Following is a guest post by Jessica Wrobleski, professor at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia:
‘Tis the season for celebration and remembrance, for resolution and anticipation and hope.
For me—as, I am sure, for many who read and contribute here—one significant part of my Christmas holiday and anticipation of the year ahead involves planning for the classes that I will teach in the spring term: reworking syllabi, planning events and speakers, and trying to learn from both the pedagogical successes and failures of past semesters. Recently, I was beginning work on the syllabus for RST 230: Catholic Social Thought (which fulfills a general education requirement, and is one of my favorite classes to teach) when I read Pope Benedict XVI’s Message for World Day of Peace 2012, “Educating Young People in Justice and Peace.” As someone who feels called to work in Catholic undergraduate education (and who still counts herself among the “young”), I could not help but feel a particular challenge from this year’s message: how can I more effectively contribute to my students’ education in freedom and truth, in justice and peace and hope in the year ahead?
Benedict begins this message by acknowledging the “rising sense of frustration at the crisis looming over society” that marked the year 2011, and for this reason he addresses young people and those responsible for their education from “the conviction that the young, with their enthusiasm and idealism, can offer new hope to the world,” (1). He explains that educating in justice and peace demands an environment of free dialogue and mutual respect between teachers and students, illuminated by the truth that human beings are called beyond themselves to relationships of compassion and solidarity. Education is “the most interesting and difficult adventure in life,” and consequently calls for responsibility and sacrifice on the part of both students and educators (2). Moreover, the Pope identifies the tension between youthful idealism and the apprehension of the next generation at the magnitude of problems in the world today, and he councils young people not to yield to discouragement in the face of difficulties or to abandon themselves to false solutions. If education in justice and peace is to bear fruit through action, it will require the courage and resilient hope that allows both young and old to “look at the world in its truth and not be overwhelmed by tribulation,” (1).
Indeed, scripture tells us to rejoice in tribulation, for it leads to the endurance and character necessary for a hope that does not disappoint—a hope sustained by the knowledge that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5: 3-5). As the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote in Economic Justice for All, Christian hope “is not a naïve optimism that imagines that simple formulas for creating a fully just society are ready at hand.” Rather, it is “rooted in a faith that knows the fullness of life comes to those who follow Christ in the way of the Cross” (125-126), and it is wary of ideologies that claim to have a final solution to humanity’s problems. Fr. Ron Rollheiser has echoed this sentiment by stating that hope is not mere optimism but “a vision of life that guides itself by God’s promise, irrespective of whether the situation looks optimistic or pessimistic at any given time.”
I’ll admit, I have found that cultivating a true hope—and not simply naïve or false optimism—is one of the greatest challenges of educating youth in justice and peace. I sometimes struggle with how it is possible to open students’ eyes and hearts to the world’s injustice and violence—the depths of global inequalities of opportunity and development, the injustice and danger of an industrial food system and excessive dependence on fossil fuels, the trauma of generations of people who have never known life without daily threats of violence and conflict and war—without smothering the hope that must nurture and carry forth action on behalf of justice and peace. In my brief experience as a teacher of Catholic Social Thought, I have found that it is not difficult to awaken students to the need for justice and peace in the world, but they often feel overwhelmed by the magnitude and complexity of the issues involved. With each subsequent semester that I have taught this course, I have deliberately tried to foster a pedagogy that can call forth hope as well as teaching truth. I offer a few thoughts toward this end here—by no means as an expert, but rather in the spirit of seeking and sharing in collected wisdom—with the hope that others will do so as well in comments or in other posts here.
I have come to believe that sharing living, personal stories is an essential part of a pedagogy of hope, and I have tried to incorporate this in Catholic Social Thought courses in at least a few ways. First, in addition to academic and official texts, including readings that share the stories of those whose lives testify to hope has been an effective way of fostering it. This semester, I am using Jeffry Odell Korgen’s Solidarity Will Transform the World: Stories of Hope from Catholic Relief Services (Orbis 2007), in which Korgen shares numerous accounts of individuals and communities that are being transformed through solidarity in partnerships with CRS. Second, inviting practitioners and leaders into the classroom to share their own stories with the class can also be effective as a pedagogy of hope. My students at St. Mary’s College last spring were most moved by the speakers who addressed them in person such as Kevin Dugan, whose exciting and innovative work utilizes youth athletics as an instrument of peacebuilding and community-based development inspired by Catholic social teaching (see fieldsofgrowthintl.org, playing4peace.nd.edu). Other speakers also brought their own stories of truth and hope, putting a face on social issues and bringing ideals of justice and peace to life. Third, by incorporating learning through service—such as volunteering in a conflict-resolution program for local middle school students or taking part in initiatives promoting fair trade—students are able to experience their own agency in constructing stories of justice and peace.
Beyond the strategies that can be built into syllabi, however, it seems that the most important part of educating in justice and peace requires making one’s own life a story of hope. In this message Pope Benedict expresses today’s pressing need for educators who do not merely “parcel out rules and facts,” but who first live the life of justice and peace that they propose to others; educators must be “witnesses capable of seeing farther than others because their life is so much broader,” (2). Here my pedagogical reflection merges with more conventional New Years’ resolution-making, as this message ultimately calls every person—young and old, educator and student—to take responsibility for his or her own ongoing “education” by inviting God’s Spirit to transform them into an instrument of justice and peace. The answer to the question I asked at the beginning of this reflection therefore ultimately hangs on my honest and courageous—and yes, hopeful—willingness in 2012 to strive for a life that is deeper and broader in its love of God and neighbor.