“Would it be possible for me to be paid in books?” That was the question put to us at the end of last semester by Diego Fonti, Academic Vice-President (here, Vice-Rector) and Professor of Philosophy at the Universidad Católica de Córdoba. Frankly the question caught us a little bit by surprise. Diego earns a regular salary for teaching his “Philosophy from the Margins” course to our Casa de la Mateada students. And we were in the process of preparing to make the payment to him for the teaching he had done for our first cohort of students when this question arose. But paying him “in books?” Hmmm. What would that entail? We would have to look into it.
Well, we did look into it. And it turned out that it was indeed possible. And we did in the end “pay him in books.” But the story of why he asked us this and how we were able to fulfill his request is worthy of a fuller telling.
Let us begin with the request itself: payment in books. Ok, on a certain level that request makes perfect sense. Books still matter. Even in this digital age, when almost anything you could want to read can be delivered to you Kindle of phone in a matter of seconds. Still, aren’t books becoming relics of a past age, the age of paper and ink and binding and shelves? Aren’t we in the process of moving past all that? Perhaps. But in truth not everything is available to us in digital form. And besides, there are unmistakable pleasures to be had in holding a book in your hands, in turning down the corner of a page, in making notes in the margins with a pencil or pen, in turning off all electronic media and just disappearing for a few hours into a chair or a hammock—just you and the book and the rich imaginative world in which you suddenly find yourself immersed.
And what if you are, say, engaged in a research project on political theology. But, due to complicated import restrictions in your home country, you are having trouble getting access to the books you need. Some of what you need is available on-line. But not that much. Not the really important stuff. So the research is stalled. What to do? Maybe you could be “paid in books,” something so much more valuable to you than “legal tender.”
So it came about that we hatched a plan to purchase twenty-five or so important and hard-to-find books on political philosophy and theology and transport them to Córdoba, Argentina with a delegation of staff and students from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The personal touch.
Members of the delegation arrive at the south campus of the Universidad de Católica de Córdoba on Wednesday afternoon. It is Ash Wednesday. The students have spent the morning in downtown Córdoba, attending mass at the historic Jesuit Church, learning about the history of the Jesuits in and around Córdoba and experiencing some of the life of this great city. Now they are getting a glimpse of where our Casa students attend classes on Wednesday. And they have been invited to attend part of Professor Diego Fonti’s class, “Philosophy from the Periphery.” It is of course for Professor Fonti that the books are destined.
But how to make the presentation of los libros preciosos? We decide that, in honor of the long journey they have undertaken, and the great labor that it took to get them to Argentina, and the high value of these particular books to Professor Fonti, we should present them to him with some measure of solemnity. So we improvise a ritual. The students process into the classroom, books held high, the soft drum beat of a hand on a desk keeping rhythm. They circumambulate the classroom until, reaching the recipient, they bow and hand over their gift.
It is not easy to read Diego’s reaction to all of this as it is happening. But I sense, among other things: bemusement (these crazy students from the U.S.!), wonder, delight and (when he discovers what they have brought for him) deep appreciation. When the presentation is complete, we burst into spontaneous applause and laughter. And Diego joins us. It is a joyous, funny, sweet moment.
And now the books are where they belong, in the hands of someone who will know exactly what to do with them. Soon, no doubt, he will begin actually reading them. Perhaps he will even revise and extend his research project in unexpected ways in light of what he reads. He will have to see.
Later, Diego tells us a little bit about his project. It involves, among other things, asking how and why particular traditions of philosophical and theological thought can inform our efforts to stand in solidarity with the poor and dispossessed. And why, on the other hand, both philosophy and theology are so often silent about this matter. It is also a project that asks how we can translate engaged philosophical and theological thought into terms that has meaning in the larger public arena, especially in the political sphere. This research project, it turns out, is very closely aligned with the mission of our two universities. Not only the “education of the whole person.” But also “education for solidarity.” That is what the books are for, what this research is about: illuminating the meaning of these crucial ideas. This project will, hopefully, make them more intelligible and meaningful; help all of us–professors, staff, students–engage, more thoughtfully and critically, in the work of seeking justice, especially for the most marginalized.
Universities are always in danger of letting the purpose of education become too narrowly focused, disengaged from the needs of the world and from the deepest aspirations of their students. We think about the jobs that a degree from our institutions will enable our graduates to get without considering carefully enough what kind of contribution those jobs will make to the common good. Or we carry out research without giving sufficient thought to how or whether that research can help actually ease some of the pain of our world. Of course, students are right to think about their futures and to hope for good, meaningful work following graduation and we ought to help them do so. Also, there is and always will be value in the kind of ‘pure research’ that helps us understand the fundamental elements of a field more fully. Still, we risk losing something fundamental if we ever stop asking about the deeper purposes of the education we are offering to our students, especially about its social, political, cultural and spiritual value. These questions should always animate us in our Jesuit universities.
This is one of the reasons why it is so helpful to reflect on this episode concerning Diego and his books. Yes, the content of those books matters. It is from the thought contained in them that Professor Fonti will eventually create his own critical response to the challenges facing Argentina today. And in so doing he will perhaps inspire those of us who wish to deepen our own commitments to work for justice to do so with greater feeling and devotion. But I also find myself thinking about that initial impulse: to be paid in books! All that this says about how much this work matters to him, and why it matters. Also what it says about the mysterious power of books and their capacity to move and change us.
Douglas E. Christie, Ph.D., Co-Director, Casa de la Mateada