What is Success for a Catholic, Jesuit School?

My colleagues and I recently chatted about success in relation to alumni, namely, "What is it? How do we know that we"—meaning our school, a Jesuit college prep—has succeeded? Essentially: what evidence do we look for to reveal that a Xavier College Prep education (a Catholic, Jesuit education) has . . . worked, has been effective, has made a difference?

Moreover, how do we know that it has done so in ways that reflect the uniqueness of Catholic experience? Academic achievement or prestigious graduate admissions are certainly praiseworthy, but they are not uniquely Catholic. Public schools provide the same thing. 

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One of my colleagues framed it this way: "What do we want for our alumni?" What qualities or characteristics do we want their time at Xavier to have imprinted? 

The five of us discussing the matter realized it wasn't easy. It wasn't clear which criteria we should focus on or point to. We all recognized the indispensable centrality of the faith element, the importance of developing lifelong dispositions to prayer, discernment and an unceasing desire for God. At the same time, we also discussed the kinds of matters for which schools are usually held accountable: preparation for additional coursework, job readiness, leadership skills and more. In Jesus we perhaps have a synthesis: he was a carpenter, after all. Practical matters were not beneath him.  

We couldn't reach a consensus on any particular criteria, but we did agree that whatever "success" was, it couldn't be quantified or distilled into survey questions. It couldn't be equated to the ranking of a college or the outward expressions of contentment. Success on the terms of the Gospel could look like failure to the eyes of the world. Determining "success" would have to be a case-by-case study, a narrative approach that took into consideration the ways that discipleship can shatter all conventional norms.  

