Tips for Undergrads 1

23/12/2011 § Leave a comment

One thing that I notice fairly frequently when doing my grading &c is that very few undergraduates make an appreciable distinction between what an author argues and what an author believes should be. Let me give you an example of this. Earlier in the semester, our students read different articles concerning U.S. civil religion. One of the articles, Marvin & Engle’s Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Revisiting Civil Religion equates nationalism and religion.

Americans traditionally regard the nation-state as the domain of unassailable force and religion as the domain of unassailable truth. This separation of faith and force is markedly unstable and collapses completely in wartime. The more usual arrangement elsewhere has been strongly forged links between spiritual and political power. This is because the only religion that can truly deliver the goods must have visible agency, worldly power. Jesus’ disciples felt it, and a Weberian Protestant ethic suggests it. Wherever religion is fervently embraced, it follows in the minds of many believers that it is entitled to glory in missions of conquest that reflect God’s will. Islam did this for centuries before European monarchies accomplished it for Christianity. And though religions have long survived and flourished in persecution and powerlessness, supplicants nevertheless take manifestations of power as blessed evidence of the truth of faith.

If nationalism is religious, why do we deny it? Because what is obligatory for group members must be separated, as holy things are, from what is contestable. To concede that nationalism is a religion is to expose it to challenge, to make it just the same as sectarian religion. By explicitly denying that our national symbols and duties are sacred, we shield them from competition with sectarian symbols. In so doing, we embrace the ancient command not to speak the sacred, ineffable name of god. That god is inexpressible, unsayable, unknowable, beyond language. But that god may not be refused when it calls for sacrifice.

Many of the students zeroed in on the idea of the soldier as a religious sacrifice to the nation-state. When asked to contrast different views on civil religion and describe which argument makes the most sense, by and large they responded that Marvin & Engle’s argument made them very angry, and they couldn’t understand why the authors thought soldiers ought be sacrificed to the god of the nation.

I see this numerous other times, in different forms, and ultimately this understanding ends up being reflected in a poorer grade. So, by circuitous route, we arrive at this tip – When you’re handling an article, book, essay, or so forth, focus on the logic of the argument the author is making. Pay attention in particular to whether they are saying something is or ought to be. Try to discern from the evidence they provide, and the evidence of your own senses, whether what they argue makes sense to you. If not, why not? Try to stay away from discussion of your personal beliefs about the world. Try to stay away from “X believes Y” when discussing an author, unless they are using that sort of language to express their personal belief. Then, if you refute their argument, do so based on the evidence they provide, or provide evidence of your own. Responding “I just don’t feel like this should be the case” is neither interesting nor analytic.



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