Personal Belief and Teaching Ancient Religions: from minefield to pedagogical tool

  • Room 243, Institute of Classical Studies, Senate House, London
  • May 3rd 2017, 5.30-7pm

Ailsa Hunt

Religion (along with sex and politics) is proverbially banned from the dining room, but what about the lecture room, class room or seminar room? Few teachers, I suggest, would feel confident about bringing their sexuality or political leanings into discussion, say, of a passage of Aristophanes, even if they did deem such a perspective useful. Personal religious beliefs are probably even less appealing, a minefield to be avoided at all costs in the name of impartiality. And it is easy to see how reluctance to talk about our own religious position could spill over into our pedagogical practice, resulting in students who feel that their beliefs are to be left at the door of the class room and reclaimed on the way out.

But is it reasonable, beneficial, or even possible to talk about ancient religions, whilst pretending that modern religions don’t exist? If you identify as Hindu or Catholic or agnostic, should you try to ‘dissasociate’ from your religious identity when teaching or learning about ancient religions? This presentation argues ‘no’, and does so by exploring pedagogically valuable ways of introducing the religious beliefs of teachers and students into the learning environment. I show how this can both kickstart and deepen students’ engagement with ancient religions, providing intellectual routes in, as well as intellectual blocks and challenges which are themselves informative. At the same time, I do not wish to diminish the difficulty of introducing personal belief into the class room: this is a minefield, but not one to be avoided at all costs. Thus my discussion focuses on appropriately bounded and sensitive ways that personal belief can be given not just a place in the class room, but a positive role to play within the learning dynamic.

Ailsa Hunt