St. Louis University sits on Lindell Boulevard just about a five-minute drive west of the downtown core of St. Louis, Missouri, and its iconic Gateway Arch overlooking the Mississippi River.
The main campus today densely covers an area of about 10 city blocks. Fountains, broad pedestrian avenues, ornamental arches and gardens enhance it.
When I attended this university in the 1960s the campus was surrounded by urban decay. On three sides old warehouses, a highway and declining businesses pressed against it and, on the west, the long derelict remnants of a gentle, 1890s neighbourhood.
Solid, single family red brick two storey homes had long been subdivided into ghetto tenements. The elderly mansions fronting the boulevard then held offices or on campus had been modified into classrooms.
Urban redevelopment caught hold in this mid-town area of St. Louis in the 1980s.
Pioneer families no longer willing to face the long drive in from the suburbs began reclaiming and renovating the century old homes. Entrepreneurs turned a seedy former motion picture palace, the Fox Theatre, into a performing arts centre. This sparked the reinvigoration of the local business climate.
Cultural changes occurred in the intervening decades as well. The concept of spring break had not hit us yet in my time on campus. It was ‘study week’. Our ‘vacation’ from classes meant time in the library working on up-coming papers or preparing for exams. Anyway, with the obligations of the full-time job I needed to pay my tuition, I could not have possibly imagined an escape to a Gulf Coast or Florida beach during the week-long break.
Incidentally, tuition at St. Louis University today for undergraduates tops $32,000 a year and graduate students pay more than $900 per credit hour. This ranks them 125th among US universities for cost of attendance and is seen as ‘affordable’. With those costs the university website says 97 per cent of all freshmen students qualify for some sort of scholarship or financial assistance. Even with that the debt load for today’s students and their families must be crippling. Who can possibly afford a spring break vacation?
Lenten practices, as well, have undergone a major transition since the 1960s. In orthodox Christian and Catholic traditions the 40-day period of Lent from Ash Wednesday earlier this week to Easter marked, for well more than a millennium, a time of fasting, prayer and alms giving. Self denial, reflection and sharing from our abundance seem to be lost amid the increasingly beset, debt spiraling consumer culture we have become immersed in.
We need times like Lent and study weeks. At this juncture in human history with compounding crisis caused by our heedless pursuit of stuff, we need more than ever a time out, a pause.
The spring break we should take is one that really allows us the opportunity to reflect on just where we really are and, more importantly, where we need to be both as individuals and as a society.
As we watch events unfold in the Arab world we can now see our dedication to democratic ideals at home failed to be translated into action abroad. Our blind support for authoritarian regimes abroad – governments diametrically opposed to the foundational democratic principles we supposedly hold – had a purpose. Crassly put, this duplicity provided the Western democracies with the resources needed to sustain the consuming binge we have been on for the last half century. But at what cost?
Has our long-term inaction helped create the pain and grief being endured now? What about the looming food, water, energy and environmental crises? Will our choices and failure to adhere to our principles lead us into an ecological and societal dead-end, literally?
We need Lent. We need spring break.
We need these times to become vital, visible signs that another world is possible.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday, March 12 – Gandhi begins the famous Salt March or Salt Satyagraha to the sea in nonviolent defiance of British colonial rule in 1930. It triggered the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement.
Sunday, March 13 – First Sunday of Lent. A suggested reading is Matthew 4: 1-11.
Tuesday, March 15 – Louise de Marillac, a 17th century French nun and patroness of social workers, is remembered for her work among the destitute. “Love the poor and honour them as you would honour Christ Himself.”
Thursday, March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day celebrates the life of Ireland’s patron saint, the 5th century Welshman who brought Christianity to Eire. Eirn go Bragh.