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Beth Cioffoletti
3 years ago
"We couldn't reach a consensus on any particular criteria, but we did agree that whatever "success" was, it couldn't be quantified or distilled into survey questions." Nope, but "success" could possibly be recognized in graduates (or associated Jesuits) : Mev Puleo (graduate of SLU), Fr. Gregory Boyle, Archbishop Romero, Pope Francis, ...
J Cosgrove
3 years ago
First, the main criteria should be that graduates leave as committed Catholics or Christians. If that is not accomplished, then Catholic education was a failure. Under this criteria, nearly all Catholic education in the United States has been a failure in the last 25 years. One father lamented here a couple years ago that he sent his child to Fordham and spent over $100,000 only to have her loose her religion. I have witnessed innumerable examples of people leaving Catholic schools and not practicing their religion but leading good Christian lives without the trappings of religious observance. This is the sophisticated meme that they believe is a better way of life. They believe they can pass on this way of life to their children by their example without the sacraments and for some it may work for a generation or two. But for most, their children will have no grounding in why one should be a Christian or just what a Christian way of life is. They will do what is politically correct at the moment justifying it on mass approval and no long lasting standard. It took Bill Murray probably about 3000 days in Groundhog Day to come to what is a fulfilling way of life. Unfortunately that is not an option for anyone but hopefully a lot less than 3000 days of Catholic education will lead to a realization that the sacraments are a necessity for any lasting moral life.
J Cosgrove
3 years ago
Just an additional comment that is related to the picture above. I maintain that Jesus did not come to help the poor. He came to help the rich. But not to make them richer or to ease their lives. In at least one gospel, there is the message that the poor have a free pass into heaven which is what religion should be about but that the ones with a problem are the rich. Not just rich in physical things but rich in education or knowledge. They are the ones that are more gifted and have trouble leading a Christian way of life and do not think they need religion. Often the graduates of Catholic schools are gifted. I am a graduate of a private Catholic High School where the tuition today is nearly $20,000 a year and the education is exemplary. But it is these young men who really need the implications of a Catholic education as often their lives will be one of ease and comes with the feeling what do they need religion for. But what they get is not a preparation for the next world but how to be successful in this world, and by the way helping the poor is good too. It is all about this world. Jesus came to save us. Somehow that is not the message that is being taught. If you mention salvation to anyone, they will start to look for an exit or someone else to talk to as you must be some kind of nut. No one talks about salvation anymore. Let's talk about how we can help the poor, everybody can agree that this is something we should all do. That is good but it is not the main function of a Catholic education. Catholicism is about salvation and how God has given us the tools to attain it. Love of our neighbor is essential but love of God is more important and what seems to be missing from current Catholic education.
Joseph J Dunn
3 years ago
J Cosgrove-- Good to see your comments, as always. "First, the main criteria should be that graduates leave as committed Catholics and Christians. If that is not accomplished, then Catholic education was a failure." I agree. Consider, though, that Jesus himself said, "Whatever you do for the least of these, my brothers, you do to me." And Pope Francis seems to put consideration of the poor at the center of the Church. Yes, it is troubling when a young person moves away from Catholicism, or becomes indifferent to all organized religion, whether temporarily or permanently. When there are so many challenges that the Church, with 2,000 years of experience and so many leaders, has not figured out (racism, sexism, poverty/wealth, capitalism/socialism, just to name a few), I do not wonder that a 22 year old might find it all a bit overwhelming. Most of all, I hesitate to think about a world without Jesuit Catholic education. At that point, the $20K prep school or the $50K university seems a bargain. Peace.
Michael Siconolfi
3 years ago
Jesuit secondary schools might take a look at the "outcomes assessments" that a number of colleges have constructed. While the structuring of such assessment surveys is always tricky and never quite "objective," it is fruitless to take just one picture of the Jesuit high school graduate's "success" at one moment in time. For openers, one might query them at graduation, again after college, and yet again ten years out. These evaluations, or "after action reports," as the military for whom I now work, calls them, might well be based on the Ignatian values often found in the institution's mission statement. One of the benefits of the social media available today, is that former students from twenty years ago contact me that something they thought little of in one of my classes has now become central to their lives as they grow. If you just want one snapshot, use the yearbook….
Brian Pinter
3 years ago
