In a talk brimming with challenging questions, Bellah examined a singular problem facing American educators: As the United States, which he now calls an empire, extends its reach farther around the globe, the trend for American college students is a growing emphasis on individual pursuits and turning away from the larger world. The challenge then lies in finding ways to engage students so that they become involved participants in their own citizenship.
“Our job is to make civic literacy and civic engagement intrinsically good, part of what a fully formed, mature human being is and wants to be,” Bellah said. “What we’re up against is the dominant culture. It’s not easy. That’s why I say higher education is, in principle, countercultural. What is higher education? Job preparation is certainly one legitimate answer. But higher education has other ends if it is going to make any sense at all.”
While American dominance is not a new thing, Bellah pointed out that the end of the Cold War has in some ways made life more confusing. These are murkier times without simple answers. In short, they are times that require greater engagement. But, as a group, he said, today’s students are growing progressively less involved. He pointed to statistics showing that 50 percent of eligible students voted in the 1972 national election versus only 32 percent in 2000. Daily newspaper readership among students dropped from 46 percent to 21 percent in the same period, and there’s also been a decline in television news viewing in recent years. Nor is the Internet having much of an impact—Bellah said only 11 percent of college students report getting news online.
Ultimately, Bellah said, those charged with shaping students must find ways to demonstrate that being a complete person means more than a paycheck.
“It is clear that the United States cannot run the world alone on the basis of our overwhelming military power,” Bellah said. “But how do we even think about justice and the common good in ways that will strengthen international institutions and really make for a safer and healthier world? How, in this deeply provincial nation, do we educate citizens responsible for the whole world?”
Part of the answer, he said, may lie in such things as the Jesuit commitment to education for justice. “Job preparation would take on a richer set of meanings if seen in the context of a concerted effort for justice and the common good,” he said.
Bellah didn’t rule out that the seemingly increased interest in the upcoming election may signal a turning point for civic engagement. “Whatever may be the case, it will not be irrelevant for us to remind our students that we are ostensibly spreading freedom abroad. Without engaged citizenship, we may lose it at home.”
Kandi Stinson, interim associate academic vice president for the University, opened the morning’s activities by welcoming the capacity crowd and introducing Roger Fortin, academic vice president and provost for the University. Fortin made brief remarks on the appropriateness of this year’s theme “Ethics: Educating for a Good Society.”
“During the past half-century, we’ve had four core studies,” Fortin said. “And each one of them has reflected the importance of ethics in the general education of our students.”
Other activities throughout the day included a faculty discussion, a musical presentation of the Slavoink Dances, a film and discussion based on life in Jamaica and a tribute to the late James E. Hoff, S.J., former president and chancellor of the University who died in July.
The annual event began in 2001 when President Michael J. Graham, S.J., decided to celebrate the University’s role in society each year by bringing to light topics of academic importance to the institution.
The first year’s theme was the new academic vision statement crafted by faculty as a road map for the next decade. The second year, the focus was academics as the University presented the new honors program, Philosophy, Politics and the Public, now in its second full year, the new Catholicism and Culture minor and key strategic issues of the University’s future.
Last year’s theme of diversity was explored in several sessions by faculty who considered how it should be addressed by families, on campus and globally. It was also addressed in a talk by Spencer Crew, executive director and chief executive officer of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.