To renew Jesuit education for the future, we should look to the foundational inspiration of St. Ignatius.

by Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J.

This spring, I was asked to deliver some remarks at the Metropolitan Club in New York. The invitation was an opportunity to step back a bit from the day-to-day operations of the University, think more deeply and broadly about our mission as a community, and consider what kind of University we need to become if we are to serve our students and the world as we properly should.

I’ve been working in higher education for almost 30 years. For most of those years I have lived in college dormitories — first at Georgetown University where I taught history, later as the dean of Fordham College, and now at Fairfield University (where, as the president, I do — now — get to have my own house!), so it’s inevitable that I would come to certain conclusions about how the whole educational process works.

As a Jesuit, I have a particular obligation to be engaged in deepening my understanding of what education is all about.

When St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus in 1540, he had every intention of creating a missionary order — one that would preach and give spiritual counsel — and, indeed, Jesuits do that. But in 1547, the city fathers of Messina in Sicily asked Ignatius if he would open a school to educate their young men in the humanities.

This kind of liberal arts education was just coming into vogue. We take it for granted that education enhances the quality of our life, but that was not assumption in Western Europe up until the late Renaissance. The whole idea that people who were not going to be lawyers or clerics should be educated to read Latin and Greek, perform plays, recite poetry, and learn all this for the purposes of refining and perfecting their minds in order to make them more civilized persons was a relatively new concept.

Ignatius and his early followers were all educated men. They had attended the University of Paris together. Ignatius himself was nothing if not a fiercely driven student. He had been a soldier. But, in 1521, his leg was shattered by a cannon ball at the battle of Pamplona. He spent a year in painful recuperation at his family estate, where he turned to reading about the lives of the Saints, and his process of conversion and education began.

He spent the next 14 or so years fervently committed to broadening his knowledge. He was already 33 when he went to Barcelona to study grammar. He then went on to Paris, where he received a master of arts degree in 1533, at the relatively advanced age of 42.

My point is that when the city fathers of Messina asked Ignatius if he would educate their sons, he seems to have immediately grasped what a profound opportunity his new Society was being given to “help souls,” as he would put it. Education would bring people to God; it would form men who would themselves go on to be teachers, lawyers, doctors, administrators, playwrights, and priests. In turn, these educated people would help transform others by their example, and by running the affairs of the world in a more civilized and compassionate manner.

By the time of Ignatius’ death in 1556, there were 35 Jesuit colleges across Europe; 200 years later, there more than 800, including schools in Japan, China, India, and South America — the largest educational network the world has ever seen.

Education as a mission of service to the human community is what being a Jesuit has been about ever since.

I believe that the needs of young people coming of age in our globally interconnected and increasingly fragmented world are no more specifically and culturally determined than those of the youth of Sicily in 1547.

We are fortunate in this country to have excellent universities, and the world’s best graduate schools in the sciences and the humanities.

Having said that, I believe that a majority of our young people today are desperately missing something in their early formation. To a troubling extent, our society and our colleges are failing them.

I am not alone in thinking this. In the last few years, there have been scores of books about our colleges and their failings. The titles alone give you the overall picture: Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses was very much in the news when it came out last year with the finding that, after two years of college, student capacity for critical thinking had not appreciably improved.

Here are some other titles: Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities have Given Up on the Meaning of Life by Anthony T. Kronman, Sterling Professor of Law at Yale; and Our Underachieving Colleges, by Derek Bok, former president of Harvard. And here are some others: My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture; The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement; College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crises and What to do About It; and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future.

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