I wrote an article along the lines of this blog post (Redefining Success, 5/12/14). I was ministering and teaching in a Jesuit high school at the time and was surprised that I did not receive any response about the piece from the leadership of the place. I don't think the vision I presented resonated with them. Someone said to me, "Parents DON'T send their kids to these schools to do good; they send them here to do well." It seems that the mentality of mid 20th century immigrants still dominates most Catholic schools, including the Jesuit ones, i.e. prepare students to excel and climb to the top of the American socio-economic ladder, not seriously challenge the status quo. And you know you've made it when your school head and students are photographed ringing the closing bell of the NYSE. Let us contemplate that scene alongside the image of Jesus and the rich young man above. But the course these schools have charted for themselves requires that graduates go forth to…earn a lot of money and then give some of it to the school. How can this cycle be broken? This post says it well: "Success on the terms of the Gospel could look like failure to the eyes of the world." That nails it; but I don't know of any Catholic school which would dare put that ethos into practice. We're just not spiritually mature enough for that, and not ready to live with the consequences.
Abigail Woods-Ferreira
3 years ago
My husband and many of his close friends are Fairfield Prep grads. Most are happily married men and devoted fathers. As friends they look out for and support each other with a depth and emotional complexity that rises far above our culture's crude stereotypes of modern adult male friendship. They are some of the nicest guys I know. I think they are successes. I wouldn't argue with Brian that there is also a focus on "doing well" at Jesuit schools, and Catholic Schools in general - but I don't think that necessarily always contradicts also "doing good." There is certainly a tension between the two. But they don't have to contradict. Part of Jesuit education is finding God in all things, including Wall Street and KPMG. Since I've worked at Fordham, I've had accounting and finance students and alum come drop by my office in Career Services, not just for job postings or interview tips, but to ask about good books for spiritual reading. I keep Augustine's Confessions and Merton's Seven Story Mountain in the office. They get loaned out. They aren't perfect kids, and I'm sure there are some graduates out in the world that embody doing well without doing good, but overall working at a Jesuit college has given me a lot of hope for the next generation.
Brian Pinter
3 years ago
Abigail, I appreciate what you say very much, and in a spirit of dialogue, I would offer these questions for further dialogue: The Fieldston School and Harvard also form men and women who are good spouses, have deep friendships, and are thoroughly decent people. What makes someone from a Catholic school different? Pope Francis and Catholic social teaching have been critical of the style of capitalism which Wall Street personifies. It was Wall St. that gave us the financial havoc of 2008 which wrecked so many lives. Could a graduate of a Catholic school in good conscience be complicit in that system? In my experience as a teacher in Catholic high schools, I found a great number of students who believed in God, thought that being nice to your neighbor was important, and that God was there to help you when you needed it. Many young adults statistically speaking, function with this mindset as well. Problem is, that isn't Christianity, it's Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It seemed to me that the more doctrinally fundamentalist catechesis became, the more MTD the kids became. I totally agree that almost all of our students are good young people. They have good hearts and good intentions for others. My concern is that we're primarily forming them to be good Americans, not agents of transformation who challenge the dark side of a system that leaves many impoverished and leads the world in ecological destruction. Are we really teaching them how to pray? Are we giving them a vocabulary and role models to offer prophetic critique to a world which sometimes stands against the values of the Gospel? Are we guiding them toward becoming the mystics of our time, mystics the world desperately needs? Again, I value what you have to say very much. Brian
Joseph J Dunn
3 years ago
“Determining success would have to be a case-by-case study, a narrative approach that took into consideration the ways that discipleship can shatter all conventional norms.” I agree. Most of the work of building the world that Pope Francis wants will be done beyond the boundaries of the parish or the campus, by leaders in the arenas of business, politics, and other messy places, and by consumers, voters, shareholders, managers, etc. The ability to make an impact in those places requires knowledge of worldly skills as well as commitment to a faith that does justice. I am struck by how quickly the Comments moved to imply a contradiction between doing well and doing good. In "Seven Story Mountain", Thomas Merton recognized “that special class of men (today, I’m sure Merton would also acknowledge women) raised up by God to support orphanages and convents and monasteries and build hospitals and feed the poor.” In the next sentence he wrote, “On the whole, it is a way of sanctity that is sometimes much despised.” (p. 358). Apparently, the stereotype of the successful person (the one-percenter) as incapable of good work was already widely held in the 1940s. It is good to maintain contact with graduates over the decades, at least to learn what made an impact and what might be improved. But only One can judge “Success on the terms of the Gospel” in any particular life.
John Fitzgerald
3 years ago
This is an important and difficult question. The case-by-case answer is inadequate. Parents are spending about $20,000 a year to send a child to a Jesuit prep school. This may be followed by about $50,000 a year for a Jesuit college. Additionally, the SJ is using a significant portion of its resources in this endeavor. Wouldn't Ignatius of Loyola wanted a clearer and more robust answer?
Matt Emerson
3 years ago

