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Educating in the Jesuit Tradition


Frequently our students come into the university domain thinking that all opinions are equally valid. This view has threatened the intellectual development of students since the time of Socrates because it allows students to think that incomplete, illogical, and nonsystematic thought is good enough. Unfortunately, it never is.

Spitzer3 When I speak about Gonzaga, I say that we are trying to achieve the highest standards in the Jesuit educational tradition. People almost invariably ask, "What do you mean?" I normally give the "three-minute answer" which does not do justice to this deep, long-standing, remarkable enterprise. Thus, I decided to devote the next three issues of this column to "my take on Jesuit education.

The principles guiding the values of an Ignatian education derive from Part IV of the "Constitutions of the Society of Jesus," and from the "Ratio Studiorum" of 1599. The ultimate goal of the Ratio Studiorum was not merely to develop rhetorical, writing, and thinking skills, but to help students understand and articulate the wisdom, knowledge, and habits benefiting their souls and the souls of others. One might rephrase this goal in contemporary terms as "to prepare the students to pursue their ultimate personal good and the common good." The study of philosophy is central to helping students achieve this goal by providing essential background and foundations to understand and articulate: ·

  • Rationality (evidence, consistency, valid argumentation, and systematic avoidance of omissions)
  • The existence of God, and appreciating God's love and justice
  • The ultimate end/ends (goals) of the human person
  • The highest end/ends of the polis (community), or society (i.e., the common good)
  • The means for pursuing the goals for human personhood and the common good (i.e., ethics).

The order of this list is significant, for without an understanding of the foundations of rationality, one could not achieve a rational awareness of God as Creator; without an awareness of God, one could not achieve an awareness of the ultimate end of the human person (not only created by God, but destined for God). In this view, one could never hope to achieve an adequate awareness of oneself without some awareness of the one Being capable of satisfying human desire.

Since Augustine's time, Western philosophers believed that human desire was oriented toward an unconditional, perfect, and unrestricted end (in Truth, Goodness, Justice, Beauty, Being and Love). If this were true, human beings could never satisfy themselves, and indeed, could never be satisfied by anything except unconditional, perfect, and unrestricted Truth, Goodness, Justice, Beauty, Being and Love. Augustine's famous exclamation in Book I of the "Confessions" expresses it succinctly: "For Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." If one believes that we are endowed with this desire for the unconditional, perfect, and unrestricted, then there are only two options: (1) One can come to affirm and relate to the God who alone can satisfy one's ultimate ends; or, (2) one can deny or reject God, and admit that life is absurd, for if God did not exist and human desire is satisfied only by the unrestricted, the human person is destined to be frustrated in the very ground and height of his/her nature.

This sets the stage for the fourth contribution of philosophy, namely, understanding and articulating the common good. For Suarez (an early Jesuit philosopher who first articulated a theory of rights resembling our contemporary one), the objective of society is to optimize the common good. This requires not only an awareness of the ultimate good for humans, but also a means of assuring that the good of the whole does not annihilate the good of some individuals. The actualization of these two potentially diverse objectives moved Suarez to articulate his theory of rights (the very first articulation of rights in history).

The third and fourth contributions reveal the need for the fifth, namely, ethics, principle, and virtue. Since the days of ancient Greece, many understood that ends do not justify the means. One cannot use an unjust means to pursue a just end; such means are inconsistent with, and therefore undermine, the good end.

Jesuits appreciated the need for principles, because they realized that our capacity for rationalization is virtually infinite. I don't know about you, but give me five minutes and I can rationalize any action as being good through utilitarian criteria (a harms/benefits calculus). If we are capable of such rationalization, it will never be sufficient merely to solve ethical cases or make ethical arguments. We must steep ourselves in principles and virtues which may not be absolutely applicable in all circumstances, but must stand at the ground of all ethical questioning and thinking, and which, therefore, cannot, without trepidation, be compromised.

These five dimensions of the Jesuit educational tradition are by no means restricted to philosophy. They permeate the study of literature, history, politics, law, the social sciences, the natural sciences, the health sciences, and even engineering. Of course, they interact with theological and pastoral studies and reflect upon the community life and spiritual life of the students. They form a powerful ethos giving rise to faith, self-awareness, justice, love and above all, a life dedicated to the common good.

