Georgetown Prep president: Working for hope in a season of contempt
Toward the end of the oft-cited (but less frequently read) address by Pedro Arrupe, S.J., commonly referred to as “Men for Others,” Father Arrupe, the superior general of the Society of Jesus at the time, struggles with the problem of what the alumni of Jesuit institutions, and by extension what the institutions themselves, might do to formulate a genuine response to the call of a faith seeking justice in a fallen world. One of the possible responses Father Arrupe notes is that those who have privilege—the well-educated alumni and the distinguished schools—should renounce it. In the end, however, Father Arrupe rejects this solution as facile. He points out that privilege is but a tool and that if good men and women will not use that tool for the good, others who are less scrupulous and more egotistical will be happy to use it for their own ends rather than for the goal of creating a more just world that reflects to all, especially to those who are less privileged, the undiscriminating, spontaneous, generous and merciful love of God.
This has been much on my mind these past weeks as I have read the repeated caricatures in the media and the internet of the institution I now lead, Georgetown Preparatory School, as privileged, elitist, uncaring and negligent. While Georgetown Prep has been much in the spotlight, our sister schools here in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area, as well as our brother Jesuit schools, have also been painted with the same caricature. And, frankly, it is time to confront the caricature and speak plainly about the reality.
Father James Van Dyke, S.J.: "It is time to confront the caricature and speak plainly about the reality."
That Georgetown Prep and its sister schools in Montgomery County, Md., are fortunate is undeniable. Having moved out of the precincts of Georgetown University in 1919 to what was then sparsely inhabited woodlands, Prep has benefited from the explosive growth of suburban Washington, D.C., and especially from the growing prosperity of a tightly connected group of Catholic families that have been sending their sons to the school for generations. Yet the image of good fortune and prosperity often belies a different reality. For instance, the school has been also for generations the home to a population of international and other boarding students. And it has always been a home to students whose families could never afford tuition and in some cases could not even afford the cost of commuting. That more than one quarter of the school’s population is granted significant financial aid, and that the board of trustees remains committed to expanding the school’s racial and economic diversity even further, is not what one reads or hears about in the caricatures.
That the school is expensive (another oft-mentioned point) is also true, but it is expensive precisely because we are committed to creating to the best of our ability an educational system that truly works. That means that we commit ourselves to paying our faculty as well as we can and that we commit ourselves to staffing levels that are far beyond the public or private norm. That means that we underwrite extensive programs of reflection and Christian service. That means that our residence halls are well-staffed, for we are well aware that caring for young men far from home is not a task to be taken lightly, especially in the modern era. That it works, at least by all secular measures, is clear: Our students’ academic growth is outstanding and their college placements are remarkable. But more important, our students have had the opportunity to look beyond that: They have had the opportunity to think about the “why” of things and the “why” of their own lives, and they have had the opportunity to reflect on what might be expected—needed—of them in this world.
Is it foolproof? I would say, with full confidence, no. I have been teaching in Jesuit schools for more than 20 years, and I have met alumni who never grew up, who never came to terms with any of the dreams and ideals that Jesuit education sought to instill in them. But, more important, I have met many more from all walks of life, from plumbers to politicians, from athletes to teachers, from doctors to doormen, who absorbed at least something of what they were exposed to, and used it to be better human beings in a world that needs them. They are no more perfect than you or I, but they have grasped what being “for and with others” might mean in the concrete day-to-day of ordinary life, as well as in the great and exceptional moments.
And do we always get it right? Again I can say, without hesitation, no. We have spent the last weeks listening with grave concern to reports of Prep yearbooks that reflect the worst of adolescent instincts and excess. We are keenly aware that the lack of supervision and oversight of these yearbooks are our fault. Although some items have been misconstrued, others contain language and “inside jokes” demeaning to others. Make no mistake: This is the result of a profound institutional failure—the failure of our institution. And we can only abjectly apologize.
