HALLWAYS, HIGHWAYS, AND HEDGES: THE HALLMARKS OF CHRISTIAN HIGHER EDUCATION

0

marangos_frankSource: OINOS Consulting

by Frank Marangos, D.Min., Ed.D.

“The contemporary world urgently needs the service of educational institutions which uphold and teach that truth is that fundamental value without which freedom, justice and human dignity are extinguished.”   Pope John Paul II

What are the hallmarks of Christian institutions of higher learning? What are the characteristics that should distinguish faith-based colleges and universities from their more secular-minded counterparts?  The recent canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, foundress of the Missionaries of Charity, on September 4, 2016 by the Catholic Church provides a hint to an appropriate response.

Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu‎ in 1910 to ethnic Albanian parents in Skopje. At the age of 18, feeling a call to religious life, Agnes became a Sister of Loreto and changed her name to Teresa (Thérèse of Lisieux). In 1928 she set sail for India and spent the next 15 years teaching. In 1946 Teresa asked and received permission to form a new religious order dedicated to serving “the poorest of the poor.” By the time of her death (1997), Mother Teresa’s India-based Missionaries of Charity supported over 4,000 nuns and managed hundreds of orphanages, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and medical clinics around the world.

The Christian Church confers sainthood on people considered so holy during their lives that they are now believed to be with God and, on humanity’s behalf, intercede with Him to perform miracles. For the first thousand years of its history the apostolic community recognized and placed the names of holy individuals on an official list (canon) without any formal process. Over time, the Catholic Church in the West (Rome) developed a detailed method for canonization. Her Eastern Orthodox counterpart (Constantinople), however, never recognized a comparable method. While the Catholic Church today posthumously confers canonization, Eastern Orthodoxy uses the term “glorification” to refer to a saint so designated without any formal rite. The official recognition of saints grows from the consensus of the church.

The canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta marks the culmination of the Catholic Church’s process that entailed four rigorous steps, each with their respective designation: (a) examination of candidate’s life (servant of God), (b) proof of candidate’s virtues (venerable), (c) a recognized miracle (blessed), and (d) a required second miracle (saint). Rather than begin the official process after the usual five-year period, Pope John Paul relaxed Vatican rules and granted a dispensation allowing the procedure to begin two years after Teresa’s death.

Preaching to an estimated 120,00 pilgrims attending the outdoor canonization Mass for Mother Teresa in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis stated that the Christian life does not consist in “merely extending a hand in times of need. The task which the Lord gives us,” he insisted, “is the vocation to charity in which each puts his or her entire life at His service.” Aside from emphasizing her commitment to the unborn and poor, the Pontiff underscored that Teresa’s “only criterion for action was gratuitous love, free from every ideology and all obligations, offered freely to everyone without distinction of language, culture, race or religion.”

The Pope commended the example of Mother Teresa encouraging the Church and its institutions to similarly “tend to the needs of the marginalized.” A major theme of the Holy Father’s pontificate, he emphasized that the “Gospel of the marginalized is where the Church’s credibility is found and revealed. It is God’s Logic . . . that opens new horizons for humanity.”

Christian institutions of higher learning would be wise to advance the tenets of God’s Holy Logic and, like Saint Teresa of Calcutta, exemplify themselves with its hallmarks.  Only by continually seeking new horizons for serving the educational needs of those living at society’s margins, can faith-based colleges and universities hope to build a society that is based on equity, fraternity, and solidarity. Unfortunately, higher education in America is in a current state of disruption and, therefore, far from conducive to the advancement of such prized egalitarian aspirations.

According to the U.S. Department of Education there are 4,000 degree-granting institutions of higher education in America of which 1,600 are private, nonprofit and religiously affiliated. The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) reports that there are more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities in America serving nearly 950,000 students.

The United States Students Association reports that student debt in America is currently $1.3 trillion (2016), the second-highest level of consumer debt behind only mortgages. The average graduate of higher education institutions owes $28,400.  Census and survey data indicate that the majority of college students are employed at least twenty hours a week. While more than a third of all full-time students work full time, nearly half are enrolled part time. Due to the aforementioned constraints, marginalized groups are prevented from obtaining access to higher education, campus’ lack diversity, and society suffers various forms of human degradation.

Higher education has an important role to play in advancing social justice and in the development of an egalitarian society. Unfortunately, many adults are excluded from the educational system and hence cannot participate meaningfully in the economic, social, political and cultural life of their communities. More than ever, contemporary faith-based colleges and universities are needed to re-conceptualize their current systems to more faithfully provide access to the underserved and marginalized.