In the discussion in part I, I delved into the first of three aspects of the Jesuit educational tradition: our intellectual tradition. I will now address the second aspect: The imitation of the love of Christ (agape). St. Ignatius saw agape as central not only to the Spiritual Exercises, but to every Jesuit apostolate and community.

In the University context agape is central to our community, that is, to the way in which we teach, the goals of our residence life, and the associations we have with faculty, staff, parents, alumni, community and friends. This one characteristic gives rise to care and spirit, to knowledge of the mind and heart, and to central meaning and purpose in life. It is what made and makes GU so special for all of us.

The objective of the Christian life is joy. Jesus summarized his intention for the world by saying, "I tell you all these things, that my joy may be yours, and your joy may be complete" (Jn. 15:11). As Jesus makes clear, the way to joy is agape. Agape may require sacrifice, but in the long run, it will always lead to joy. This is Jesus' promise for eternal salvation.

What is agape? In brief, it is the habit of the heart giving rise to forgiveness and compassion which leads to unity, peace and joy within the human community. To explain this highest human call, it might be best to differentiate it from three other views of love.

The Greeks called the most "instinctual" kind of love storge. It is the natural affection we feel for other human beings, our responsiveness to a child, to a friend, or simply to someone who wishes us well. We do not have to think about this kind of love. It naturally emerges from us when we are not "stressed out" or being "socially retarded." Agape can frequently include this kind of affection, but it is not reducible to it.

Philia (friendship) is based on a reciprocal commitment. When one friend commits time and energy to another, and the other reciprocates, a deep loyalty and emotional bond occurs. Though agape can be involved in friendship, it does not require friendship's reciprocity, commitments, or emotional bondings.

Eros (romantic love) occurs in relationships of special intimacy and exclusivity. Again, agape can be involved in the romantic love intrinsic to family, but it is not dependent upon romantic feelings or special intimacy.

So what is agape grounded in? The God-given, human capacity to see the intrinsic dignity of another person irrespective of affection, friendship, or romantic feelings. This vision of the dignity, goodness, and mystery of the other gives rise to benevolent intention, compassion and forgiveness. We want the other to prosper even if we do not directly benefit. We want to prevent the other from suffering even at the cost of our time and energy. We want the human community to be better off for our time and effort because we know that this is the one purpose of life that is truly lasting and worthy of us.

This deep desire to invest ourselves in the well-being of others moves us to compassion (sympathy with others in their suffering). When this sympathy is detected by its recipients, it dignifies and elevates them and infuses in them an awareness of their true intrinsic dignity.

Similarly, the deep desire to invest ourselves in the well-being of others gives rise to one of the hardest of all virtues: forgiveness. Forgiveness is not forgetting, but the essential condition for future forgetting. It interrupts the cycle of "vengeance begetting vengeance" and "violence begetting violence," and gives rise to the possibility of growth in the love and joy to which Christ has called us. It is the most important quality of agape for Jesus. Hence, I will discuss it in greater detail in my next Perspective.

Though forgiveness can be hard, and compassion inconvenient, they "switch on" the highest of human powers and callings. They elevate the plane of meaning and being on which we live. They optimize the goodness we can produce with our lives, and in the end, give rise to peace and joy in the human community.

Think back to your experiences at GU. Think of the messages you received on the Search Retreats. The moments of gratuitous kindness in the residence halls, and the hard-won moments of compassion and forgiveness amidst the inconveniences of collegiate growth. What was so special about our experiences at Gonzaga? I would wager that it was agape embodied by a community who truly believed in it. This is the central point of Jesuit education.

Welcome to the third and final part of my series on the Jesuit Educational Tradition. In the first part, I spoke of the Jesuit intellectual tradition, looking at the questions Jesuit universities explore through their core curricula: questions about life's meaning, the full dignity of the human person, contributory verses, comparative identity, the existence of God, and the love of God.

In the second part of this series, I spoke of the development of Agape (the empathetic love, inducing forgiveness, compassion, and self-sacrifice) which stands at the core of Jesus' teaching about the meaning of life and the fullness of humanity. I looked at how this is deepened through students' experiences in the residence halls, the classroom, retreat programs, and other parts of the Jesuit university.

This third part will concern developing mental acuity (the skill of thinking, reasoning, creating, and expressing oneself clearly).