But that represents the failure of the institution, not of the charism. It does not mean that the concept of “men for others”—or more to my liking “men and women for and with others”—is hollow; rather it means that we must be ever and always vigilant that it does not become merely a motto, merely a tagline, merely a really terrific quote to feature on our webpage. It means that “brotherhood,’ a vaunted concept here at Prep, can never be exclusive, never a cover for “boys will be boys” or for secrecy, but rather must always be a challenging response to that haunting, primordial question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
“Brotherhood,’ a vaunted concept at Georgetown Preparatory School, can never be exclusive, never a cover for “boys will be boys” or for secrecy, but rather must always be a challenging response to that haunting, primordial question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
One of the mantras I have heard repeatedly is that this is all a problem of the “toxic masculinity” encouraged by single-sex education. Having served as the principal of a coeducational Jesuit school, I can assure anyone that the issues we face in all-boys education are not limited to single-sex schools. The culture of contempt, widely displayed in slap-down “comedies” and in internet and social media bullying, is by no means limited to male culture nor restricted to all-boys schools. To recognize this is not to blame victims or excuse inexcusable behavior. It’s to acknowledge that that behavior is part of a bigger problem facing the larger culture among both men and women that we sadly cannot seem to address—a fundamental lack of respect for persons as such.
Some people have advised me to keep this all in perspective, that the issues that have been raised concern incidents long past. This is not satisfactory, however, at either a personal or an institutional level. That the 1970s and 1980s were a time of great social upheaval was abundantly clear in schools and in homes. Serious educators in public, private, religious and secular schools as well as parents and families have been wrestling with the collateral damage of an out-of-control culture for many decades. The problems of abuse of alcohol and drugs, sexual assault and misconduct, and emotional and physical violence toward others are all too real; educators at every institution of primary, secondary and higher learning in our nation face these problems every day. To the credit of Jesuit school leaders and leaders of other schools, we have been learning together how to confront these realities over the past decades, growing in our understanding of the issues themselves and developing sound policies and protocols that help us address the reality that young people can do terrible and dangerous things and yet must still be taught and helped to reach healthy maturity.
Parents, too, have learned, as is witnessed by the important work of organizations like MADD (Mothers against Drunk Driving) and the Community of Concern, organizations created by parents to support and educate other parents as they help their sons and daughters navigate an often unsupportive culture. In the meantime, new challenges arise in the evolving cultures that surround our students and their families—the culture of pornography and sexualization, the culture of consumerism and affluence, the culture of hedonism. It does not seem to me to be a time to withdraw from either past realities or present challenges but rather a time to engage them on behalf of our students and their families with still greater care.
We are a school, not entirely different from other schools, really. We deal with young men and their families and we try, in the best Jesuit tradition, to lead them not merely to academic and athletic excellence but to the personal excellence outlined in TheProfile of the Graduate at Graduation (JSEA 1980, 2010) in which humility and honesty play a fundamental role. In that spirit, we know that this is a good time for us to learn as a community and as an institution. This past year, along with Georgetown University, we have grappled with our institutional participation in the sin of slavery; now we have the opportunity to grapple with the sins of misogyny and contempt. And though we cannot repair the sins of the past, we remain committed to understanding them, understanding how they still exist in our community and our institution, and laboring to make sure our students know in no uncertain terms how wrong these sins are, how intolerable they are to our community and to the larger community, how they undermine and oppress people.
We do not just hope that our students will recognize these evils but that they will battle them—not only in their own souls, nor just in our community here, but even more in the larger world. Because these sins are rampant in our larger world, and our graduates will either fight them or participate in them.
"In their efforts to be men who show respect, men who seek to serve, men who want to offer hope, our students offer witness that bad behavior and cynicism do not have to be the end of this story."
That, finally, is the challenge and the opportunity that I see for Prep, for all Jesuit schools and indeed for any school that dares to take seriously the notion that education is not merely about content but about the formation of character, and especially the traits of empathy and compassion. As I said to our juniors and seniors last week in a blunt discussion of the challenge we face—not a public relations challenge but one of school culture—I have no doubt that they will be intellectually competent as they go to college and beyond. That is not even a question. But will they be competent as human beings; will they have the compassion to enter into the sufferings of others, of the wrong others have experienced? Will they have the courage to stand up for those who suffer injustice and contempt, even standing up to popular and peer culture? Can they do that not only here at school but in their neighborhoods, in their social gatherings, in the larger world as they go to college and beyond?
They have so much potential: In their efforts to be men who show respect, men who seek to serve, men who want to offer hope, they offer witness that bad behavior and cynicism do not have to be the end of this story. If they can persevere in hope and help others to do the same, then “men and women for and with others” is not another empty motto, nor a tagline, nor even a really neat quote on a webpage. It is a living reality.