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This letter is in response to:
The Goal of Teaching Biblical and Religious Studies in the Context of an Undergraduate Education
by R. Timothy McLay

R. Timothy McLay argues that the goal of undergraduate education is "is to learn to think critically and to articulate one's ideas better in oral and written form." He contends that content plays, at best, a subservient role, for it is irrelevant to this process and need not be the focus of class sessions. The subservient role of content is evidenced by the fact that courses required to complete a bachelors degree typically form an odd constellation and, even more so, the content covered in similar courses offered in different institutions is not uniform. Thus, in the end, "if we can teach students to think critically, it will not matter what content they encounter. After all, content is irrelevant."

Although I endorse McLay's stated goal of an undergraduate education, I do not concur with his construal of the role of content. While the array of required courses and the content of a particular course may vary some from one school to another, that variation is not "arbitrary" or attributable to the "whim" of the individual professor, as he asserts. Variation does not betoken arbitrariness, but attests the diversity of ways phenomena can be addressed and studied. Indeed, if the content of courses were identical from school to school, it would be a good sign that critical thinking — rather than content — was irrelevant.

More important, courses in a liberal arts curriculum are configured according to areas of content not because content is key but because critical thinking skills are tailored to the different areas of human knowledge. Critical thinking is not the same in economics as it is in physics, not the same in sociology as it is in art, not the same in philosophy as it is in history, and not the same in religious studies as it is in chemistry. To argue that content is irrelevant because the honing of critical thinking skills is the supreme goal is to treat critical thinking as if it were of one sort. A liberal arts education helps a student learn how to think critically in various areas of knowledge. That is why there could never be such a thing as a "critical thinking" baccalaureate degree; critical thinking skills are manifold and content-determined.

It is in this light that content takes on a much more significant role in religious studies than McLay allows. I want students to understand how to think critically about the issues biblical scholars struggle with. I require that they become familiar with debates about what phenomena in the text are important to ponder and which questions yield what sorts of answers. I want them to understand the issues scholars have struggled with in the history of the discipline — e.g., why the documentary hypothesis arose, what its weaknesses are, and what alternatives are being advanced — because these are ways of studying the Bible critically. They are not the only way to do so, but they are part of what it has meant to do so; to claim to think critically about the Bible without understanding and entertaining these issues would be illusory. Content matters.

Ronald L. Troxel, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Citation: Ronald L. Troxel, " On McLay," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2006]. Online:


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