What does your “Intro Day” or “Syllabus Day” look like for your course on Catholic Social Teaching? I like trudging through the syllabus as much as any other professor, but when it comes to a class like Catholic Social Teaching (CST), I might as well be speaking in Aramaic. Context and vocabulary. Day one demands a little shake-up, a little intellectual trampoline—in other words, a “heuristic exercise.” So here’s what I do.
When the students walk through the door, sign in, and sit down, after prayer I split them into five groups and tell them this will be their first, graded group project. Without explaining what the materials are for, I distribute pieces of paper and instructions for how to fold a paper airplane. The distribution matches the general distribution of the world’s wealth (richest fifth, second richest fifth, and down the line). If the richest fifth has 82 percent of the world’s wealth, that group gets 82 pieces of paper and a book all about paper airplane folding. As the groups get poorer, the number of papers and the quality of the instructions decrease appropriately.
Having distributed the capital, I explain that they will be competing as teams to make the longest paper airplane flight. I tell them the winning team earns an A, the second team a B, the third a C, and so on. (Another grading alternative is to award a box of cookies to the winning team. Then they’re looking at a concrete good rather than the ethereal “grade.”) The teams have 10 minutes to make airplanes. At the end of ten minutes each team flies all their paper airplanes (from the top of a big lecture hall for extra fun). The group with 1.2 pieces of paper and no instructions quickly discovers their distinct disadvantage. The project without fail opens up the students to each other and engenders no poverty of laughs. Some teams have tried crunching up papers into a ball and throwing the ball down the hall. Victory eluded them, but it was close.
The success of the intellectual trampoline, how high it sends the students, largely depends on how much “rebound” you provide in the lively discussion that follows the initial “bounce” of the exercise itself. This is where we earn our keep as teachers. I start with this question: was this competition fair? Students respond with both “yes” and “no.” Follow up questioning ensues…How so? Why not? What could we have done to make it fair? What do we even mean when we say “fair?” Answers explode into a full out theoretical consideration—by the students—of the nature of justice itself. When the conversation goes well, the students end up developing definitions of commutative, distributive, and social justice (albeit without using those words).
Inevitably, one of the “teams” will have included a student well-schooled in the ways of paper airplanes. Students never fail to note this apparent injustice, and without knowing it they segue into the question of moral and intellectual virtue and the necessary distribution thereof in a community for the achievement of the common good. The uneven distribution of resources combined with the fact that only one team could get “A” always raises the question of “structures of sin” (even if not by that name).
The best discussion of the grade distribution happened this year. When I asked what we could do to make the exercise fair, one student responded: “what if you made it so that nobody had to lose? Like, what if flying the plane 20 feet got you an A, 15 a B, and so on? That way, if teams collaborated and shared resources and knowledge, everybody could win. Not everyone would win, but everybody could win, regardless of the hand they were dealt. Each person deserves whatever we have together so she gets her own best shot at the ‘A’.”
Let’s see, what Catholic social teaching principle can a good professor pull out of that kind of student contribution? Human dignity? Yup. Common good? Yup. Solidarity? Yup. Subsidiarity? Sure. Justice? Absolutely. Finally, and best yet, that student’s contribution allowed me to make the important distinction in CST (emphasized by Benedict XVI) between the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God. Our paper-plane competition operated on the logic of the kingdom of man, where my victory requires your loss; Catholic social teaching operates on the logic of the kingdom of God, where my victory makes yours all the more likely.
And with that…class dismissed!
This exercise can be improved, without doubt, but it consistently works well. I’d love to hear what you do to introduce CST in your classes. I look forward to hearing your best practices.