In the pursuit of justice: a renewed vision of the classroom

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Photo by Peter Burleigh

“Love ye Truth and Justice.”

Every UD student knows that these twin virtues constitute the ideal of our education. Too often, however, the love of justice is forgotten, especially in the classroom, dangerously diminishing its ability to foster empathy. It is enough to know, and it seems that it is too much to practice. 

Education can and should develop our empathy, inviting us to see through others’ eyes. If we engage with diverse experiences, including those of different races and cultures, we have the opportunity to more fully understand the perspectives of a broader community. Our liberal education becomes one that not only educates the whole person, but includes every person.

A love of justice, a desire to see all people respected and valued, becomes the fruit of this empathy, because I can now identify with “the other” in our shared humanity.

However, one of the pitfalls of a liberal arts education is the tendency to see the classroom as a space detached from reality and to consider discussions within it as purely hypothetical exercises. Such discussions have their place, but when considering questions of justice, they become quite harmful. 

At UD, I too often see the idea of discussion and debate corrupted to nothing more than a vain academic exercise, an invitation to forget that we are dealing with the lived realities of human beings, including those of our classmates. When students and professors are distanced from such realities by time or privilege, it becomes easy to dismiss the suffering that such oppression brings. 

For students of color, it is particularly painful when this approach is applied to questions of racial injustice. Whether the conversation centers around our past or present realities, I am concerned by the disturbing lack of empathy that can sometimes characterize the responses of those professing the pursuit of justice. 

Dehumanizing language evidences the dangerous nature of the abstract when it is used to dismiss marginalized groups; such language has too often marred my class discussions. Even in consideration of contemporary issues, “those people,” as people of color were so termed by a classmate, could be entirely discounted. 

This lack of empathy callously toys with the humanity of people of color, burdening us with the exhausting task of defending our existence and proving ourselves worthy of basic respect. 

For students of color, it is yet another reminder that we do not belong here, that this is a place where the visceral pain caused by injustice will be treated as nothing more than a trivial thought experiment.  The image of God within us is stripped and desecrated, sacrificed to the idol of another’s intellectual sport.  

I recognize that, in many cases, my classmates are not attempting to cause harm, nor are they intentionally disrespectful. However, the perpetrator’s intent does not discount the pain caused to students of color. 

If we take pride in the university’s Catholic identity, then our conduct should be guided by a faith deeply disturbed by any person’s suffering. In their most recent letter on racism, Open Wide Our Hearts, the bishops of the United States address this need for Christian empathy, reminding the faithful that “‘the love of Christ impels us’ to see others as our brothers and sisters (2 Cor 5:14). For, ‘if [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it.’” 

Our sense of justice must be rooted in empathy, recognizing the fundamental dignity of humanity and the worth of the other. If I recognize that those around me share in the same human dignity, I will want to treat them with respect and avoid any harm, even unintentional, because I feel their suffering as much as my own. 

I understand the concerns raised by many, that, in an effort to provide a safe space for students of color, the university would institute draconian regulations policing student speech and conduct, perhaps even their Halloween costumes. However, I would encourage those concerned to simply listen to students of color. 

Since last summer, many students of color have come forward to share their personal, painful experiences of being ignored, unsupported and even unsafe because of their race at UD, including in the classroom. Very few, if any, demanded new regulations and policies. We are not asking for witch hunts or secret police, or even discipline as our primary end. We just want empathy–to be seen and respected like any other student.  

The classroom will play a preeminent role in growth of this empathy, but it must accept change. We cannot continue to see justice and injustice as hypothetical or immaterial, we must see them as grounded realities that will, and often should, disrupt and discomfort. 

We cannot act as though everything can be reduced to a debate with no consequences. Injustice is not something we can simply forget upon the close of a lecture or ignore in the name of a false, suffocating unity. 

Fostering the empathy necessary for this real change will take the effort of the entire community; I do not pretend to hold all the answers. However, whether the path ahead involves critically evaluating and diversifying our Core, providing support for students of color at the institutional level, or any other change, we cannot afford to wait any longer to begin these conversations.  

I do not advocate for the end of academic freedom, nor the imposition of some hegemonic ideology, but for a restored understanding of the purpose of our education. From this renewal springs a new model of the classroom: a grounded, empathetic space in which we recognize both the awful weight and the liberating promise of justice, where each student may be respected as a valuable, fully realized human being. 

On this campus, I do not envision the end of debate. Rather, I invite the community to join me in rediscovering the meaning of our education that will guide us long after we leave the classroom. Only then should we count ourselves worthy of such a lofty motto.

3 COMMENTS

  1. “Veritatem, Justitiam Diligite”
    This article, opening with our school’s wise motto never mentions truth, save the introduction. Instead of truth, our first love (appropriately so at an academic institution), defining and guiding justice, the reader is told to root justice in empathy. Truth is not, as this article puts it, “detached from reality,” but it is reality.
    I agree that we ought to avoid vain academic exercises divorced from truth. Debate among sophists runs counter to both truth and justice.
    I disagree that classrooms ought to be safe spaces for persons of color, nor should they be safe spaces for white people or any category. The classroom is a place where our assumptions are attached and remolded to conform with truth.
    How much better is it to consider justice in terms of eternal truth, rather than the vague quality of empathy? Ought not our classes be spaces of truth, the objective, which can be applies to individual circumstances?

    • Hi Michael,

      I think we agree on more than it seems, so hopefully I can provide some clarification for both of us. I don’t think that truth and empathy are as mutually exclusive as you have presented them. Far from a vague quality, empathy is the recognition of the specific truth about the human person, especially their dignity; grounded in truth, it allows for the application to individual circumstances you reference. Therefore, when we consider the pursuit of justice, it is not a question of favoring either empathy or truth as a foundation, but rather of using empathy as a framework through which we can more fully understand the truth.

      I would agree that truth is not detached from reality, nor did I state that it was in my article, but my concern is that, without empathy, we can more easily forget this, especially when we discuss questions of injustice that continue to have real consequences. Empathy grounds us; because we can recognize the humanity of the other, we are less inclined to treat injustice as a thought experiment that ultimately serves neither truth nor justice.

      Perhaps I should clarify my use of the term “safe space.” I agree that classrooms are indeed spaces where people should be challenged to examine and reevaluate their assumptions, but there is a vast difference between challenging someone’s ideas and challenging their worth. To have productive discussion, you need a space where all students, including students of color, feel safe to contribute, knowing that they might be challenged, but not disrespected. A hostile environment only hampers the pursuit of truth.

      Thanks for the comment!

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