Epistemological Privilege and Critical Thinking
by Dr. Walter E. Wyman, Jr.
Weyerhaeuser Professor of Biblical Literature and Professor of Religion
Baccalaureate Address, May 21, 2011
When President Bridges invited me to present a baccalaureate address, I began to reflect on the meaning and significance of a “baccalaureate.” I discovered there are three definitions of the word “baccalaureate”:
(1) the degree of bachelor conferred by universities and colleges;
(2) a sermon to a graduating class;
(3) the service at which this sermon is delivered.1
Somehow delivering a sermon on this occasion didn’t seem to be quite what was called for. In search of historical perspective, I turned to the Whitman College Archive. Conveniently available on-line is a great cache of documents from the history of the College, including programs for the baccalaureate services from 1897 to 1909. The 1909 Baccalaureate began with a Hymn–“A Mighty Fortress is our God,” followed by an Invocation, the Lord’s Prayer, the responsive reading of Psalm 89, a scripture reading, several prayers, and the Baccalaureate Sermon by President S. B. L. Penrose, titled “The Divine Requirement.” The service concluded with another hymn and Benediction.2
Not much help for me here, I thought. The outline follows closely the order of worship for a Sunday morning Protestant church service. The only thing missing is taking up a collection and singing the doxology. Presumably everyone’s tuition money was safely in hand and there was no need for the collection, at least.
Now, it is not my intent to doubt the appropriateness of the College’s practice in 1909. After all, the College seal still bore the motto “Christo et Patria,” “For Christ and Country,” and the College, although it had recently dissolved its ties to the Congregationalist denomination, still considered itself to be a “non-sectarian Christian institution of learning.”3
Although I did not find any immediate help for my talk in my research, what I found was utterly striking: what was taken for granted as completely appropriate in 1909 seems totally inappropriate in 2011. Obviously, Whitman College has changed. The College no longer defines itself as a Christian school; rather, we understand ourselves as a secular liberal arts college. President Bridges does not expect me to deliver a Christian sermon, nor would I consider it appropriate for the occasion. I invite you to reflect not only upon the shift in self-understanding of Whitman College since 1909, but on the deeper significance of the change. My thesis is that something greater than institutional identity–Christian or Secular school–is at stake. The deeper issue is what I will call “epistemological privilege.”
What do I mean by “epistemological privilege? “Epistemology” comes from the Greek “episteme,” which means knowledge. “ “Epistemological privilege” means that some world views are taken to be closer to the truth about reality than others, and that some ways of knowing are reliable guides to that truth. Whitman College clearly gave epistemological privilege to Christianity in 1909. Students were, after all, required to attend daily chapel. Christianity provided the basic conceptual and mythical framework for thinking about human nature and destiny, the meaning of human existence, and the moral values that should guide human action.
When Whitman College dissolved its ties to the Congregationalist denomination and over time became fully secular, it ceased to grant epistemological privilege to Christianity. The Religion Department does not offer the course “Evidence of Christianity,” nor is it the case that the “Holy Scriptures shall be a textbook,” both mandates by the College constitution of 1892. Students today read the Bhagavad Gita and selections from the Qur’an in “Encounters,” and although selections from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are still required, they are not considered “Holy Scriptures” except in a strictly phenomenological sense. The Religion Department is clear that there is a difference between the confessional study of religion appropriate to religious institutions and to religious practice, and the academic study of religion appropriate in a liberal arts context. It is no longer assumed that any one tradition has the last word about those ultimate questions that perennially trouble the human spirit: “What can I know, What ought I to do, What may I hope?”4
If Christianity no longer has an epistemologically privileged position at Whitman College, what is offered instead? Anything? Is there a functional equivalent? Are all positions to be on the same footing? In our religiously pluralistic, culturally diverse, and–some would say–Postmodern situation, can any position claim epistemological privilege?
One possible answer is that the ideals of the Enlightenment hold the epistemologically privileged position. We might think of those ideals as a combination of Socrates and Kant. Socrates knew that he did not know, and questioned all reputed experts to see if they possessed genuine wisdom. Kant uttered the demand, “Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!”5 Enlightenment means that each of us must do our own thinking, not allowing any authority to determine what we are to believe. In short: critical thinking occupies the epistemologically privileged position once occupied by Christianity. Critical thinking is the relentless pursuit of the question: is what is said to be the case actually the case? And it is precisely that pursuit that you have been engaged in ever since you arrived on campus. If we privilege any epistemological stance in the academy, it is the art of asking critical questions.
But note: critical thinking is a method; it is not itself a substantive position. To say that critical thinking occupies the privileged position once accorded to Christianity only opens up further questions. Are no world views and ways of knowing, no substantive convictions and values, being advanced? Is it really possible to live and act on the premise that no position is epistemologically privileged? So the dialectic continues to the next level of critically reflecting upon what we are all doing here. But there is no time to pursue these questions further, so I must leave them to your own reflections on your education.
My last word to you is this: just because you are graduating from college does not mean that you are done with critical thinking. You still face the task of deciding where you stand, what truths you hold, how you are to vote, what moral decisions to make, which directions to pursue with your lives. If we have done our jobs well, we have now worked ourselves out of a job–at least as far as the class of 2011 is concerned. As recipients of the Bachelor’s degree “with all the honors and privileges pertaining thereto” you are now well equipped to pursue the never-ending critical task on your own. I wish you well.
1Merriam Webster’s College Dictionary, 10th Edition.
2 “Whitman College Digital Collections,” http://www.whitman.edu/content/penrose/archives/digital-collections.
3College Constitution of 1908, Article II ; see the College Catalogue of 1909, p. 17.
4Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Norman Kemp Smith, trans. (NY: Macmillan, 1968), B 832-833.
5Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?” in Lewis White Beck, trans., Kant on History, The Library of Liberal Arts (Bobbs-Merrill, 1977), 3.