In all those years I was pursuing a Ph.D. in religious studies, the question of what my profession really stood for rarely came up in conversation with fellow academics, save for occasional moments when the position of the humanities in higher education came under criticism in public discourse. When such moments passed, it was again simply assumed that anyone entering a doctoral program in the humanities knowingly signed on to a traditional career of specialized research and teaching.
But the closer I got to receiving that doctorate, the less certain I became that this was a meaningful goal. I was surrounded by undergraduates who were rich, well-meaning, and largely apathetic to what I learned and taught. I saw my teachers and peers struggle against the tide of general indifference aimed at our discipline and succumb to unhappiness or cynicism. It was heartbreaking.
Fearing that I no longer knew why I studied religion or the humanities at large, I left sunny California for a teaching job at the Asian University for Women, in Chittagong, Bangladesh. My new students came from 12 different countries, and many of them had been brought up in deeply religious households, representing nearly all traditions practiced throughout Asia. They, however, knew about religion only what they had heard from priests, monks, or imams, and did not understand what it meant to study religion from an academic point of view. And that so many of them came from disadvantaged backgrounds convinced me that this position would give me a sense of purpose.
I arrived in Bangladesh prepared to teach an introductory course on the history of Asian religions. But what was meant to be a straightforward comparison of religious traditions around the region quickly slipped from my control and morphed into a terrible mess. I remember an early lesson: When I suggested during a class on religious pilgrimage that a visit to a Muslim saint’s shrine had the potential to constitute worship, it incited a near-riot.
Several Muslim students immediately protested that I was suggesting heresy, citing a Quranic injunction that only Allah should be revered. What I had intended was to point out how similar tension existed in Buddhism over circumambulation of a stupa — an earthen mound containing the relics of an eminent religious figure — since that act could be seen as both remembrance of the deceased’s worthy deeds and veneration of the person. But instead of provoking a thoughtful discussion, my idea of comparative religious studies seemed only to strike students as blasphemous.
Even more memorable, and comical in hindsight, was being urged by the same Muslims in my class to choose one version of Islam among all its sectarian and national variations and declare it the best. Whereas Palestinians pointed to the "bad Arabic" used in the signage of one local site as evidence of Islam’s degeneration in South Asia, a Pakistani would present Afghanis as misguided believers because — she claimed—they probably never read the entire Quran. While Bangladeshis counseled me to ignore Pakistanis from the minority Ismaili sect who claim that God is accessible through all religions, Bangladeshis themselves were ridiculed by other students for not knowing whether they were Sunni or Shi’a, two main branches of Islam. In the midst of all this I thought my call to accept these various manifestations of Islam as intriguing theological propositions went unheeded.
With my early enthusiasm and amusement depleted, I was ready to declare neutral instruction of religion in Bangladesh impossible. But over the course of the semester I could discern one positive effect of our classroom exercise: students’ increasing skepticism toward received wisdom. In becoming comfortable with challenging my explanations and debating competing religious ideas, students came to perceive any view toward religion as more an argument than an indisputable fact. They no longer accepted a truth claim at face value and analyzed its underlying logic in order to evaluate the merit of the argument. They expressed confidence in the notion that a religion could be understood in multiple ways. And all the more remarkable was their implicit decision over time to position themselves as rational thinkers and to define their religions for themselves.
An illustrative encounter took place at the shrine of the city’s most prominent Muslim saint. I, being a man, was the only one among our group to be allowed into the space. My students, the keeper of the door said, could be "impure" — menstruating — and were forbidden to enter. Instead of backing down as the local custom expected, the students ganged up on the sole guard and began a lengthy exposition on the meaning of female impurity in Islam. First they argued that a woman was impure only when she was menstruating and not at other times; they then invoked Allah as the sole witness to their cyclical impurity, a fact the guard could not be privy to and thus should not be able to use against them; and finally they made the case that if other Muslim countries left it up to individual women to decide whether to visit a mosque, it was not up to a Bangladeshi guard to create a different rule concerning entry. Besieged by a half-dozen self-styled female theologians of Islam, the man cowered, and withdrew his ban.
I was incredibly, indescribably proud of them.
Equally poignant was coming face to face with a student who asked me to interpret the will of Allah. Emanating the kind of glow only the truly faithful seem to possess, she sat herself down in my office, fixed the hijab around her round alabaster face, and quietly but measuredly confessed her crime: She had taken to praying at a Hindu temple because most local mosques did not have space for women, and she was both puzzled and elated that even in a non-Islamic space she could still sense the same divine presence she had been familiar with all her life as Allah. She asked for my guidance in resolving her crisis of faith. If other Muslims knew about her routine excursions to a Hindu temple, she would be branded an apostate, but did I think that her instinct was right, and that perhaps it was possible for Allah to communicate his existence through a temple belonging to another religion?
