“Our kids”

Fr. Patrick Griffin, C.M., Special to the Torch

For the second time this month, I have felt compelled to write something for the Torch which highlights an author who has spoken on our campus.

Previously, I spoke of Wes Moore’s book “The Other Wes Moore” and the way in which the author emphasized the word “other” in the title. Now, I would like to offer some thoughts spurred by Robert Putnam’s book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” Dr. Putnam, a political scientist and Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, came to our campus as the first of the speakers for Founder’s Week (Sept. 20-27). He drew more than 260 members of our community to a well-received lecture.

Founder’s Week intends to celebrate St. Vincent de Paul whose spirit rests at the heart of our University.

This year, the theme for our remembrance is “Vincentian Education: Illuminating minds, creating opportunities, serving the world.” Two hundred years ago, in 1816, 13 Vincentians came to the United States to begin their ministry.

Even in those earliest years, the effort aimed at the education of the marginalized and immigrant populations. This emphasis gave rise to St. John’s University in 1870. Inviting Dr. Putnam, a renowned educator, fit well within the theme for our Founder’s Week in this year.

Interestingly, Dr. Putnam, like Mr. Moore, also emphasized a term in his title. He focused upon a word which others might not immediately identify with the heart of the text without reading it.

He drew attention to the word “our.” Our speaker recounted how in an earlier era, people used the word “our” more frequently and more feelingly as they associated themselves with a particular place and group. Thus, it was “our” neighborhood, “our” school, “our” street and “our” kids.

The children of a given area were considered the responsibility of the entire community. People were willing to pay the additional taxes which might provide a public swimming pool or modernize a building at the school. Such things were done for “our” kids even by those who had no children of school age.

In the modern era, a lesser sense of obligation seems to permeate many communities and their inhabitants. The emphasis might fall more sharply upon my family and the benefits which we derive from expenditures.

One can find many reasons for this “turning inward,” but the result is more personal and less public, more individual and less communal. When this begins to apply to the educational environment, the results weaken the process of teaching and learning together.

As I hear the way in which this story could be told at St. John’s, I feel the way in which St. Vincent would react. His emphasis was always around providing for those who could not easily provide for themselves.

He did this by seeking and receiving the support of all those whom he knew. He believed firmly in collaboration and mutual support. With Vincent (and Dr. Putnam), we can speak about “our” university, “our” education, and “our” fellow students.