Wednesday, July 1, 2009

At the Universidad de Talca

The past two days I have giving workshops on Community-Based Learning and Research at the Universidad de Talca. This university has been at the forefront of a new movement called "Responsibilidad Social" and requires all of its students to do a semester of community service projects. Today I met with a group of forty engineering students involved in such community service in Curico near Talca. It was quite a dynamic discussion as I led them through a series of questions regarding where they get their values. There was much discussion about the family as a primary source of values. Other sources were schools, religion, and "la calle"-- meaning their friends in the neighborhood and less a U.S. context of "the street" as I thought the students first meant.

As an outsider I was able to push them about Chilean values, both positive and negative. As I started the question I picked up a vibe that this was a very difficult exercise for them to think about because they had never been asked the question. It was easier to talk about negative aspects of Chilean culture, particularly racism against Peruvians and classism than positive aspects. I actually intervened and gave my positive impressions of Chilean values, such as solidaridad particularly during social crises of earthquakes, fires a and floods, the family, respect for law, and orderliness.

I was asked about why community service is so important to me and I responded that for me as a sociologist and professor I want to know "the other" and have experience with "the other" and help others do the same, particularly my students. This means that for a person with great social capital I want them to encounter the other who could be poor, marginalized, or of another culture or race. And for "the other" to experience the person with great social capital. I also said that this kind of experience really helps in the way we do critical thinking.

My two hours with these students was quite a workout. I left exhausted but exhilirated that I had a chance to have a conversation with forty Chilean young men and women. It was a profound conversation that I will not forget. As I think about youth in the U.S. these Chileans have great hope for themselves but they are quite negative and critical of their own culture, whereas American youth often have a very high opinion of their culture and values and could use a dose of Chilean realism. Yet I wanted these Chileans to see the good around them. In the end I said that I hope to contribute to the idea of "the unexamined life is not worth living"-- that the best we can hope for are students who leave the university as people who are self-critical and conscious of who they are and what they can and cannot bring to their worlds. With that there was a pause of silence. For me one of those spiritual moments when teaching really matters.

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