If one assembles these three parts, an overarching theme becomes evident: The heart liberates the mind, and the mind liberates the heart. "Heart" is a metaphor commonly used to speak of the human capacity to pursue meaning, ideals, love and transcendence with spirit, enthusiasm, empathy, belief, and even passion. The heart directs the mind to meaning and purpose in life. It orients the mind toward the highest possible aspirations, to living life to the fullest, to the highest human emotions, and to our most creative expression. The mind, in its turn, guides the heart to what is reasonable and responsible. It examines the heart's objectives systematically, assesses what can be realistically done, and helps the heart to articulate its aims with clarity and precision. Educators in the Jesuit tradition commonly acknowledge Blaise Pascal's memorable phrase, "the heart has reasons that the mind knows not of." We also recognize that this attention to the heart is one of the most distinctive features of Jesuit education. Yet we hasten to add that the heart is in need of the clear, precise and systematic expression of the mind to bring its loves, ideals, and aspirations to an optimal and effective end.

So what does this cultivation of the mind consist in? In addition to the practical arts of writing and rhetoric (taught through individual attention in small classes), Jesuits have emphasized clear, complete, distinct, logical and systematic thought.

Frequently our students (out of respect for others) come into the university domain thinking that all opinions are equally valid. This view has threatened the intellectual development of students since the time of Socrates because it allows students to think that incomplete, illogical, and nonsystematic thought is "good enough." Unfortunately, it never is. The fact is Einstein's opinion about the universe is better than Newton's because it is more complete and systemic. Educators in the Jesuit tradition try to instill the habit of "good opinions" by addressing completeness, logic, and systematics.

With respect to completeness of opinions, there is an old philosophical adage: "There are far more errors of omission than commission." It is incumbent upon professors to show students methods for uncovering omissions, ways of ascertaining the completeness of databases, methods of research, and the use of technology.

With respect to logic, professors help students avoid the embarrassment of intrinsic contradictions manifest through formal and informal fallacies. They also show students how to construct sound arguments that will advance theoretical and practical knowledge toward the common good.

Finally, with respect to systematics, educators in the Jesuit tradition concern themselves daily with showing students road maps for the 10 categories of cultural discourse. These are truth, ethics, suffering, person, God, happiness, love, freedom, political philosophy, and economic philosophy. With respect to the road map about truth, for example, we speak of rationalists, empiricists, realists, etc. With respect to ethics, we speak about utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, etc. With respect to the meaning of suffering, we speak of Epicureans, Stoics, Orphics, etc. With respect to personhood, we speak of materialists, hylomorphists, transcendentalists, etc. The other six categories of cultural discourse are set out in the same way.

Why spend so much time on these road maps? Because the mind's guidance of the heart depends on knowing where one stands and where one wants to be amid the panoply of possibilities that the culture has to offer. Meaning in life, happiness, the pursuit of the common good, and even one's response to God depend upon clarity and precision in these 10 areas.

There is another reason why these 10 categories of cultural discourse are so important. It has to do with another famous Jesuit adage: "When arguing, never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish." Intellectual progress will never occur if one completely denies the truth of an opponent's position. The same can be said for being too affirming. If you tell me in the midst of an argument, "Spitzer, I want to affirm you, affirm who you are and all that you are," and then walk away and think to yourself, "idiot," we will not have achieved intellectual progress. If intellectual progress is to be achieved, then we must know how to make good distinctions. Good distinctions, in their turn, rest upon higher viewpoints about the 10 categories of cultural discourse. Those who have been through Jesuit education know well the power of these "road maps" for articulating thought, directing our personal lives, and achieving the common good. They are indispensable for the mind's guidance of the heart.

Gonzaga accomplishes this mission well. It did this for me as a student and does it better than ever today.



Spitzer, S.J., Robert J. "Educating in the Jesuit Tradition." Gonzaga University President's Message (2000).

Reprinted with permission of Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, S.J.

The Author

Spitzer73spitzer7Father Robert Spitzer, S.J. is President of the Magis Center of Faith and Reason and the Spitzer Center for Ethical Leadership. He is the author of New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, Spirit of Leadership: Optimizing Creativity and Change in Organizations, Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life: A Practical Guide to Prayer for Active People, Healing the Culture: A Commonsense Philosophy of Happiness, Freedom, and the Life Issues, Ten Universal Principles: A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues, as well as videos such as Suffering and the God of Love, and Healing the Culture.

Copyright © 2000 Robert Spitzer, S.J.
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