In “The Service of Faith and Promotion of Justice in Jesuit Higher Education,” Kolvenbach states that, “Students, in the course of their formation, must let the gritty reality of this world into their lives, so they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering and engage in it constructively” (35). This is a tenet of education that I, too, hold a very strong belief in. Throughout his piece, Kolvenbach expresses the importance of direct experience and thoughtful analysis of situations in order to create solidarity and then, from there, a passion for justice and movement toward a better world.
I learned the word empathy in my sixth grade theology class and I remember the lesson vividly. My teacher explained over and over again the difference between sympathy and empathy; according to her, sympathy is “feeling bad for someone” and empathy is “sharing somebody’s pain because you have felt it before.” Now, I understand these terms as much more than those basic definitions, but for a group of 11-12 year-olds, those definitions worked. Perhaps empathy is too big of a concept for a child that age to entirely understand, but pretty much everybody in my class did, because we were asked to go out and experience it.
I did not really have to deal too much with the definition of empathy again until my Junior year of high school when I my theology teacher taught us about justice and brought up the word “solidarity,” making us define it as best we could. Solidarity carries empathy with it and from these extreme emotional connections and understanding, justice and the passion for it arises.
That year, we were all asked to do a service project for our final. We could pick anything we wanted to do as long as we carried it out throughout the entire semester and could speak about it and spread interest to the class. At first, everyone dreaded it, but when it came time for the presentations at the end of the school year, the passion each student felt for their cause was astonishing. I could hear the sense of purpose and commitment in my classmates’ voices as they explained their organization and what they did and it was incredible. Some of these same classmates are still carrying out their projects today.
If it had not been for this pushing of my teachers to think about such importance concepts, I do not think I would be as critical of or responsive to suffering as I am today. It is easy for a student to read a book or learn about some historical event and think that the events were “bad” or “not okay,” but it takes real thought and attempts at putting yourself into the events that create a real idea of the problems at hand. I also understand how maybe teachers and parents might want to shelter students in order to keep them aiming toward “good” or away from bad habits or experiences, but if students are not faced with the reality of the world, how will they face it when school is over?
Much of what Kolvenbach says ties directly to my feelings on allowing Huckleberry Finn in schools. Yes, there are themes and words that might be uncomfortable or difficult to handle, but then it is up to the teacher to point that out to the student and make them think. School is for thinking and developing ideas, is it not? So present the ideas, make the students think and guide them through it, because eventually they’re going to have to do it on their own and going out into the world with a sense of understanding about its workings and past transgressions will make it much easier and more productive than being entirely blind to the sufferings, past and present, of others.