Friday, March 11, 2011

Preparing Students for the Pacific Century

“How do we as theological educators prepare students for the Pacific Century?” I asked the faculty of Brite Divinity School at the Texas Christian University at Forth Worth, Texas. The twenty-first century has been dubbed the Pacific Century. While politicians, economists, and social scientists pay a lot of attention to the rise of China and India, what do we need to do to prepare students to be future ministers and civic leaders?

I spent two days with the faculty and students of Brite Divinity School and the Department of Religion of Texas Christian University at the invitation of the Asian (Korean) Church Studies Program. The animated discussion on transnationalism and theology in the Asia-Pacific prompted me to think more about the question I have raised.

Many theological schools in the United States have not positioned themselves to face the challenges of the twenty-first century. Currently we have three major geopolitical blocs shaping the future of the world: North America, the European Union, and Asia-Pacific. But our theological curriculum is very outdated, leaving the Asia-Pacific largely out of its scope.

There are historical and social reasons why theological schools have not caught up with the shifting geopolitics:

· The limitation of disciplinary boundary. Faculties are trained in specific fields, and some do not think Asia-Pacific matters in their field and should be included in their syllabus.

· Theological faculties are ill equipped. Many of the current theological educators do not feel equipped or prepared to talk about the Asia-Pacific, with its complexities and diversity.

· Asian and Asian American faculties feel marginalized. Tokenism is still an important problem. The one or two Asian or Asian American members of the faculty feel that they are the “designated” experts, called upon to manage diversity and to interpret Asia from Japan all the way to India!

· Not sufficient Asian or Asian American students. In some theological schools, Asian students, usually Koreans, make up a significant percentage of the student body. But there is a lack of students from other Asian countries to embody the diversity that is Asia. In other schools, Asian or Asian American students represent only a tiny minority of the student population.

· The Asian “ethnic” churches are seen to be conservative. In the debate of issues such as homosexuality in U.S.A. and Canada, Asian “ethnic” churches are perceived to be conservative. Progressive seminaries find it hard to build relations with these churches.

While I do not want to underestimate these barriers, I want to argue that theological schools need to be forward-looking.
· Teaching for a changing world. Preparing students for the twenty-first century does not simply mean including Asia-Pacific in the curriculum. It means broadening students’ worldview to include a global perspective. Students need to know about the formation of “Chinamerica” and its impact on the world and especially on poorer countries.

· Broadening the definition of theological competency. Some schools have included globalization in its requirements. This is a good first step. But it is not enough to ask students to take courses to fulfill this requirement, while the “traditional disciplines” remain largely unchanged. I would like to see global concerns included across the curriculum, in worship and liturgy, as well as in the culture of the school.

· Retooling and diversifying the faculty. Theological schools need to provide resources and incentives for faculty to re-imagine how their fields address the twenty-first century. It is also not enough to have a few tokens of racial and ethnic minorities or international professors to be the spokespersons and champions of diversity.

· The “silent” Asian students in the classroom. Some Asian students do not speak up in class because of language barriers and their socialization process. Instead of treating them as second-class citizens in the classroom, how can faculty and students engage in meaningful conversations about multicultural pedagogy? A useful resource is a report on Asian and Asian American pedagogy and teaching materials offered by a research team.

· Religious diversity. We must help students understand the challenges of religious pluralism and the religious actors in international politics in the global era. I recommend Thomas Banchoff’s Religious Pluralism, Globalization, and World Politics.

· Beware of learning opportunities in the community. Theological schools should encourage students to take advantage of learning opportunities about the Asia-Pacific offered by universities and the community. Strategic alliance with Asian and Asian American religious and civic leaders can be fostered.