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Education for spirited citizenship: learning for a more just tomorrow

by Susan CalefCategory: Updates

Those of us who have spent our careers in educational institutions know well that technology changes our lives – AND our classrooms, presenting new opportunities as well as challenges. The ubiquitous cellphone, for example, enables anyone to record scenes whenever and wherever. As a result, video clips of police killing unarmed Black men shocked the nation, provoking a public outcry and a new awareness of realities far too long out of sight and mind. This raised consciousness led our university president to issue an urgent call: together turn our attention to the study of race relations and to reflect on how to respond in a faith that does justice.

“The Bible, Spirituality, and American Public Life”

It was that call that inspired me to design an undergraduate course that would combine my expertise in biblical studies with my interests in gender, power, and privilege, with a sharpened focus on racialized difference. Three years of interdisciplinary study of race produced The Bible, Spirituality, and American Public Life, an elective that enrolls students from multiple majors who, although not racially and ethnically diverse, are preparing for diverse professions: healthcare, law, social work, journalism, counseling, advertising, computer and environmental sciences.

Reflective of our Jesuit identity and mission, the course explores the link between Christian spirituality and justice by examination of the realities of American public life at the intersection of race, gender, and economics. The overarching goal is to develop our capacity for “spirited citizenship,” which we define as “the conscious effort to live the rights and responsibilities of one’s citizenship ‘inSPIRITed’ by the ideals on which our country was founded and by the biblical vision that is the foundation of Christian faith.”

The course is an in-depth investigation of racialized disparities in three interrelated systems: the economic, healthcare, and criminal justice systems, with a focus on Black women’s experiences. Students self-select which disparities they want to study, then pursue their questions in teams. As required by the core curriculum, teams use data searches on the internet in order to learn how to differentiate reputable sources of information from the misinformation served up in social media. Colleagues and I lay the historical groundwork by lecturing on the economic motives at work in the creation of “race,” which conveniently “justified” slavery and later Jim Crow laws.

Two students conversing in front of their educational poster.
Poster exhibit in Creighton University library during Black History Month.

Because the learning opportunities that higher education affords are not available to everyone, we share “highlights” of our learning in a final class project. Inspired by a course I took at Marymount in the 70s, Roger Panetta’s American Cultural History, in which we produced multimedia presentations, I require each team to use digital technologies to produce materials about racialized disparities, including personal reflections on the call to respond as “spirited citizens.” The first such project, illustrated in the photo above, was a poster exhibit that hung in the library during Black History Month. This project involved learning how to create the “augmented reality” that museums now use in exhibits, then embed them in each poster. Future plans include putting our digital technology skills to the service of the Great Plains Black History Museum in the African American neighborhood north of campus.

In a closing ritual each of us share what this course has meant to us and what our own action step will be as “spirited citizens.” As I listen to each, I am deeply gratified, but more so grateful, as memories of my own undergraduate education call to mind those who prepared me for this profession: my mentor Ellen Marie Keane, RSHM, Frank Demers with whom I studied sociology of religion, and Roger Panetta, whose creative pedagogy has inspired my efforts for decades. I do what I do in this course thanks to them . . . and the cellphone. Deo gratias!

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