Socrates (pictured at left) and Protagoras the sophist, acted out by competent people, is an ideal way to present their disagreement over the extent to which human reason is capable of apprehending and understanding the world. An example of such a debate is provided on this site. The principle in this case is that personalizing debates about subtle philosophic concepts helps concrete thinkers understand and recall the relevant ideas as well as the senses in which they are important.
The research into the stories ran alongside of, and a little ahead of, the course material for the Fall, 1997 edition of "Western Philosophy in Theological Perspective." I recruited a brilliant doctoral student called Sharon Ciccarelli to do the research and write most of the stories. She had the crucial skills: a solid understanding of the problem I have described, a good pedagogical imagination, a creative flair for writing, an impressive grasp of philosophical subtleties, and willingness to work hard on honing ideas for stories into viable stories for public consumption. The students and I loved these stories, so we called them "Ciccarelli Creations" in the classroom to have a convenient, even ritualized, way to express our sense that "Now, something special is about to occur."
Student evaluations report that the stories were a tremendous success. The class already and always focuses on responsiveness to a variety of learning styles but the stories gave the teaching staff (me and the two teaching assistants) extra flexibility in dealing with concrete learners for whom philosophical abstractions are initially irrelevant or perhaps even unapproachably perplexing.
An example will help to convey this point. I have thought long and hard over the years about how to convey Descartes' excitement for his philosophical method and about how to drive home the importance of his philosophic achievement. I have used illustrations and schematizations. I have had TAs work through hands-on examples with students in sections. And these approaches have been successful to some degree. But there is nothing quite as effective as the following story, one of the many Ciccarelli Creations.
Here we see not only an astonishingly accurate portrayal of the steps and significance of Descartes' method, but we also have an indication of the meaning of clear and distinct ideas, a suggestion of Descartes' vision of what it means to be what we call "modern", and right at the end an amusing and penetrating critique. This is something the students are unlikely to forget (ever!). Most importantly, it gives concrete thinkers a degree of access to key ideas in Descartes that is tough for them to achieve in other ways.
This also illustrates what I mean by scrupulously researched and carefully constructed stories that are optimized for conveying abstract philosophical ideas to the many concrete thinkers in seminary. These stories are extremely difficult to invent, much harder than might be imagined even by an experienced teacher. In the back and forth between my researcher and me, there was a great deal of fine-grained philosophical debate, many changes of direction, and sometimes abandonment of an idea because it was just "a bit off." The stories can only work because of the research and effort put into them. That makes them expensive to create compared to a quick and dirty illustration but we also get what we pay for.
I have no clear-cut way to measure the effectiveness of the stories in assisting the learning of concrete thinkers. I do have strong testimonial evidence that they achieved their goal. This has taken the form of the warmest personal expressions of gratitude you can imagine and strong affirmation of the story technique in student evaluations of the course. I also have evidence from grades: in a group of students that seems academically weaker than in previous years, with procedures, examinations, and standards held constant, the average grade rose a couple of percentage points, which is statistically significant. But it is hard to determine how much of that is due to the stories. Finally, there is the most enjoyable evidence: the excitement of peopleconcrete thinkerswho cannot believe that they love philosophy.
This has been a marvelous experience for me and for my students. I am grateful to ATS for its support of my teaching and of my and my students' learning.
The information on this page is copyright ©1994-2011, Wesley Wildman (basic information here), unless otherwise noted. If you want to use ideas that you find here, please be careful to acknowledge this site as your source, and remember also to credit the original author of what you use, where that is applicable. If you want to use text or stories from these pages, please contact me at the feedback address for permission.