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Unfortunately, the commitment to protect all people, a core principle of Catholic social teaching, too often finds itself up against forces that stress a kind of unbridled individualism.
For instance, much of popular television would have us believe that life is a competition and winner takes all, or that finding the secret edge to get ahead of someone else is of tremendous value, or that watching the loser get thrown out of a group activity is a moment for applause.
Study the world of advertising and you'll quickly learn the values of self-indulgence with little or no acknowledgement that we are members of families, communities and neighborhoods whose needs ought to be considered in balance with our own.
Our schools are where we can begin to educate our citizens in justice, but as the articles about the Khalil Gibran International Academy suggest, our schools are no more exempt from the political passions and interests that erupt in conflict than any other institution.
The academy, the first Arabic-speaking school in New York City, is meant to be a model institution fostering knowledge of Arabic language and culture. Given the United States' presence in Iraq - and the desperate shortage of Arabic speakers that has plagued our efforts there and in the rest of the region - that would seem to be a useful and appropriate goal.
But the charter school is facing heated opposition from those who would prefer the school never open and who have forced the school's first principal, Debbie Almontaser, to resign because of her measured explanation of the word "intifada."
In defining rather than denouncing the word, Almontaser appears to be a better educator than she is a politician. Unfortunately, in a post-9/11 world, something that should not be particularly controversial - an Arabic-language school - is. Almontaser has been brought down by those so mistrustful of Islam and so anti-Arab that the idea of a school focused on Arabic language and culture fills them with fear and suspicion. It seems obvious that part of this reaction has to do with Israel. Temperate discussion of the word "intifada" is beyond the pale to the impassioned.
A good question for the members of Stop the Madrassa and for the nation as a whole is this: How shall we understand our enemies if we don't study their language and culture? We can club our way to victory, but do we want to? Is it worth the price in lives and resources? And what will we have won if and when we emerge triumphant?
Ignorance is never a good thing, and to argue that New York would do well to close a school because it instructs students in Arabic language and culture seems astonishing, particularly when it comes from the mouths of educators such as Daniel Pipes. But to him and the other members of Stop the Madrassa, a hypothetical danger - a possible radicalization of students - is of more moment than a clear and assured gain - greater knowledge of Arab language and culture.
This is where we are today in our society, and the furor over the Khalil Gibran International Academy reflects this. The controversy is itself a sign of just how desperately such a school is needed.
Troubling as the ouster of Almontaser is, it comes as good news that in other quarters justice-based education is making new gains as Catholic groups and others work together to build a new global consciousness.
The Washington-based Center of Concern is helping educators integrate justice education into the local curriculum. A visit to www.educationforjustice.org offers a multitude of resources.
"We apply Catholic social teachings based on current events," said Notre Dame Sister Katherine Feely, the Education for Justice program director at the center.
The incident in New York reminds us that such applications can and will be controversial at times. Everyone favors justice, but not all will agree on what it is. But if we can begin to educate students in foreign languages and culture, we lay the basis for both knowledge and empathy. If we have students look at current events in terms of justice, we create a platform for discussion of competing claims and interests that can move them from entrenched positions.
Our schools are laboratories for change. They are not immune from the political passions of the day - certainly many school principals besides Almontaser have lost their jobs because of that - but they do offer hope of reasonable discussion of those passions.
Respect for others, a willingness to listen: These are not glamorous achievements that earn students medals. But if our schools can educate our students to do both, they will lay the foundation for a more peaceful world.
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