The concept of marginalization is generally used to describe socioeconomic, political, physical, and cultural spheres, such as, economic, educational, cultural, and other support systems. Marginalized groups have historically suffered deprivation in all walks of life in general and in education in particular. Not only are we aware of the vital role that education plays in counteracting disadvantages over which people have little control, but also has an important role in shaping their opportunities for education and wider life chances.

Education is a tool that helps the marginalized rise out of poverty. It allocates upward mobility and offers individuals the opportunity to truly partake in a growing knowledge economy. To do this successfully, however, institutions of higher education need to be diligent about programs, scholarships and endowments. Colleges and universities must strive to tap into every available resource, including donors and state and federal funds, to ensure that they provide equitable opportunities to marginalized groups and those that lack adequate financial resources.

According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities  (AACU), the struggle for equity has been central to the history of US higher education, asserting the importance and the social benefit of making the academy more inclusive. The imperative to admit those from marginalized groups into the power, privileges, and pleasures of academic life inspired the affirmative-action global policy statements of the Education For All Movement.

The Education For All Movement was introduced in 1990 with the Education For All Declaration authored in Jomtien, Thailand. The document incorporated an explicit commitment to “under-served groups” including “the poor; street and working children; rural and remote populations; nomads and migrant workers; indigenous peoples; ethnic, racial and linguistic minorities; refugees; those displaced by war; and people under occupation.”

Like Jomtien, the World Declaration of Higher Education(Paris, 1998), was published to encourage that higher education be equally accessible to all “on the basis of merit . . . without discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, language, religion or economic, cultural or social distinctions, or physical disabilities.” Accordingly, institutions of higher education have a duty “to educate, to train, to undertake research and, in particular, to contribute to the sustainable development and improvement of society as a whole.”  Following in the footsteps of the Jomtien and the Paris conventions, theDakar World Education Framework (2000) supported a more implicit commitment, referring to “children in difficult circumstances and those of ethnic minorities.”

Finally, the UNESCO, Education for All, Global Monitoring Report (2010) expanded all previous definitions by describing marginalization in education as a “form of acute and persistent disadvantage rooted in underlying social inequalities, representing a stark example of clearly remediable injustice.”  Considered a “basic human right” education is also a “catalyst for poverty reduction, economic growth, and social mobility.” As such, the Report states that ensuring that all citizens receive a good quality education should be one of the central priorities of all governments.

While world agencies were convening to address the need for educational equity, the Catholic Church was busy preparing its own response. In 1990, Pope John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae, an official Church encyclical that continues to identify the common hallmarks of Catholic colleges and universities. According to the document the “Christian spirit of service to others for the promotion of social justice” is of particular importance. The Gospel, insists Pope Paul, urgently calls Catholic institutions of higher learning to promote “the development of those peoples who are striving to escape from hunger, misery, endemic diseases and ignorance.”

Ex Corde underscored the need for Christian institutions of higher learning in general, and Catholic colleges and universities in specific, to contribute to the progress of society. The document insisted that both have a responsibility to make education accessible to all who are able to benefit from it, “especially the poor or members of minority groups who customarily have been deprived of it” (Ex Corde). In particular, Catholic colleges and universities were exhorted to “become more attentive to the cultures of the world and to the various cultural traditions existing within the Church in a way that will promote a continuous and profitable dialogue between the Gospel and modern society.”

The New Testament parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14) outlines a valuable planning framework for appropriately advancing the ideals of such a logic. According to the scriptural narrative, an unidentified landowner decided to host a lavish banquet. After a number of guests declined the host’s initial summons, citing personal errands and responsibilities, the annoyed host directed his servants to extend his invitation beyond his customary acquaintances “to the highways and hedges.” Interested in “filling his house” with guests, the host instructed his messengers to persuade all “to come in” (Luke 14:23).

It is safe to assume that the landowner’s initial guest list was predominately comprised of his friends, relatives, and dearest relationships. As many of these “household” invitees regretfully declined, the host progressively extended his invitation to include outsiders who were, none-the-less, relationally interconnected (highways).  Finally, as room still remained at the banquet, the host’s servants were instructed to go as far as the hedges and invite a category of guests from beyond his existing relational boundaries.

The inherent message of the Banquet Parable is clear. While the narrative’s initial intent was to disclose Jesus’ teaching concerning His Kingdom’s inclusive nature, it also contains a stern admonition. Like Jesus who was courageously willing to reach out beyond the overly insular Judaic household and minister to Samaritans, tax collectors, demon possessed, depraved, and societies rejects, the parable encourages Christian leaders and institutions of every age to likewise reach out beyond their existing constituencies to serve the needs of the unfamiliar, underserved, and marginalized. This, in the final analysis, is the Holy Logic of Saint Teresa’s entire life.

