How Homer Simpson can enrich philosophy class

Jon Eddy always had been a religious skeptic and critic. So when it came time to choose a required religion class at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., the psychology major thought he'd take the easy way out.

The senior signed up for "Religions of Star Trek" last semester and thought, "Here's my out. I'm going to destroy this class," says Mr. Eddy, joking that he would ace it.

Eddy did earn an A-, and something else he didn't expect - an altered wold view. "My eyes opened to just how much spirituality plays into everything - from belief structures to organizational structures," says Eddy.

Wait a second. Religion and "Star Trek?" Isn't that a stretch? Well, not for some religion and philosophy professors. To grab students' attention, many find they must integrate TV and movies into the curriculum. "It connects the familiar with the unfamiliar," says Tim Hunter, a philosophy lecturer at Mississippi State University, who plans to use Homer Simpson to explain Aristotle's philosophy. Others have used "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to examine ethical dilemmas and "The Matrix" to illuminate points about ancient and modern beliefs.

But are Spock, Homer, and Neo the most effective teaching tools? While many agree that pop culture figures can engage students and elucidate abstract concepts, critics say they should be used sparingly.

"It can have the effect of 'dumbing down' the course," says Todd Penner, who teaches "Biblical Heritage" at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. "I don't have any qualms about making references to movies in class. When I do show movies, however, I try hard to make it a thinking experience by having them watch material very few of them are likely to view on their own."

In most cases, students aren't awarded college credit for simply watching moving images. Many students get the wrong impression when they hear about "Religions of Star Trek," says Susan Schwartz, who teaches the course at Muhlenberg College. After a few classes, they quickly learn that they don't just sit there and watch TV.

"I use 'Star Trek' as a lens through which we can talk about major ideas," says Professor Schwartz, who also teaches the psychology of religion and religions of India. "There were certain 'Star Trek' episodes that helped me give students access to concepts they were struggling with. So I hatched this plot to teach an entire course as an introduction to the academic study of religion."

In her class, Schwartz discusses religion and ethics; the struggle between good and evil; and religion as a transformative experience. "It broadens the way my students think about religion because when we think about religion, we think about particular religions only," says Schwartz. Her goal is to "step back and look at religion as part psychology, part philosophy, part artistic expression and performance ritual. I find that 'Star Trek' works very nicely this way."

Hunter had a similar experience while teaching a freshman class at Mississippi State University. The philosophy lecturer noticed that when he mentioned "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," it inspired thoughtful discussion. Why not design an entire class based on this material, if it's going to help students learn abstract concepts? He stumbled upon "Philosophy and Popular Culture," a series of books that cover "The Matrix," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and "The Simpsons" among others. He plans to use these books in the spring.

"These are legitimate, philosophical essays, written by philosophers, designed to introduce people to philosophy by appealing to the content of these shows," says Hunter.

For instance, the chapter on "Thus Spake Bart: On Nietzsche & The Virtues of Being Bad" discusses Nietzsche and his idea of the "overman" and "the transvaluation of values."

An analysis of Bart Simpson supplies an excellent avenue into a discussion of Nietzsche's philosophy - although whether Bart exemplifies aspects of Nietzsche's thought remains to be seen, says Hunter. "Most of the pop-culture material I'm using doesn't provide perfect or ideal examples - it's just that the relationships are close enough to serve as a springboard into meaningful philosophical discussion."

While many professors are phasing pop culture into their courses, it's not a novel idea, says Tim Massie, who teaches "Varieties of Religious Experience: The Church in Rome" at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "Look at Cecil B. DeMille's version of 'The Ten Commandments' with Charlton Heston. How many families had their kids sit around the TV, to watch not just the movie, but perhaps learn more about their faith?"

The approach goes back to the 1960s, says Paul Giurlanda, chair of religious studies at St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif. "Except then it was Simon and Garfunkel," he says. "The drawback? It's easy to get youth culture wrong. I can remember several student retreats where 'hip' high school teachers at Catholic schools were playing 'Sounds of Silence' and not realizing that the students were so past that song. If you're going to ride this wave, you'd better be on top of it, and not a little bit behind it."

That's why Schwartz uses only episodes from "The Next Generation." "There are a couple of episodes in the '60s that are quite interesting," she says. "The problem is that my students are laughing too hard because the production value is so low, the acting is regrettable, and the plots are overly simplistic."

Although the course was a bit of a tough sell to faculty in the beginning, Schwartz says it has proved its worth over the past six years. "One of the things that some faculty were afraid of at first: 'What are graduate schools going to think when they look at a transcript?' Interestingly, what has come back to me from students is that interviewers are looking for something that stands out that's interesting to talk about and they very often ask, 'What's this about?' "

Eddy says he will never see "Star Trek" the same way again. Schwartz's class even inspired him to enroll in the psychology of religion this semester. "I am a more understanding, compassionate, and reflective person than I was this time last year."

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