Social justice experts praise new curriculum

By Meghan Smith
November 21, 2008

Staff photographer

Three national experts on social justice education agreed that Cabrini’s new core program, Justice Matters, can bring about lasting changes in students in the coming years.

In addition to the three experts, two students told about how their courses have changed them deeply.

“It’s engaged learning, going out and feeling it and touching it, being able to mold it however you see it,” were the words used by Jillian Smith, senior English and communication major, to describe Cabrini’s new curriculum, Justice Matters. Cabrini College hosted the academic symposium “From Service to Solidarity: New Directions in Catholic Higher Education,” on Friday, Nov. 14. A five-person panel challenged Cabrini faculty as well as visiting professors from other colleges and universities to re-examine their responsibility as educators in the American Catholic tradition of higher education.

Panelists included the Rev. Charles Currie, SJ, the president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, Dr. David O’Brien, Loyola professor Emeritus of Roman Catholic Studies and History at the College of the Holy Cross, Dr. Suzanne C. Toton, associate professor of theology at Villanova University and senior English and communication majors Christine Graf and Smith.

“A decade ago, hundreds of college and university presidents pledged themselves to a systemic program to make citizenship the heart of American education,” O’Brien said. “Now there is a promise that was made that’s finally in need of redemption.”

O’Brien proposed three challenges for Catholic institutions of higher education to put these responsibilities into action: promoting Catholic studies and Catholic intelligence, teaching social ethics across the curriculum and taking citizenship more seriously.

“My limited knowledge of your new core curriculum, with phrases such as ‘Justice Matters’ and ‘Engagement for the Common Good’ suggests that you at Cabrini are making a serious commitment to meeting those three challenges,” O’Brien said.

Currie emphasized that due to Cabrini’s small size, “we have the ability to make big things happen and to make them happen quickly.”

Currie said that if students get out in contact with poor and vulnerable communities, they will be transformed.

“Students must let the great reality of this world into their lives so they can learn to feel it, to think about it critically, respond to its suffering and engage it constructively,” Currie said.

Currie said that Cabrini has moved significantly beyond the relatively simple volunteer and community service to an increasingly global pursuit of justice and solidarity.

Toton said that when she started teaching, she thought Catholic higher education “could play a significant role in ending hunger and in building a more just and peaceful world,” and that courses and textbooks were the way to introduce students to these issues.

Years later, while teaching at Villanova University, Toton changed her mind. Courses are not enough. Action was needed. So then she thought service learning was the answer. She learned she was wrong about that too.

Toton was a vital part of changing Villanova’s curriculum to incorporate service and social justice.

But then she realized service was not enough either. Service just leads to more service. She then realized that partnerships, like the one both Villanova and Cabrini have capitalized on, can result in social change. Partnerships put students in touch with real problems. “It gives us a sense of moral urgency. It will not allow us to slip into easy resolve or simple solutions. It will not let us settle for less.”

Cabrini’s new core curriculum, Justice Matters, is putting into action what each of the panelists spoke about.

“There is no limit to what we can do if we dream big enough and work hard enough,” Currie said.

Through the words of the two Cabrini students on the panel, it was clear to see the lasting impact these courses have on college students.

Smith and Graf took the course Working for Global Justice in spring 2008. At the symposium, Smith and Graf explained their experiences with the course and spoke passionately about how it changed the way they view the world.

Graf explained the course as not “just community service anymore. It was social justice and it was working for change.”

Toton said of Cabrini’s curriculum, Justice Matters, “It is a core curriculum that at its heart is dedicated not to education for the idea of justice, but for its creation.”

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Meghan Smith

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