Leaders of Christian colleges and universities have for some time employed strategic planning methodologies to more effectively disclose the aspirational hallmarks of truth, love, and service to the marginalized. They have rightly understood that the successful expression of their mission entails much more than robust endowment portfolios, exotic cafeteria menus, massive sports coliseums, and lavish residence halls. Apart from campus landscapes, social activities, and athletic facilities, enrollment studies indicate that most students want to attend an educational community that will help them mature and enrich their personal character as well as adequately prepare them to address future societal, economic, and technological trends.  To satisfactorily provide these vital deliverables, prudent leaders compliment internal planning assessments with external environmental scanning.

Strategic planning methodologies may be divided into three primary classifications: (a) inside-out, (b) operational, and (c) outside-in.  A generic component of these procedures, a S.W.O.T. assessment, identifies institutional strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. It should be noted, however, that while the quadrants of strength and weakness are evaluations of internal (institutional) conditions, opportunities and threats, however, are peripheral appraisals, and best delineated by rigorous external environmental scanning procedures.

Herein, lies the value of the Banquet Parable’s evangelical admonition faithfully illustrated in the life of Saint Teresa.  Institutions of higher learning that fail to reach out beyond their campus contexts are characteristically reactive rather than proactive. To more effectively deal with ever-changing economic, technological, and societal conditions, leaders of Christian institutions of higher learning might avoid such insularity by heeding the parable’s guidance.

Three environmental contexts can be delineated from an examination of the Banquet Parable: (a) household, (b) highways, and (c) hedges.  Attuning the first focus to hallways instead of household, leaders of Christian universities and colleges may utilize these categories when designing appropriate strategies to more effectively respond to external opportunities/threats confronting their respective institutions.

Hallways: The “hallway” is the primary contextual environ of most strategic planning initiatives conducted by educational institutions. Seeking to more effectively serve students, presidents launch comprehensive procedures to analyze, appraise, refine, and transform their administrative infrastructures. While extremely valuable, however, an overly inward-looking examination can only realize limited institutional modifications. At best, policies, procedures, and existing structures are refined. At worse, insularity supports myopic and triumphalist administrative cultures that loath change but thrive on convention and fidelity.

Highways: According to the Banquet Parable, the first series of invitations were directed to the host’s most immediate relationships. As numerous invitees regretfully declined the initial summons, another series of solicitations were broadcast to a wider group of acquaintances. Like the parable’s host, Christian institutions of higher learning should continually reach out with urgency beyond their usual cadre of students, alumni, and donors. They should cultivate a climate that goes beyond merely looking out their front door but exiting the safety of their campus hallways and venture out to explore society’s streets and highways.

Hedges: The third and final category of the Banquet Parable invitations was addressed to individuals living beyond the host’s relational reach. Initially denoting the relational location of the Gentile world, the banquet host’s evangelical imperative to reach beyond the “hedges” might be correctly interpreted by Christian institutions of higher learning to denote the need to scan society’s margins for unknown privations. While difficult, the choice to abdicate this responsibility to discover more areas of service in turn for more insular strategies increases rather than reduces the possibility of external threats.

Like the newly canonized Saint Theresa, Catholic universities can contribute to this mission by fulfilling their ministry of hope in the service of others, forming people who are endowed with a sense of justice and profound concern for the common good, educating them to devote a particular attention to the poor and oppressed and trying to teach students to be responsible and active global citizens. As such, those who find themselves in greater difficulties, who are poorer, more fragile or needy, should not be seen as a burden or obstacle, but as the most important students, who should be at the center of higher learning’s attention and concerns.

In his 2003 Beatification Homily for then Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II said that the cry of Jesus on the Cross, “I thirst” (Jn 19:28), expresses the depth of God’s longing for man. “Satiating Jesus’ thirst for love,” insisted the Pontiff, “became the sole aim of Mother Teresa’s existence and the inner force that drew her out of herself and made her run in haste across the globe to labor for the salvation and the sanctification of the poorest of the poor.”

In advanced math theory, the butterfly effect describes how a tiny influence on one part of a system can have a significant impact on another part. The butterfly effect suggests that a tiny butterfly fluttering its wings somewhere in a South American jungle could actually initiate a hurricane off the coast of Florida! Mother Teresa was a tiny woman of just 4’ 11” in height and weighing less than 100 pounds. Yet, she spent many years lifting, carrying, educating and serving the dying sick and marginalized.

What greater hallmark can Christian institutions of higher learning aspire to achieve than the daring and courage to similarly do its small part in quenching the educational thirst of the marginalized of our age.

Share.

Leave A Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.