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What Jesuit universities want for their students
Liberal education, liberal arts—no subject, no text, is automatically liberating. It all depends on how it’s taught, and what our goals are in teaching it (curriculum is less important than pedagogy). Although students may come to a Jesuit research university to get a good-paying job after graduation, we want to do something more for them, as well.
What follows are five hooks on which hang the basic goals of liberal education in Jesuit schools.
The fly in the bottle. The metaphor traces back to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. What the Jesuit humanistic tradition aims to do is to help the fly to fly out of the bottle—that is, to allow students to escape the confines of their experiences, to expand their awareness beyond the comfort zones of thinking in which they have grown up, to expose them to other cultures and to other modes of thought, to lift them beyond the quotidian, help them free themselves from the bondage of unexamined assumptions, and expand the areas in which they dare to ask questions, in their future professions and about life itself. These are ongoing tasks for all of us, to be sure. But in the Jesuit humanistic tradition, undergraduates find themselves in a particularly propitious and gently supervised place.
Heritage and perspective. The truth is that we are products of the past, and we cannot understand ourselves and our situation unless we have some idea of how we got here, as individuals and as a society.
We are not born for ourselves alone. When, in the 1970s, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then Superior General of the Jesuits, pronounced that the ideal graduates of Jesuit schools should be, in his expression, “men and women for others,” his words resonated with the Jesuit tradition of spirituality; but they also summoned the broader humanistic tradition extending through Jesuit education, from the opening of the Jesuits’ first school in 1548 in Messina, in Sicily. Dating back to the orator Isocrates in fifth-century B.C.E. Athens, the imperative of directing one’s skills and talents to the benefit of others has been a central and consistent element in the humanistic tradition, eloquently articulated by Cicero (the Jesuits’ favorite classical author) and by many others. It calls for fostering a sense of urgency, of agency—the moral imperative.
Eloquentia perfecta, perfect eloquence. A word sadly out of fashion today, eloquence is the skill to say precisely what one means, and to do so with grace and conviction. It requires a vocabulary and a style of speaking that goes beyond the quotidian, and it is nurtured through the study of a wide variety of authors and sources in one’s own language and the languages of other cultures.
There can be no eureka insight without the word to express it. Generating the thought and the word to go with it is one process, not two. We don’t say what we mean if we don’t know what we mean, and only when we have the right word do we know what we mean.
The spirit of finesse. This term originated with the French philosopher-scientist Pascal. It acknowledges the reality that in the murky darkness of human interaction and motivation two-plus-two does not always equal four. Humane letters, properly taught, sharpen students’ aesthetic sensibilities, but, more to the point, in their authentic descriptions of characters and situations, they mirror the ambiguities and ambivalences of our own life experiences and invite reflection upon them.
The virtue the early humanists wanted especially to inculcate was prudence, that is, good judgment, the expression of wisdom that characterizes the ideal leader. They believed—and their Jesuit heirs believe—that a sense of history, of moral and political philosophy, of drama, poetry, novels, and foreign languages widens students’ perspectives, excites their imaginations, and brings forth adults who make humane decisions for themselves and for any group they might lead.
John W. O’Malley, SJ, is University Professor in the theology department at Georgetown University. His essay is drawn and adapted from a talk he gave in the Murray Room on March 18 sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences dean’s office, titled “The Humanistic Tradition of Education: What’s the Point?”