Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Lilly Fellows Conference Wrap-Up: Educating for Social Justice

As is usually the case, I left the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts National Conference this weekend with a lot of things to think about and a renewed commitment to my vocation as a professor in a church-related college.  This year's conference host, the University of Scranton, did a fabulous job of showcasing what is great about Jesuit higher education.  Thanks to Gretchen Van Dyke and her staff for a great conference.

I was challenged and informed by the conference's three plenary speakers.  They all tailored their talks to the conference theme: "Faith and Academic Freedom in Civic Virtue."  Mark Ravizza's talk (you can read my tweets here) focused on his work with students in the University of Santa Clara's CASA de la Solidaridad program in El Salvador. Ravizza encouraged the faculty and administrators in attendance to develop programs that connect students with human suffering.  He talked about the superficiality of social media and urged us to replace our "civic blindness" with a "fellow feeling" for those in need.

The second plenary address was delivered by Patricia McGuire, the president of Trinity Washington University.  McGuire described a major "paradigm shift" at Trinity.  What was originally a women's liberal arts college known by many as the "Catholic Wellesley" (Nancy Pelosi and Katherine Sebelius are alumnae), has been transformed under McGuire's leadership into a university committed to educating women in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington D.C.  The goal was to bring the college's Catholic commitment to social justice and civic engagement to an entirely new constituency. The Trinity student body is now mostly Baptist and African American. The college changed, but the Catholic mission remained the same.

The third plenary speaker was musician and educator Rob Kapilow. He talked about his work in bringing classical music to public audiences who do not normally listen to classical music.  He left the music faculty at Yale to become a music missionary, spreading the gospel of classical music to anyone who would listen.  His commitment to civic engagement and speaking to broad audiences reflected the Jesuit tradition of education for social justice.

Kapilow was great, but Ravizza and McGuire really got me thinking about how we teach social justice in our church-related colleges and universities.  Both educators stressed the need to get students outside of the classroom.  Ravizza's entire talk centered around his experience in the CASA program. McGuire implied that the primary mission of a Trinity faculty member should be to engage real world problems through internships and external programming.  Even when her faculty does engage in traditional scholarship, it should be for the purpose of solving a social problem that would make the world a more just and humane place.

I can't argue with any of this.  And as I noted above I found it all quite inspiring.  But I could not help but wonder how historians should respond to these two talks.  Do historians fulfill their missions at church-related schools by promoting study abroad trips, encounters with poverty, or teaching classes devoted to those aspects of history that have a social justice theme?  Or does the discipline of history in and of itself provide the empathy necessary to develop a "fellow feeling" for those who are different than us?  It would seem that whether you study lynching, homelessness, the beliefs of the founding fathers, American conservatism, or everyday life on 19th century Midwestern farms, the study of history--as a discipline--can teach students skills necessary for them to live a civic-minded life.  Why does the social justice or "world changing" dimension of the curriculum always have to happen outside of the classroom?  Granted, real life encounters will most likely be more transformative than intellectual encounters with the dead in a history class, but this does not mean that disciplinary concerns, such as the sharpening of historical thinking skills in a history classroom, cannot also contribute to the mission of a church-related school?  History teaches empathy, understanding people on their own terms, intellectual hospitality, and humility, to name a few of the virtues students learn by studying this subject.  I would think a history classroom, no matter the subject or the "service-learning" dimensions of the class, can instill in students a commitment to civic virtue.  Or at least this is what I argue in several chapters in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

I am sure that both Ravizza and McGuire would agree with this, but I wish they would have said more about it in their talks.