Jesuit Education and the Dubious Frontier
With headphones stuffed into ears, devices fused into hands, and images and advertisements invading eyes and ears without ceasing, today's frontier is more New York City than Cheyenne. Our students don't walk home to vacant, green lands with grazing cows and rows of corn; they drive past Subway and Jack n' the Box, Ford dealerships and Best Buy. In their free time, many of our students tan themselves in the glow of the iPad or the violent movements of a video game.
And what kind of games? On the retreat I mentioned above, a few seniors spoke about one game in which a player can tie a prostitute to a train track.
Consider the contrast: St. Ignatius of Loyola opened up shelters for reformed prostitutes; now, students at schools inspired by his faith play games that involve killing them.
In today's frontier, houses of worship are not simple churches but tiny cathedrals retrievable from pockets, christened "smart phones." On this frontier, students rarely build; the frontier builds for them. For example, YouTube plays videos as soon as the web site is accessed and provides, without end, related content. Wikipedia offers bolded and underlined links to key terms and concepts, ensuring that students rarely distinguish the trivial from the essential. Microsoft Word fixes spelling mistakes instantaneously and now recognizes sentences in the passive voice.
Today, releasing a "sex tape" (see Kim Kardashian) is a savvy career move and wearing raw meat (as Lady Gaga recently did) is considered fashion, not lunacy. In fact, the more bizarre the behavior, the greater the attention: Oprah Winfrey called Lady Gaga a cultural and spiritual leader and Time magazine named her one of the most influential people of 2009.
The challenges are obvious and daunting. In this boundary-demolishing context, where sex tapes build resumes and raw meat makes dresses, where is there room for a stable concept of human dignity? How can we persuasively invite students to believe that men and women are created in the image and likeness of God? How can we expect our students to appreciate their intellect and their spirituality when most of what they read and hear respects neither? How can we expect them to care about sacrifice or the reality of sin? In this world, what has become of the idea of temptation?
I have no clear answers to these questions, but before we offer responses, we must know where we stand, which is not on an empty terrain waiting to be shaped and converted. We are in New York City and the Vegas Strip, an Apple Store and an American mall. If this terrain is a frontier, it's been long settled.
Matt Emerson writes from California, where he teaches at Xavier Prep.