A School Run by Mortals: Challenges in Jesuit Education

Student works on assignment at St. Peter Indian Mission School in Arizona.

Those of us active in Jesuit education tend to speak of it in glowing terms, excited by various mottos ("ad majorem dei gloriam," "Men and Women for Others," "cura personalis") and the noble call to service, as well as the impressive tradition of academic and athletic achievement. But we also know there are plenty of tough days and, in the quotidian matters of campus life, plenty of challenges. Ignatius wouldn't necessarily be thrilled with everything that goes on in the schools inspired by his name and conversion.

Of course, that's only natural in a school run by mortals. In his history of the early Society of Jesus, John O'Malley, S.J., reminds us that early Jesuit schools faced the kind of difficulties that affect all human endeavors. As he wrote in The First Jesuits:

A common complaint from students and their parents was that the Jesuits changed teachers too often, and almost as often replaced them with less competent ones. Foreigners sometimes had only a rudimentary grasp of the local language and spoke Latin with accents to which the natives were unaccustomed—a sensitive issue in Italy. The manpower situation was exacerbated by the necessity of supplying teachers for distant places....

The difficulties in opening new schools were so overwhelming that some Jesuits simply abandoned their vocation to the Society, and Polanco warned as early as 1553 that "experience teaches" that only the "most proven and constant" should be sent into these situations, a warning with scant possibility of being heeded.

It's remarkable how little changes. I've seen plenty of teachers who, new to Ignatian education, struggle to adapt to its "all hands on deck" approach. At the secondary level, you're sometimes teaching subjects that are unfamiliar or coaching sports you've never played. You're a teacher but also a witness and model for religious faith. Some adapt and thrive, others (some very good teachers) leave. Ignatian education calls more out of people than they knew they had. As the cliche goes, Ignatian educators "wear many hats," and this can be daunting. It can be life-giving and exhilarating, but also frustrating. You can feel like you're doing many things with mediocrity, rather than a few things with excellence.

So there are challenges and frustrations inherent in the nature and foundation of Jesuit education, as there are in any human endeavor. These, too, must be included in our summer examen, approached with faith and discernment. 

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Charles Erlinger
3 years 6 months ago
I would like to see Jesuit colleges and universities, insofar as their faculties can influence the life work of their graduates, and in particular the brothers and sisters of Alpha Sigma Nu, to take up in a coherent and organized fashion the work outlined in paragraphs 139 and 140 of Laudato Si. This could well be an opportunity for Jesuit colleges and universities to leave their mark on the 21st century. Just as Catholic Action inspired so many students and young graduates in the 1940s and 1950s, and resulted in a cadre of professionals who gave so much of their time and energy in their secular professions to the Christian social impulses of that age, so the current generation ought to be able to do as well, and probably much better, with the challenges outlined in the cited paragraphs, and in particular, the following. “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature. 140. Due to the number and variety of factors to be taken into account when determining the environmental impact of a concrete undertaking, it is essential to give researchers their due role, to facilitate their interaction, and to ensure broad academic freedom. Ongoing research should also give us a better understanding of how different creatures relate to one another in making up the larger units which today we term “ecosystems”. We take these systems into account not only to determine how best to use them, but also because they have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness.” This is an intellectual pursuit worthy of the best Jesuit institutions and their graduates.


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