In the privacy of my office, I felt honored by her question. I had lectured on that very topic just before this meeting, arguing that sacred space was not the monopoly of any one religion, but could be seen as a construct contingent upon the presence of several key characteristics. This simple idea, which scholars often take for granted, had struck her as a novel but convincing explanation for her visceral experience of the Islamic divine inside a Hindu holy space. Though she had come asking for my approval of her newly found conviction, it was clear that she did not need anyone’s blessing to claim redemption. Humanistic learning had already provided her with a framework under which her religious experience could be made meaningful and righteous, regardless of what others might say.
And thanks to her and other students, I could at last define my own discipline with confidence I had until then lacked: The humanities is not just about disseminating facts or teaching interpretive skills or making a living; it is about taking a very public stance that above the specifics of widely divergent human ideas exist more important, universally applicable ideals of truth and freedom. In acknowledging this I was supremely grateful for the rare privilege I enjoyed as a teacher, having heard friends and colleagues elsewhere bemoan the difficulty of finding a meaningful career as humanists in a world constantly questioning the value of our discipline. I was humbled to be able to see, by moving to Bangladesh, that humanistic learning was not as dispensable as many charge.
But before I could fully savor the discovery that what I did actually mattered, my faith in the humanities was again put to a test when a major scandal befell my institution. I knew that as a member of this community I had to critique what was happening after all my posturing before students about the importance of seeking truth. If I remained silent, it would amount to a betrayal of my students and a discredit to my recent conclusion that humanistic endeavor is meant to make us not only better thinkers, but also more empowered and virtuous human beings.
So it was all the more crushing to be told to say nothing by the people in my very profession, whose purpose I thought I had finally ascertained. In private chats my friends and mentors in academe saw only the urgent need for me to extricate myself for the sake of my career, but had little to say about how to address the situation. Several of my colleagues on the faculty, though wonderful as individuals, demurred from taking a stance for fear of being targeted by the administration for retribution or losing the professional and financial benefits they enjoyed. And the worst blow, more so than the scandal itself, was consulting the one man I respected more than anybody else, a brilliant tenured scholar who chairs his own department at a research university in North America, and receiving this one-liner:
"My advice would be to leave it alone."
It was simultaneously flummoxing and devastating to hear a humanist say that when called to think about the real-life implications of our discipline, we should resort to inaction. And soon it enraged me that the same people who decry the dismantling of traditional academe under market pressure and changing attitudes toward higher education could be so indifferent, thereby silently but surely contributing to the collapse of humanists’ already tenuous legitimacy as public intellectuals.
While my kind did nothing of consequence, it was the students — the same students whom I had once dismissed as incapable of intellectual growth — who tried to speak up at the risk of jeopardizing the only educational opportunity they had. They approached the governing boards, the administration, and the faculty to hold an official dialogue. They considered staging a street protest. And finally, they gave up and succumbed to cynicism about higher education and the world, seeing many of their professors do nothing to live by the principles taught in class, and recognizing the humanities as exquisitely crafted words utterly devoid of substance.
As my feeling about my discipline shifted from profound grief to ecstatic revelation to acute disappointment, I was able to recall a sentiment expressed by one of my professors, who himself might not remember it after all these years. Once upon a time we sat sipping espresso on a verdant lawn not far from the main library, and he mused that he never understood why young people no longer seemed to feel outrage at the sight of injustice. He is a product of a generation that once once rampaged campuses and braved oppression by the Man. On first hearing his indictment, I was embarrassed to have failed the moral standard established by the older generation of scholars like him. But now I see that it is not just young people but much of our discipline, both young and old, that at present suffers from moral inertia. With only a few exceptions, humanists I know do not consider enactment of virtue to be their primary professional objective, whether because of the more important business of knowledge production or material exigencies of life. And I can only conclude, with no small amount of sadness, that most humanists are not, nor do they care to be, exemplary human beings.
Maybe I should move on, as did a friend and former academic who believes that the only people we can trust to stand on principle are "holy men, artists, poets, and hobos," because yes, it is true that humanists should not be confused with saints. But the humanities will always appear irrelevant as long as its practitioners refrain from demonstrating a tangible link between what they preach and how they behave. In light of the current academic penchant for blaming others for undoing the humanities, it must be said that humanists as a collective should look at themselves first, and feel shame that there is so much they can say — need to say — about the world, but that they say so little at their own expense.
After a year and a half in Bangladesh, I do not doubt any longer that the humanities matters, but now I know that the discipline’s raison d’être dies at the hands of those humanists who do not deserve their name.
Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. in religious studies from Stanford University in 2011. He currently serves as Rice Family Foundation Visiting Fellow and Lecturer at Yale University.