I remember being a high school sophomore and getting the college brochures in the mailthey said St. Peter’s and underneath The Jesuit College of New Jersey. It almost seemed to be a part of the title of the school, that phrase so often followed its name. This was repeated on other brochures, letterheads and catalogs the college sent me while in high school. When I arrived at the college as a freshman in the fall of 2001, a number of speakers, including the president, thought it important to remind us (in case we had forgotten) that we had come to a Jesuit college, and spoke a great deal about the importance of Jesuit education. Now, four years later, here I am, a graduate of St. Peter’s College, and I find myself telling peopleproudly, I might addthat I was educated by Jesuits. But when I stop to think, I ask myself what that really means, and if indeed there is anything distinctive about being a product of Jesuit education.
I will admit to having had my doubts as a freshman. I listened politely as people spoke about Jesuit education, but inside I dismissed it as the same enthusiasm people have for a sports team. New Yorkers may flock to the Yankees and Bostonians may root for the Red Sox, but this is more sentimental pride than an acknowledgement of any concrete difference. That is the analogy I used to explain away all this fanfare over the Jesuits. Yes, I was psyched to be in a college run by the Jesuits. But had I been in a Dominican or Franciscan school, I would probably show just as much zeal for those orders. I believed it to be more a matter of school pride than anything else.
Over the course of four years, however, I have found my initial impressions about the distinctive value of Jesuit education to be dead wrong. There is something special about these men of St. Ignatius that sets them, their schools and their students apart. There are three ways I feel my education has been blessed and enhanced specifically because I attended a Jesuit college.
First, Jesuit education does not exist in a vacuum. In our current day, I find more and more scholars view their studies and morality as two distinct objects, with the latter often being put on the back burner to make way for the former. To the Jesuits, however, there is no separation between the two. Whether you are engaged in a study of philosophy or biology, there are moral questions that need to be examined. Rather than serving as a distraction or unnecessary addition to the student’s field of study, this element of morality ennobles the discipline, elevating it to something holy.
I am reminded of these words of a Holocaust survivor who went on to become a high school principal:
Dear teachers, I am the survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness - gas chambers built by learned engineers, children poisoned by educated physicians, infants killed by trained nurses, women and babies shot and burned by high school and college students. So I am suspicious of education.
My request is: help your students become humane. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more humane.
I believe that this reveals the essence of Jesuit educationeducation with moral responsibility. Surely one needs only to pick up the morning paper to see how rarely we find the two together. There are men and women with M.D. after their names who perform abortions; people with M.B.A.’s and brokerage licenses who have headed companies like Enron that have stolen money from unsuspecting people; and well-educated political leaders, surrounded by the best and brightest advisors, who have done little to ease world poverty. What is the fruit of their years of education, if God and his people are not being served?
To attend a Jesuit college is to exercise one’s intellect in moral terms. This is not an external add-on, inserted as a mandatory ethics lecture or service time, but rather a theme that resonates through every class and field of study at the college. It is how morality and intellect marry, becoming so intermingled that one automatically views morality as a necessary component of any academic inquiry.
The second element of Jesuit education is its well-rounded approach to knowledge. There is a modern temptation to throw away the ideal of the renaissance man (and woman) in favor of specialists, reasoning that it is far better to know a lot about a little than a little about a lot. Resisting this temptation with a balanced core curriculum, the Jesuits insist on turning out men and women whose knowledge does not end at the boundaries of their individual majors. I have met theologians who were accomplished singers, chemists who grasped philosophy, historians who understood physics. There is something contagious about a love of knowledge for knowledge’s sake; it can come across from a professor and spread to the students like wildfire.
Speaking from my own experience, I double-majored in theology and philosophy, minored in history, took a few introductory science courses when I was thinking about medical school, interned for two summers at an investment company and used my free electives to take some political science courses. This was encouraged wholeheartedly by professors who freed me to study for study’s sake. I do not feel that this approach to study hindered my double major in any way. If anything, it only enhanced my study of theology and philosophy.
The Jesuits have a profound sense that no course of study is ever wasted. This certainly goes against the current logic of study only biology if you want to be a doctor; study only English if you want to be a writer. And because the teachers are able to take such a stand, their students leave as well-rounded men and women, eager to appreciate the different facets of the world around them.
The final element of Jesuit education is the participation of non-Jesuits. Some of the most beautiful explanations of Jesuit education I have ever heard have been given by people who do not have S.J. after their name. Though they are not Jesuits themselves, they are vital cooperators in advancing the Jesuit mission and living the Jesuit spirit. The Jesuits have always been an order of innovatorsquick to adapt to their environment so that their mission can be advanced. This inclusiveness stems from that adaptive spirit and allows Jesuit values to be incorporated into the work and lives of the laity. I have seen this present in the lay faculty and staff of the college. I have seen it in men I have met who left the Society but continue to remain close to it, seeking to remain associated with it through their ministries.
It is this final element that I take hold of as I leave the Jesuit community that has been my home for the last four years and go out into the world. Though I have never been a Jesuit scholastic, I feel I have been formed intensely by the Society of Jesus. Though I have never taken final vows, a permanent change has occurred, and my life will be different because of the Society.