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Lessons Learned

February 2000

Ideas Have Dangerous Consequences
By Carol Winkelmann, English Department

Ideas have dangerous consequences. This is the theme of a recent issue of
Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education in which Dean Brackley, S.J. revisits the story of the six Jesuits and two women who were murdered ten years ago at the Universidad Centroamericana in San Salvador. The crime of the UCA Jesuits was that they had dared to speak the truth in defense of the poor. The crime of their housekeeper and daughter was that they dared to be present when the Atlacatl commando unit entered the university to eliminate those who spoke out against social injustice. In his discussion of the tragedy, Dean Brackley cites words of John Paul II:  "…if need be, a Catholic university must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society" (cited in Conversations 16, fall 1999: 17).

Like other professors at Xavier, I have thought many times about the awful price the UCA Jesuits paid for their faith-based, socially-oriented teaching and research. While no one I know personally has paid for faith-based lessons with her or his life, I have wondered often about the price that those of us who teach and learn at American Catholic Jesuit universities pay for speaking their truths -- about discrimination against women or homosexuals, for example. In the same Conversations issue, Susan Ross, associate professor of theology at Loyola University of Chicago, challenges Jesuit universities to take more seriously the 34th General Congregation's Statement on Women in Church and Civil Society. She notes that responding more substantially to the recommendations of GC 34's statement on women will be perceived as dangerous by those who fear change.

In "Literature and the Moral Imagination," an Ethics, Religion and Society course, my students and I learn about violence against women in literature and in life. We analyze how written, spoken, and visual texts--and the relations between them--have been used throughout the ages to create and sustain gender ideologies that contribute to inequities, injustices, and finally violence against women and girls. We also go to a local shelter for battered women for 15 hours of service learning. As the students interact face-to-face with battered women, I ask them to consider how what we've read in literary, scholarly, or popular texts and how what we've learned about feminist theories about violence
relate to actual violence the women have sustained and share in stories. 
One story that frequently arises in conversations with battered women about male violence is one that the students and I consider early in the semester in class discussion: the biblical for story of the fall from the garden of Eden. In class we talk about the significance of the story throughout the ages in the religious and popular imagination--how the story of Eve's "transgression" has affected gender ideologies, stereotypes of women and men, role relations between the sexes. In the shelter, battered women share stories of how their partners frequently use this biblical story to justify their violence. 

At the end of the semester, my students tell me that learning with and from the
community while rendering service is transformative. It's an opportunity to test theory against practice, to analyze how the language of the academy measures up to the meaning-making practices in everyday life. For some students, classes such as mine have heightened their ethical expectations for themselves and other people. My course, some students have said, has made them aware of subtle and not so subtle uses of sexist language and other forms of gender bias in their encounters with family, friends, students, teachers, and co-workers. I feel good about these "success stories" -- the stories of personal maturation and growing social awareness leading to action. 

Yet I realize some students feel pressure not to "rock the boat" or otherwise "cause trouble" by making other people aware of issues such as gender bias. A student once told me about confronting a professor who frequently started off class sessions with jokes about gender relations, typical "battle between the sexes" humor that made many of the female students in the course uncomfortable. After the confrontation, the relationship between the student and the professor changed. They could not make eye contact. They did not acknowledge one another. While other students expressed gratitude that the sexist jokes had stopped, the student who came forward felt alienated from the professor and eventually quit attending class. He left the classroom and the
opportunity to learn the other lessons that the professor was assuredly very qualified to teach and that the student undoubtedly needed to learn.

As I think about this story, I wonder once again about lessons learned. On the one hand, the student "learned the lesson" that courses such as mine teach: he analyzed a language event, considered its effect in context, then took personal responsibility for social change. On the other hand, I felt alarmed and dismayed at the story. The student might have taken other strategies to stop the problem. The university could have intervened. We talk in my class about the risks of resisting authority figures and the need to proceed with care. However, because communication between the student and professor had broken down, the student lost the language community instead of reshaping it. 

Certainly, some ideas have dangerous consequences. While this student did not pay the horrendous price that the Jesuits and their housekeeper and her daughter paid on a dark night ten years ago at UCA, he did pay a price for his dangerous ideas. Serious questions remain (and should, I believe, remain open). What lesson did this student learn? Are the lessons learned always the ones teachers want to teach? Can school lessons backfire, misfire, or mislead? When life is in the classroom, not simply textbooks or traditions, when the goal is to address the whole student in her or his complicated humanity, in her or his complex world, is it always so easy to tell? 

In the recent E/RS workshop on Justice Across the Curriculum, Xavier teachers
learned about the adjustment or reentry problems students face when they return from Nicaragua or Nepal. After their intense scrutiny of and action on behalf of social injustice in foreign lands, they experience culture shock when they reenter our community. They discover that ordinary Americans, even on our campus and in our classrooms, may not know or especially care about social injustice. So many service learning students experience dissonance and alienation. Perhaps this type of dissonance happens to students who actually do learn the lessons of our Jesuit mission or of our E/RS program. They may learn that laboring for justice is a dangerous idea. 

Academic life--like all walks of life--is a complicated web of conflicting, contrasting, and aligning meaning-making practices. One teacher's lesson is intricately bound up with another teacher's lesson. A good lesson begun in one context may achieve completion in another. And even a less-than-well-received lesson in one classroom might find its full fruition in another--or its undoing. 

Today I have a new appreciation about the interconnectedness of classrooms and the realities and consequences of ordinary life, of the real relations between theory and practice. Indeed, it does take a whole village to raise a child.


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