Students are "bred for passivity from day one,” points out University of St. Michael’s College Christianity and Culture program co-ordinator Giulio Silano. Pixabay

Political passion looks for a place on campus

  • October 22, 2018

For most Catholics on the greyer side of the generation divide, student politics today definitely isn’t what it used to be.

University students in London, Ont., might shut down a street for a party, as was the case earlier this month, but when was the last time they took the streets for a cause?

“It’s 50 years since ’68. It’s not yesterday,” points out University of St. Michael’s College Christianity and Culture program co-ordinator Giulio Silano. The professor of Mediaeval history isn’t nostalgic for molotov cocktails and the smell of burning tires, but he does wish he could see some spark of political passion and engagement on campus.

“They are bred for passivity from day one,” Silano said. “That’s the whole thrust of how we educate them — that they should go along to get along.”

That was never the Catholic idea of a university, he said.

“Universities arose exactly as a place where people could sit down for awhile and think about whatever they inherited in a critical way,” said Silano. “You look at whatever your parents and grandparents and the Church are handing you. And then you say, ‘Are there problems with this? What do I make of it?’ If you can’t assess it, it doesn’t live. It dies.”

Silano’s vision is in line with the thoughts of Cardinal John Henry Newman.

“If then a practical end must be assigned to a university course, I say it is that of training good members of society,” Newman wrote in The Idea of a University in 1852. “It is the education which gives a man a clear, conscious view of their own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them.”

For King’s University politics, social justice and peace studies professor Shawna Lewkowitz, the last thing a Catholic university should do is accept political passivity.

“We’re educating them for the world, not just for jobs and the workforce,” she said. “We’re looking at educating them as whole people who are capable of interacting with the world we live in.”

Lewkowitz sends her students into the political arena to talk to local community leaders, identify issues, organize, analyze and debate. As Ontario municipal elections swung into high gear this fall, King’s students in the political science and social justice clubs organized an on-campus all-candidates debate.

“Seeing those students in action and hearing their questions, I would say that we’re making a difference,” Lewkowitz said. 

The secret sauce in the King’s formula for turning out politically aware students is the Catholic social teaching tradition, she said.

“Educating young people is a long game,” said Lewkowitz.

Silano worries that the university can’t substitute for a genuine experience of community and mentorship. 

“Both as Catholics and as citizens, that’s the real problem — the poverty of our experience of community through our education,” he said. “The parish experience is a joke. The Catholic school doesn’t work. The family is what it is. So these young people don’t tend to come (to university) with the experience of community.”

Whatever their politics — conservative, liberal or anarchist — it’s the university’s job to foster political self-awareness, said Lewkowitz. Given the state of political debate off-campus, the next generation has to be better at this, she said.

“Perhaps even more urgently now, we need students and people able to understand and engage on those issues in a way that is constructive and leads to resolution, instead of escalation,” she said.

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