Fordham University’s Core Curriculum intends to teach students to understand and appreciate the cultures of the world, to think critically, and to speak eloquently. Yet for all the emphasis the Core places on global awareness, there is one glaring omission: local awareness. What the Core lacks is a sociology-based course to educate Fordham students about the Bronx: a “Bronx 101” of sorts, to explain the borough’s historical and current social issues as well as the responsibility that students, the newest members of the community, have in the alleviation of these social issues.
As a Jesuit university, Fordham strives to uphold pillars of service and social justice, yet, while the Core currently does offer several opportunities to learn about and apply the values of Jesuit education, existing courses encourage students to think globally instead of locally. For instance, courses that fall under the heading of “American Pluralism” are centered on themes of diversity and tolerance and many courses, such as African American Studies and Philosophical Issues in Feminism, address issues of racial and gender discrimination. Yet such courses present information in a way that draws student attention to social issues in the world at large or throughout history. They tend to generalize about broad problems on an international scale and, consequently, to suggest that social injustice is beyond the scope of remedy of a single college student.
A “Bronx 101” course, on the other hand, would be an effective addition to Fordham’s current Core Curriculum because it would create an accessible pathway through which students could apply their knowledge of social justice outside of the classroom as soon as it is learned. The academic component of the course would consist of two parts: first, an overview of the history of the Bronx and, second, an analysis of the borough’s current social issues, their causes, and their implications. Then, to allow students to apply their knowledge and to take advantage of the fact that the Bronx community is literally right outside the gates of Fordham, the course would incorporate a required service learning component, modeled after existing service learning courses at Fordham that are currently optional. Students would work with the university’s Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice, which is affiliated with a number of community partners, including the Liberty Partnerships after-school tutoring service and St. Rita’s Immigration Center. By virtue of the service learning component, students impassioned about a particular historical progression or ongoing societal plight within the neighborhood could immediately take action, putting their knowledge to work in a practical, effective, and civically-minded way – and students who would otherwise never have considered the optional service learning courses would be pushed to try them out. This real-world application of sociology is particularly important because, as Aristotle argued, the concept of virtue cannot be conveyed solely through theoretical knowledge (Falcone 65). It is all about particular instances rather than formulaic, one-size-fits-all theories; the instances of human connection convince us to genuinely care about what we are learning.
Despite the clear benefits of a Bronx-themed class at Fordham, I think the primary reason why such a course is conspicuously absent in the curriculum of a school nestled in the heart of the Bronx is that the idea of a service learning course carries with it taboo connotations. I think administrators and curriculum developers alike are afraid that, should such a course be implemented, it would merely speak to the stereotypes about the Bronx community. The idea of a course to highlight the social injustices throughout the Bronx’s history and the ways in which students could remedy them might imply an assumed superiority of Fordham over the greater Bronx community, subtly blaming Bronx residents for their own plight – or, at the very least, portraying them as helpless in fixing their plight – and Fordham residents as the superheroes coming in to save the day. Another aspect to consider is that, especially in recent years, the population of Fordham students born and raised in the Bronx has been increasing. Such students might object to sitting in a classroom listening to the perpetuation of stereotypes about their hometown. They might feel alienated, indignant, or outright angry.
The idea that a Bronx-based social justice course necessarily implies a “superhero-victim” dynamic and alienates students from the community is a fallacious perspective because learning about social justice and carrying out service to combat it need not be a gesture of condescension. In the first place, ignoring the reality of the Bronx’s social problems for fear of playing on stereotypes and offending the locals is merely a way to compound those social problems. So much of the oppression that pervades disadvantaged communities in the 21st century in general is the result of an unwillingness on the part of more privileged people to address the issues at hand. Secondly, and more relevantly in an educational context, there are ways to teach social justice in the Bronx community while also undermining, rather than reinforcing, the negative stereotypes. There are also methods to help include Fordham students in the Bronx community. For instance, the Dorothy Day Center holds a three-day service immersion program before freshman orientation each summer, during which students work with Bronx community partners to combat issues such as environmental racism, educational disparity, and hunger. When I participated last summer, I learned from the program coordinators and student leaders that we, as volunteers, were working with rather than for the community partners, and that the relationship was reciprocal: we had as much to learn from them as they did from us. The “Bronx 101” course could similarly emphasize this theme, thereby addressing prevalent social issues without giving rise to a savior complex on the part of students. Further, to avoid disrespecting Fordham students who grew up in the Bronx, the course could be structured as discussion-based rather than lecture-heavy, providing local students with the opportunity to share their insights. Professors who live in the Bronx should be given priority to teach the course, and guests from the Bronx community should be encouraged to come and speak to students so that information delivery is not all one-sided.
Taught correctly, then, a class pertaining to social justice in the Bronx would emphasize reciprocity rather than hierarchy, and it would empower the voices of the community. Such a class would be an effective means of engaging students with the local community, and encouraging them to apply their classroom knowledge in practical ways. It would instill within the students a sense of social consciousness rooted not in preponderance and pity but rather genuine goodwill and respect for Bronx citizens. It would be a way to get students to care about what they are learning and to move them to take action in the real world beyond the Fordham bubble. It would be a preliminary, local step towards the ultimate Jesuit goal: to set the world on fire.
Falcone, Vincent J. “Plato and Aristotle: Idealism and Realism.” Great Thinkers, Great Ideas, North River Press, Croton-on-Hudson, 1988, pp. 55–64.