Why Jesuits Are in Secondary Education

By William J. Byron, SJ

From Jesuit Saturdays: Sharing the Ignatian Spirit with Friends and Colleagues

In discussing why Jesuits are in secondary education, Fr. Byron relates the story of famous lawyer, Joseph A. Califano Jr., a 1948 graduate of Brooklyn Prep, giving a keynote to a group of secondary school educators. Califano spoke of the powerful, positive impact that Jesuit education had on his life.

The reader will wonder whether this experience is still available in today’s Jesuit high school. Much has changed, but there is still a language-based curriculum, although it allows for more exposure to art and music than the Califano generation and its predecessors enjoyed. There is also more and better laboratory-based science, including computer science, along with mathematics advanced far beyond the pre-space age boundaries of even the better prep schools. In a recent year, according to the Jesuit Secondary Education Association, 86 percent of Jesuit prep school students took four or more years of English; 87 percent took three or more years of a foreign language; 80 percent took four or more years of mathematics, with 32 percent studying calculus. In addition, 86 percent of these students took three or more years of natural sciences, and 89 percent took three or more years of social sciences. Community-service projects are an integral part of the curriculum; they extend the students’ reach to inner-city neighborhoods, rural areas, and even foreign countries.

There are fewer Jesuits but more extracurricular activities and many more laymen and laywomen to have character-forming conversations with the young. Here is Mr. Califano’s advice to all of them—lay and Jesuit—who are involved in this work:

First, accept the unique importance of your work. Adolescence is where it’s at. There are no more important formative years than the years young men and women spend with you. . . .

Second, in a society as wide-open and drenched in get-it-now materialism as ours is, the most important seeds you can plant are those that teach your students how to make choices. Most of your students can be just about anything they want to be, do just about anything they want to do, and indulge in any pleasure they wish. It is essential that you imbue these students with standards and values that will help them make choices about everything from the entertainments they watch and participate in to the colleges they attend and the careers they pursue.

Third, you must help young Americans understand the importance of being effective citizens. The key here is the recognition that in an effective citizen knowledge and involvement are locked together. Knowledge without engagement is the stuff of impotence, and engagement without knowledge is the stuff of demagoguery.

You will find the Jesuit way of making choices outlined in considerable detail in chapter 6. Jesuit spirituality is a spirituality of choice, and it is natural for Jesuits to be both noncoercive and nondirective in assisting the young with their decision-making challenges without in any way just leaving the decision maker to his or her own inexperience, fears, and impulses.

Very early in the 1996-97 academic year at Georgetown University, Brendan Hurley, one of the young Jesuits on the campus-ministry team, invited about one hundred freshmen, who came to Georgetown from Jesuit high schools all across the country, to gather one evening around nine in the Jesuit Community dining room for pizza and conversation about their shared experience of Jesuit secondary education. The hope was to facilitate a certain bonding and to open up opportunities for these young men and women to carry over into the college years some of the characteristic Jesuit values they acquired in high school. Remarkably, the secondary school experience that had the greatest impact on the largest number of those young alumni was what the high schools call the Kairos Retreat—several days, often a weekend away, spent in prayer, reflection, and discussion about faith, values, and the future. All the Jesuit high schools have them. Parents are asked to provide a letter, written from the heart, that will be given to the youngster toward the end of the retreat. Kairos is an anglicization of the Greek word meaning “the right moment,” “a decision point,” “a time for action.” Students remember the retreat that way, often as a defining moment. They also remember an experience of affirmation, a sense of being loved by the parents who wrote to them and by the God who became present to them in a new way during the retreat.

The Latin expression eloquentia perfecta has for centuries been associated with the stated goals of Jesuit education, particularly secondary education as it evolved in the United States. Debates, dramatics, public-speaking competitions, oral presentations in class, daily written work in varying forms and in several languages, journalistic and editorial tasks on school newspapers, literary quarterlies, and yearbooks—all of these are a familiar part of Jesuit secondary education. Even in this “age of the image” and in the boundaryless world of cyberspace, the Jesuit high school student meets schoolmasters and activity moderators every day who impress upon their charges the importance of the spoken and written word. Using words well on paper or aloud is a special goal of Jesuit education. And how could it be otherwise? If education of leaders (Jesuit schools are clear about having that as a mission) is to be effective, it begins with an acknowledgment that the world moves on words and numbers. Literacy and numeracy belong in the tool kit of the leader. Without them, the would-be leader will not simply fall behind; he or she won’t even know where the parade of human progress is headed!

Excerpt from Jesuit Saturdays: Sharing the Ignatian Spirit with Friends and Colleagues by William J. Byron, SJ.

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