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

Let me share with you a few findings from these books and studies:

  • According to the American College Health Association, 46 percent of college students say they have felt that things were hopeless at least once in the previous year.
  • In 2009, 17 percent of college students were diagnosed with depression — twice as many as in the year 2000.
  • Nationally, a little over half of students enrolled in a four-year college will graduate.
  • Over 40 percent of college students admit to cheating or plagiarism in some form.
  • More than 100,000 college students report every year that they were “too intoxicated to know if they consented to have sex.”
  • A sharply increasing number of college-age Americans score high on tests that test for narcissism.

As alarming as these findings are, the one that troubles me most is the finding of the Higher Education Research Institute’s survey of college freshmen in 2009: Over 80 percent of the students reported that “being well-off financially” was the reason that they were attending college – the highest number of students responding in this manner since the survey began in 1966.

“Developing a meaningful philosophy of life,” which was what a majority of students reported as the reason to attend college in 1966, has dropped to its lowest reported level.

So, obviously, students don’t expect to develop a meaningful philosophy of life at college, nor do they think they need one — even though they apparently feel hopeless a good deal of the time.

Obviously, the economics of higher education factors in the way both students and colleges operate. Student debt is at an all-time high. College costs have risen at five times the average rate of inflation since 1985. Under the circumstances, developing a meaningful philosophy of life might be considered a luxury.

But the overall picture I think we are seeing is that very many of our young people are suffering from what we might call despair. They lack of sense of purpose other than limited personal ambition; they lack a sense of direction, or access to an internal compass that leads them to make good decisions.

All indicators suggest that we have failed to create an environment in which our young people mature along a path that helps them to grasp the value and dignity of their true nature as human persons. As a consequence of this, they have not grasped that they have a role to play within a fabric of a community — a community that will provide them with a solid personal foundation and a deeply interiorized sense of purpose.

For hundreds of years, most of us were born and raised in households and communities that, whatever their failings, shared certain foundational beliefs. We might call them religious beliefs, but certainly they were widely shared assumptions about life.

Let’s also remember that all of the great universities of the United States were originally founded by religious denominations and had as their expressed purpose the mission of forming men — men first, and then women — in morals and character, so that they would go on to live exemplary lives — lives of service.

Writing on this subject last March in an article in the New York Times, Andrew Delbanco, director of American Studies at Columbia, quoted Benjamin Franklin, founder of the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin had defined an education in the true sense as “an Inclination join’d with an Ability to serve Mankind, one’s Country, Friends, and Family; which Ability… should indeed be the great Aim and End of All Learning.”

“To serve mankind…” For centuries, most educated persons believed that they were part of a larger project — whether Divine or political. They would have taken it for granted that their work was a contribution to commonwealth, and had dignity under the eyes of an all-seeing God. That we all possess an inherent dignity because we are equal in the eyes of God was an almost universally held belief.

Whether this is true or not, to believe that one’s life and work is either in harmony or disharmony with a Greater Good is a tremendously unifying belief. At the very least, it is a perspective that cannot help but lead a person to humility and a sense of proportion.

So, something has been lost, and we see that loss reflected in the despair of our young people.

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