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January 27, 2006Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 30

 There's got to be a reason
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

I was sitting in an old Irish stone cottage looking out over the craggy hills and rugged shoreline of the Atlantic coast of Ireland. The fields below me were filling with sheep just down from the mountain top in time for the lambing season. Ireland is such a different place, I thought, but I didn't really appreciate how different until the new young doctor's mother called. Katie, back from her first long vacation since she began medical school eight years ago had just gotten her credit card bill and was appalled by it. "Four thousand euros," her mother said to me. "She's never seen such a bill in her life."

"Impossible," I thought. "This girl has just finished college. She must be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt by this time." That's when I discovered how different this place really is.

Ireland is a very small place. Of the approximately 4 million people in the Republic, 2 million of them live outside of Dublin in tiny villages or small towns or cities.

By U.S. standards, things are very different here. The main streets of the small towns are only a few blocks long. The stores are basic. You can buy toothpaste at the local market but it is not the toothpaste capital of the world. The have brand A and, maybe, brand B. Choose. Or better yet, just take what we have.

The roads from one town to another, from Cahierdaniel to Waterville, for instance, are two-lane highways but each lane is barely the width of the car and there is no berm. Cars and lorries, huge tractor trailer rigs or tourist buses, drive the Ring of Kerry overlooking the ocean either hugging the mountainside or riding the edge of it.

The small houses in which Irish families raised so many children still have tiny windows and narrow doorways that take up as little land as possible.

Get the idea? They have everything you want here but within clear boundaries, in diminutive, in limited quantities, in small sizes.

Dublin, of course, has all the earmarks of a major European capital -- cabs, rapid transit and train service, boutiques and symphonies, drama and filmmaking, the Royal College of Surgeons, a research hospital and great universities. Just like in the United States -- except it isn't.

In fact, there are some major differences between us. Here, for instance, citizens over the age of 70 ride buses and trains for free. In Ireland, too, you can get a ticket to a stage play in some of the oldest, most accomplished theaters of Europe from 12-40 euros. Twelve. That's about $15. Shows at "The Point," Dublin's premier music presentation hall, run on average from 20-40 euros. Medical care is public or private. You can buy insurance to cover special care situations -- to get a private room or a particular doctor, for instance -- or you can simply be put on a list for the next room and the next specialist for nothing. Medicines are free. And, most of all, perhaps, so is a college education.

Here, in some of the major universities of Europe, college tuition does not exist. It is government subsidized.

When an Irish student finishes medical school, as a result, they do not graduate with a loan hanging over their heads.

Graduates here start out fresh and free. They don't have to make their choice between practicing medicine in the countryside and serving in the city based on how much money they'll be able to make in either place in order to pay off their student loans.

Their parents do not mortgage their houses to see that they can go to college. Students do not have to work two and three jobs while they study just to be able to pay tuition fees for the next term -- if they manage, that is, to balance work and study well enough to be accepted for the next term.

Now why do you suppose that is?

Is it because it takes character for a young person to pay off major loans after they leave medical school and Irish students don't have the qualities it takes to do that? Hardly. The human race is the human race.

Is it that Irish universities aren't good enough to be able to charge people to go to them. Tell that to Trinity College, founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592, or to University College Dublin, founded by John Henry Newman and Paul Cullen in the mid-19th century and now home to 22,000 students.

Is it because they don't really care about education anyway and so no one goes to college here? Not if the latest global educational statistics are true. Ireland now ranks ahead of the United States in math, reading, science, literacy and geography tests given world wide. And that despite a country still full of tiny national schools with small double grades.

But if those aren't the reasons, how can we explain this strange situation? How is it that a country that just got its first ring roads and super highways within the last 10 years -- thanks to an infusion of money from the European Union -- can do these things? What could account for this kind of profligacy in a country in which almost half the population is under the age of 21 and so are not even tax payers yet.

Maybe the explanation for such a stunning set of affairs in such a small country lies somewhere else entirely.

Maybe it doesn't have much to do with the size of the population or the number of taxpayers in the country.

Maybe it isn't about money at all. Maybe it's about what a country decides to do with the money it has that really makes the difference between us.

Maybe it's about priorities. For the current fiscal year, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the United States will spend 54 percent of its discretionary budget (or 17 percent of total federal outlays) on defense spending. Ireland, meanwhile, will spend 3 percent.

Maybe, then, it's about medicine over militarism and education over irresponsible tax cuts and cultural development over commercial competition and people over profit. This is a place, remember, where poetry still sells and poets are national heroes.

From where I stand, it seems to me that the government ought to pause a bit before it does another national budget for us and ask the people of this country what they really want, what they really value, how they would really like to live. Then maybe our next generation of doctors, lawyers, teachers, technicians, musicians, artists, poets -- and even politicians -- would be working more for love than for money.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.

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