Justice in Jesuit Education

Ignatius statue copyby Jacob Van Sickle, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

At the Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, we take the Jesuit identity of Saint Louis University very seriously. “Ignatian pedagogy” is an oft-repeated and discussed idea in our publications and workshops, and its principles thoroughly imbue our programming. Hopefully most if not all instructors at SLU have come into contact with these principles and reflected upon how they might use them to improve learning outcomes in the classroom. But a “Jesuit education” is about more than the pedagogical tools employed to deliver discipline-specific content; it also has something to say about the right use of that content.

In the year 2000, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, then Superior General of the Society of Jesus, delivered a landmark address entitled “The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education” at Santa Clara University. In it, he raises the question, what is the “whole person” that Jesuit institutions seek to form? His answer: “Tomorrow’s ‘whole person’ cannot be whole without an educated awareness of society and culture with which to contribute socially, generously, in the real world… Students, in the course of their formation, must let the gritty reality of this world into their lives, so they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering and engage it constructively. They should learn to perceive, think, judge and act for the rights of others, especially the disadvantaged and the oppressed.” In other words, we educators in the Jesuit tradition are not to be in the business of producing well-oiled machines—people who can efficiently and effectively “do the work” of their discipline but without regard for the larger human context in which they operate.

The “whole person” is not a self-sufficient entity. So educating the whole person will involve more than enabling the individual to do things, full stop. It will enable the person to do things in the service of humanity. This is a daunting task. But the Ignatian tradition holds a promising avenue of approach: confidence in the goodness of human nature. What our students need most from their education is an awareness of the problems that face humanity, and they will rise to the occasion. But this cannot be simply a “textbook” awareness, an “academic” understanding (in the worst sense of the word). It requires, in the words of Fr. Kolvenbach, letting “the gritty reality of this world into their lives.”

Spurred on by the sentiments expressed by Fr. Kolvenbach and others, faculty and administrators at Jesuit Universities across the nation have developed a remarkable array of responses to the call for justice in education. Mary Beth Combs and Patricia Ruggiano Schmidt have recently edited a volume of collected essays entitled Transforming Ourselves, Transforming the World: Justice in Jesuit Higher Education that gathers many of the best examples of the progress made in our institutions in the last decade and a half.  This book is a great source of inspiration and ideas for bringing students of a wide array of disciplines into contact with the “gritty reality” of the world so that students not only learn the content of a course but also begin to discover possibilities for its meaningful application in the service of justice. I highly recommend it as a starting place for thinking about whether and how to make your course and/or program a more transformative, justice-centered endeavor. For those who wish to brainstorm possible immersion projects for their courses, the Reinert Center staff is always happy to help.  SLU also has an outstanding Center for Service and Community Engagement, which can help connect you with community partners well-suited to the projects you have in mind. All of these resources can ease the process of getting students immersed into the “gritty reality of the world” so ready to hand in our own back yard.