By James Hearne
Tim Watters walks around his classroom, excitedly gesturing with his hands. His voice wavers, now filling the room, now barely above a whisper.
“We are the only expression of the universe’s self-awareness,” he says, before pausing to let that precious insight sink in. This is Introduction to World Religions, and it’s not for the faint of heart.
“This is deep stuff,” says Watters. “That’s pretty cool.”
The course introduces students to an experience of “the original spiritual framework that forms many modern day religions,” Watters said. It is intended to show students the common spiritual ancestry of several of the world’s most prominent religions.
Philosophy, said Watters, is always both introspective and reflective, meaning that it requires one to both look within oneself, and also to take a look at one’s place in society.
There can be challenging concepts to grasp at this level of human thinking.
Student Avi Buri said that he is getting a lot out of it. “I think it’s a good class,” he said. “Some of it is a little out there.”
He said that Watters’ teaching style may be hard to follow at times, but it’s a marked improvement from some other instructors he’s had. “I’ve had a few professors where they say, ‘Yeah, this is bullshit, just use the book.’”
“He’s very animated,” said Mathew Coward, another of Watters’ students. “It’s the most insightful class I’ve ever taken. I like soaking it all in.”
Rajdeep Kaur has taken another course on the philosophy of religion, as she finds the topic fascinating.
“I definitely like this one a little more,” she said, adding that Watters is more open-minded than your average instructor. “You have to pay attention,” she said, of Watters’ lectures. “Let your mind be free.”
By comparison, Buri said he likes that Watters is so passionate about what he says, but that the lectures can become a constant stream of information, “kind of like watching Robin Williams.”
Watters allows for representatives of some important world religions to come and speak to his class. For instance, a buddhist monk named Pannobhasa spoke about living in Burma for 18 years. “In Burma, a monk is welcomed with open arms,” he said. “In America, you are looked at as something of a curiosity.”
Religion is only one aspect of philosophical studies at Whatcom. Fred Tabor teaches Environmental Ethics, the study of the ethical questions regarding human impact on the environment.
“This course challenges our assumptions about life,” Tabor said, enforcing a recurring theme from students about philosophy lessons in general. “My job is not to tell people what to think but to challenge their beliefs.”
“What is industrialized thinking?” Tabor asks his class. “The idea that humans are entitled to dominate nature.” On the whiteboard are written terms like colonialism, industrial thinking, and conspicuous consumption.
Rather than lecture, in Tabor’s classroom the dialogue and interactions go both ways. When the discussion turns to consumerism, some students protest that stores like Wal-Mart are unnecessary. Tabor replies by pointing out that it carries plenty of items people need, including food and clothes.
“How many of you are naked right now?” Tabor asked, rhetorically.
“I wish,” replies a female student.
Tabor likes to challenge the anti-materialist viewpoint that seems to be pervasive in the class, particularly when it comes to the holidays. One student said he would not buy his children Christmas presents.
“Don’t buy them toys?” Tabor asked.
“Give them love,” the student replied.
“Love doesn’t pay the bills,” said Tabor, sardonically. “Well, sometimes it does.”
Tabor is determined to help his students see things from every perspective. “We all need consumer products to some degree. It’s not all black and white.”
Makayla Nienaber, a student who said this was her first philosophy class, said she really was getting a lot out of it.
“You start to realize how precious our earth is,” she said.
Whether students come away feeling enlightened, enriched, entranced or just confused, some of this coursework is not optional. Introduction to Logic, a class taught by Watters, is described as one of the fundamental courses of philosophy. The course satisfies a quantitative reasoning requirement as students look at patterns of reasoning and rationalization.
“They have been using these patterns their whole lives,” Watters said. “They just don’t know it.”
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