At a Jesuit university halfway around the world, a visiting Latin American theologian told the assembled Jesuits, "Students? Oh, students are the necessary sin of a university!" The comment was made tongue-in-cheek to stir the audience up. But his line of thought was deadly serious. Students come to a university to get a good education so that they will get good jobs and succeed in society. But the financial and social "success" to which they aspire is most often an essential contributing element in a dynamic that is rewarding a few while miring the majority in killing poverty. It is part of the problem of contemporary injustice, not part of its redemption.
The dilemma is obvious: If the university does not meet the students’ and their families’ expectations, they will not come, and the university will not survive. Yet any university’s commitment to truth, beauty, goodness, the common good and justice requires that its major mission in today’s reality is to work as a universityin its teaching, research, publications and institutional actionsfor global transformation toward greater justice for all.
I heard echoes of this dilemma recently when I reviewed the "Education for Justice Self-Study" done by a Midwestern Jesuit university as part of a national process to explore the commitment to justice in Jesuit higher education. The process will conclude with a national gathering in October 2000, at which Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., the superior general of Jesuits worldwide, will give the keynote address.
The self-study notes that "Jesuit law schools today are caught between calls to strengthen the competencies of graduates and movements [in legal education] advocating various social justice perspectives." It is clear in the context of the full study that this tension is not about law students spending too much time on the streets demonstrating. The tension is over the type of lawyer the school produces: one whose education has focused on practical skills training and who will move easily into "the workaday world" of the law firm, or one who has been exploring the role of law in establishing a more just society and is likely to challenge the assumptions and activities of today’s "workaday world."
This is not the law school’s problem alone. It is the dilemma of the whole Jesuit and Catholic university system and of every thoughtful, socially conscious parent and aspiring student. All these people invest their lives, their energies and their resources in an educational experience that they trust will lead to a happy, successful, independent and worthwhile life. Yet even a modestly successful, financially independent life by U.S. middle-class standards is available to only a small percentage of the human family. That is not necessarily bad in itself, but the ways people today have to secure that lifestyle are literally making the rich richer and the poor poorer.
Consider some of these realities and the trends they reveal:
The wealthiest 20 percent of the world’s population (about 1.2 billion people) receive over 86 percent of the world’s annual income according to the U.N.D.P. annual Human Development Report. The poorest 1.2 billion people are living on about 1 percent. These percentages are not static. Over the last 30 years, statistics reveal an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a shrinking percentage of the global population. In today’s world economy, wealth does trickle, but it trickles up, not down.
Many argue that while the rich are getting richer, so are the poor. Everyone is better off. But in fact the rising tide of the global economy is not lifting all boats. The Human Development Report for 1996 and the report for 1999 both provide documentation showing that the people of nearly half the countries in the world (about 1.5 billion people or 1 out of every 4 people on earth) are poorer in real terms today than they were 10 or more years ago.
More economic growthat least of the kind we are experiencing nowwill only make the problem worse. Outside the United States, there is practically no production of new jobs. So while wealth is being produced, it is not being distributed through jobs. Government redistribution programs are being cut back almost everywhere. So the wealth produced by the current processes of economic growth will continue the consolidation of global wealth and the gap between the wealthy few and the vast majority in poverty.
The processes for creating wealth are not available to the poor. The poorest 20 percent of the world’s nations receive 1 percent of foreign direct investment, export 1 percent of the world’s goods and services, and make up 0.2 percent of the world’s Internet users, making the odds against their successful participation in the current global economy overwhelming.
Nor will this deteriorating situation improve without dramatic changes. Most Americans assume that the poor of the world could be helped to live a comfortable, civilized life like our own without much change in our lifestyles, assumptions or values. That illusion cries out to be shattered. Environmentalists are now saying that a middle-class U.S. lifestyle for everyone on the planet would require three more planets with the size and wealth of the earth.
The path of economic development that defines early 21st-century globalization is a path toward greater and greater inequality, social unrest and ecological degradation. Preparing studentseven poor or minority students on scholarshipto take their places in most of society’s major institutions and to succeed in carrying them forward in their current directions will actually increase the economic and social injustice being done to the vast majority of the human family today.
