Employers want people who can examine critically, debate, write well. The other skills they can learn on the job. Refining and honing those skills — and creativity — that's what we're doing.

James Mark Shields

It's OK if students feel a little unsettled in his classes, James Mark Shields says, because that feeling typically emerges after they have questioned what they thought they already knew.

"Critical thinking is sometimes packaged in a safe way — we're thinking critically about what we already know or expect," he says. "I like to push students to think critically in ways they never thought they could think, to imagine possibilities that they'd never imagined before. This can make you rethink your own values, and that can be a little unsettling."

An influential book sparked Shields' own change in perspective and shifted his career — and life — in ways he couldn't have predicted. While enrolled in a master's program in social and political theory at the University of Cambridge, he read An Inquiry into the Good by Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitarō. It is one of the earliest texts meshing Buddhist and Western thought.

"I was fascinated," he says. "It delayed my grad studies by about eight years as I made the shift to learn languages and develop knowledge of Asian culture. I could have completed my Ph.D. much sooner, but this is what I wanted to do."

Merging his study of Western political philosophy and his interest in modern Buddhist thought and Japanese and Asian philosophy, Shields brings a unique background to the comparative humanities program. He teaches entry-level courses, mixing both Western and non-Western texts, and upper-level courses that examine a single theme — Utopia, for example — from different perspectives.

"I think that having a critical capacity is fundamental to students being engaged citizens," Shields says. "Employers want people who can examine critically, debate, write well. The other skills they can learn on the job. Refining and honing those skills — and creativity — that's what we're doing. That's what the liberal arts in general does, and I think our program is really focused on that."

Shields also teaches upper-level Asian philosophy courses for the philosophy department and serves as director of the Humanities Center, which underscores the continued relevance of the humanities by coordinating events, bringing in speakers and examining themes from the perspective of the humanities.

"It's an attempt to really highlight and promote and support the humanities at Bucknell," Shields says of the center. "We want to make sure that the humanities and social sciences are visible at a time when they are more relevant than ever."

Posted Sept. 22, 2017

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