Mr. Fitzgerald,

Thank you for reading and for commenting. I cannot speak for all Jesuit high schools, but many Jesuit college preps cost less than $20,000 (although some schools charge more than $20,000 -- e.g., Loyola School in New York City). Additionally, Jesuit schools (including Loyola in NYC) provide financial assistance and many also offer work study programs.  

Why do you disagree with a case-by-case analysis? What standard for success would you use?

I'm not exactly sure what Ignatius would say on this, but he wouldn't equate success with a certain salary, career, or college. This isn't to say he wouldn't encourage achievement in all areas. For Ignatius, the goal was to glorify God in all things, and to seek that end above all else. For each person that could mean a different path.

Perhaps a reader can point to a specific document or letter that would give a more specific indication of Ignatius's thoughts on this.  

 

Michael Barberi
3 years ago
This is not only an important question but a highly complex one. I sent my children to Catholic elementary and high schools. My son went to a very prestigious Catholic high school that today cost parents $30,000 per year in tuition. Both of my children went on and graduated from great universities and are doing well. If you asked me why I spent so much money to send my son to this high school, I would tell you that it was not for the academics. There were other private high schools that had similar academic quality. I would tell you I sent my son to this high school because I believed it would help him to acquire a good Catholic moral character. During this time my wife and I also took both of my children to Mass each week with us, and we tried to be good parents. My wife and I have been married for 42 years now and we are proud of both of our children. Fast forward to today. Well, both of my children don't go to Mass. One decided to become a member of the Jewish faith. The other has not decided upon a Christian faith yet. I could call him, spiritual but not religious. Both of my children have significant problems in how the Catholic Church is governed, and does not think the Church listens to the people. They both disagree with certain moral teachings of the Catholic Church, especially sexual ethics. I cannot tell you all the reasons they are Catholic-in-name only, or don't believe that the Catholic Church is the sole and only means to their salvation. I cannot tell you all the reasons for their perspectives because I do not know them. I only see a partial view of their opinions, and do not push myself on them for a comprehensive explanation. I believe in guiding them by example. What I can tell you is that many young Catholics today are like my children. It would not be unreasonable to say that they believe that the Catholic Church seems to more focused on obedience to rules, and not upon how one can become more like Christ. Our salvation is not about obedience to the magisterium, and following small-minded rules as some measure of our Catholicity, but obedience to Christ and His Gospel. For me, I have stayed faithful to the Catholic Church, participate in many ministries, attend weekly Mass, pray and receive the sacraments. I also disagree with many moral teachings of the Church and work to move the conversation forward to a better understanding of truth. I have never expressed my disagreement with certain teachings of the Church with my children. I was not, in any way, influencing their thinking. If anything, I have always taught them to pray and follow Christ. By example, my wife and I have done a reasonably good job because both of my children are wonderful, loving persons. They minister to the poor and less fortunate and are compassionate and generous. In my opinion, the criteria for knowing if the Church or a Catholic education is successful, is by the character of one's personality. However, what is often never discussed is that the Church is part of the problem. The Church needs a convincing moral theory in support of its moral teachings that is understandable to average Catholics and is not in profound tension with human experience and reason. It is not all about faith, but about faith and reason because a faith without reason is blind, and reason without faith is to deny the transcendental. If we cannot accept what is proclaimed by the Church as truth by faith and reason, then we should ask God for a stronger faith. Nevertheless, we should never doubt the Holy Spirit or ourselves under His divine light. We are not a victim of self-deception merely because we disagree with certain moral teachings for good reasons based on our informed consciences. If my daughter wants to become a member of the Jewish faith, good for her. I truth that God will lead her to eternal life. We need a better way to teach average Catholics about our faith and what is truth. Unfortunately, I do not have any answers how this should be achieved.
J Cosgrove
3 years ago
They both disagree with certain moral teachings of the Catholic Church, especially sexual ethics.
I know of no other teaching that is superior to that of what the Church requires of us. Now, I will admit they do a lousy job of defending their teaching, This site is no better.
Michael Barberi
3 years ago
J Cosgrove, By your remarks, I assume you agree with every moral teaching of the magisterium. If so, we will have to agree to disagree without discussing specifics. This would take us far from the point of this article. I agree with you that the Church does a lousy job of defending many of their moral teachings involving sexual ethics. In this regard, the rationale offered is weak and unconvincing. At some point, the rationale must ring true to the deepest levels of the minds, hearts and souls of faithful Catholics. Otherwise, the profound non-reception will continue with respect to certain moral teachings. It is not "solely" about having faith in every moral teaching. It is about both Faith and Reason, Human Experience, Scripture/revelation, and Tradition, especially with respect to ethical decision-making, what is morally right and wrong in concrete circumstances.
J Cosgrove
3 years ago
This would take us far from the point of this article.
Yes and no because we are discussing what should be taught and what a graduate from the school should walk away with. Disagreements with the magisterium has certainly a place in this world. One use to call it Protestantism. If one does not believe the magisterium is inspired by the Holy Spirit, then the Church is just some another collection of human social activity, of which there are millions.
Michael Barberi
3 years ago
J Cosgrove, All faithful loving Catholics are inspired by the Holy Spirit especially when they pray and receive the sacraments. The magisterium also is inspired by the Holy Spirit, but inspiration is one thing and declaring a moral teaching the absolute moral truth with certainty is quite another thing. Witness all the teachings that have been taught for centuries as truth, but were changed: slavey, the prohibition against freedom of religion, the torture of heretics, usury, the ends of marriage, etc. Not every disagreement is akin to Protestantism. A Catholic school education should educate people about the faith, as well as in the rationale for moral teachings. A good Catholic school education must also help students become critical thinkers. If all that is expected of a Catholic school education is for Catholics to obey all magisterium teachings regardless of the reasons, the current education has a long way to go. Besides our faith, what role and contribution is played by our God-given intelligence, practical reason, human experience, the sciences, et al, that move us towards a better understanding of moral truth?
Bob Baker
3 years ago
Having taught in Catholic primary and secondary schools, I have a certain perception of students as they traveled along the way. I am convinced that students need to learn the basics of their Faith before they leave junior high school. The books and curriculum in primary schools leave a lot to be desired though. When I taught in high school, I was shocked to find how poorly students are educated in the Faith - it was truly incredible what they didn't know. The Jesuit high school program was heavy on social justice but did not account for the lack of the basics that were lacking and the students were truly lost. As the years proceeded, it only got worse as young teachers seemed to be most prevalent in teaching religion (most of whom were not well versed in Catholicism themselves). Obviously, when these students graduate and go on to many (most?) Catholic colleges where there is likely to be only one required Catholic course, they have no idea what the Faith really is and what it teaches and they will probably lose what remains of their Faith as adults.
John Fitzgerald
3 years ago
Matt -- Thanks for following up. Let me begin by saying that I think Jesuit schools are wonderful. That is not the issue. Nor is the precise cost. And, I am well aware of the opportunities for financial aid. The issues I am trying to get at concern the value received in return for the use of limited resources, both by parents and by the Society of Jesus. Re parents, except for the very well to do, sending a child to a Jesuit prep school or college usually involves a significant financial sacrifice. Certainly, the student will have the opportunity to receive a fine education. However, are we not asking "what is the distinguishing benefit of a Jesuit school." Re the SJ, first a point about Catolic schools in the US. They developed to meet the needs of an immigrant community against which the surrounding society was discriminating. Except for new immigrant groups, this is no longer the case. Furthermore, these newer Catholic immigrant groups are under-represented at universities like Georgetown (purely an anecdotal observation). Re Jesuit schools specifically, I stand to be corrected but I think that Ignatius and his near term successors saw and used educational institutions as a very important leverage point from which to promote the Gospel and Catholicism. I wonder whether this is still the case in the US. The problem with the case-by-case approach is that it impedes strategic thinking on this type of question. I will not offer some simplistic personal answer to the question you raised. It is a very important and difficult question -- perhaps more than you realized when you wrote your piece.

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