The challenge that these trends reflect is major. It cannot be met by adding a course on some dimension of justice here or there in a crowded curriculum. The very orientation and cumulative impact of the curriculum itself must be reassessed. Does it prepare graduates to participate and to compete successfully in the processes feeding these contemporary negative trends? Or will it prepare competent and committed graduates to work for their transformation, for a world with basic justice for all its inhabitants and harmonious patterns of living within the ecological webs that constitute the universe as we know it?
The distinguished U.S. Catholic historian David O’Brien noted recently that Jesuit colleges and universities have excelled at encouraging volunteerism and have done a fairly good job establishing service-learning opportunities, but have only scratched the surface on actual education for justice. William Spohn, director of the Bannan Institute for Jesuit Education and Christian Values at Santa Clara University and one of the principal organizers for the national Commitment to Justice in Jesuit Higher Education Project, confirmed that the self-assessments done by the Jesuit schools across the country support that judgment. "When it comes to teaching, research and curriculum design," he said, "it seems that the work of education for justice has just begun."
What would such education for justice require? First, it requires a form of conversion, a shift in vision and values from the reigning assumptions governing expectations nationwide. Most people in the country today assume that U.S. lifestyles are and should be the main models for the global future. Without some type of arresting life experience in a context that not only permits but also promotes reflective reevaluation, people will not see the impossibility of that assumption and the urgent need for social transformation.
Members of the Jesuit volunteers Corps speak of what happens to them in living and working with those in poverty as being "ruined for life!" Students and faculty members who have done overseas semesters or guided immersion experiences in third world settings like the Dominican Republic are practically unanimous in affirming the lasting transformative power of the experience. "Service learning" experiences, combined with reflection seminars designed to help participants probe the social justice issues raised by the experiences, can also have significant impact.
Universities also need to recruit students who, through their family culture or high school programs or domestic and international travel, already recognize the need for transforming our society’s values and directions. Scholarships could be developed to attract those students who have shown leadership in, talent for and commitment to social justice. Perhaps one of the benchmarks of serious commitment to education for justice should be the point at which the number of scholarships for leadership in service and commitment to justice surpasses the number for athletic ability.
The shift in campus culture needed to foster real education for justice will become possible when there is a critical mass of students who see the need and share the commitment to social transformation. The majority of faculty and administrators must also share in the vision. It is too much to expect students to integrate their life experiences and their studies into a justice vision and a career in mission to the greater social good while faculty and administrators continue their work on the basis of a considerably different set of visions and values, implementing a curriculum designed to achieve different goals.
Immersion experiences and justice seminars should be encouraged for all faculty and staff members. Education for justice must be an explicit part of hiring processes and incentive systems throughout the university. And the commitment to justice must be visible in how the university exercises its corporate influence in the larger civic community through its contracts, employee relations and policies, awards and honors, public relations, fund-raising and advocacy efforts.
Is it feasible to make education for justice the central charism of the mission of Catholic higher education today? There are many understandable anxieties related to making this option. Where will the students and the money come from? How do such complex and ponderous institutions negotiate so dramatic a turn? What kind of future could graduates of an education for justice dream of?
The questions are real, but they are questions of a dying age. The current trends and dynamics revealed in the processes of globalization cannot continue unabated without igniting social unrest and ecological disaster. More and more business leaders, church people, academics and social commentators in this country are acknowledging thisat least privately. And billions of people trapped in poverty worldwide feel the injustice intensely as they glimpse the lifestyles of the rich and famous of the world from their huts and favellas.
U.S. Catholic higher education will be faithful to its deeper mission when it helps us to envision ways to live in solidarity with all peoples and with the earth in a single holistic community, one in which the law of justice and love regulates the social, cultural, economic and political development of everyone on the planet.
The tools of the cyberspace revolution can be used in exciting ways to open people’s eyes to reality, to introduce them to the life and experiences of people in all types of situations around the world, to link them in real-time global collaboration in learning and in evolving a new, more just social vision and strategies for achieving it.
Promising new signs of student activism have been visible in recent months in the demonstrations in Seattle and Washington, D.C., and in the campus anti-sweatshop activities being organized across the country. As students begin to recognize the need for social transformation, demand visions of more just alternatives and provide the idealism needed to energize social change, they will cease playing the role of "the necessary sin of a university." Jesuit universities and the whole Catholic university system need to be present with those students, celebrating the grace of dawning conversion, nurturing the search for the truth that will bring greater justice to all people, leading the way into a viable, sustainable and more redemptive future.