Father James F. Keenan, SJ

Learning the value of education

August 22, 2018

I grew up as a member of a Brooklyn working-class family of seven (my father was a police officer, my mother a homemaker and a typist turned administrator). We lived in a Catholic neighborhood where each of us attended the parochial school. 

Each grade had two classes for boys and two for girls, and the class held up to 75 children each (yes, 300 per grade). We had Sisters of Mercy, Brothers of the Holy Cross and lay faculty.

I received a superb education.

My parents reviewed with us our homework assignments every evening; if there were tests the next day, they quizzed us; if there was writing to be done, they encouraged us to do our best.

As working-class people, we learned the value of an education. My parents taught us that we became better the more we were educated. There was a value correlation there not to be missed. They were ambitious for us, and education was the way to attain goals that were out of their own reach, but there for us.

These were not, however, lessons for a self-made man. We were pursuing an education not for ourselves alone, but for all of us. Education was not a consumer good for one’s advancement, it was a common good for the growth of a community. We learned collectively and in that way all of us, together, grew.  

Learning, our indefatigable teachers taught us, was a communal value.

I’m writing this from Jordan, where I am with a group of Boston College seniors hoping they learn more about the future of our world where Islam in its multitudinous manifestations will be evidently more and more present, where climate change will become progressively problematic and where immigrant and refugee movements will challenge the nation state. 

I am hoping they learn from these Jordanians here about their own communal future.

Yesterday we walked through Jabal el-Hussein, a Palestinian refugee camp first started in 1952. Our guide Rami, a Jordanian Christian, told us that it was his first time leading a group through the camp, but he knew everything about it and his fellow Palestinians living there. He knows his country, which includes, among the 9.5 million people living here, 2 million Palestinian and 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

The camp was not enclosed and there were no tents. In fact, all of its members had businesses and homes. I was reminded of my working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn; the communal ambition for growth was evident, modest but palpable.

Rami stressed their educational opportunities. Repeatedly he brought up education. This is a very young population with 2 million in schools. Still, despite these challenges, the literacy rate is at 98 percent (though 99.3 percent for females) and is considered to be the highest in the Middle East and the Arab world, and one of the highest in the world. 

As we were leaving the camp, Rami pointed proudly to the building on the highest hill of the camp: “That’s the high school,” he said.

Yesterday, we began the day at another high school, arguably the country’s most prestigious, King’s Academy. Our tour guide was Khaled, a Jordanian-American Muslim who left his native Florida to study here. He was clearly one of the administration’s success stories, having had, among other roles, that of being a proctor in two of the school’s dorms. He clearly loved King’s Academy. His gratitude and joy were infectious.

He’s starting at Boston College next week, wanting to major in physics, concentrating in quantum mechanics and theoretical physics. Via email, I introduced him to my friend and colleague, Mike Naughton, our superb chair of physics. Quickly, Khaled wrote him a letter introducing himself and asking Naughton to be his adviser. My parents would have been proud of his request.

As an educator, I don’t think anything is more important than learning. It’s a lifelong, communal task that enhances our world as it stimulates the common good.  

Having read the U.S. newspapers this week, and as I prepare to head home, I’d say our church and our nation have a number of lessons to learn, as our Jordanian friends here are teaching us every day. I am glad that school is about to begin.


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