Jesuit Educational Traditions

The Educational Legacy of St. Ignatius Loyola

The Society of Jesus is the largest religious order of the Roman Catholic Church. Currently, there are over 20,000 members on six continents and in 112 nations throughout the world.

When the Society of Jesus was formed, providing education was not a principal objective of the new order. However, as the numbers of Jesuits increased, it became necessary to establish schools for their education.

Eventually, non-Jesuits were also admitted to these schools. It soon became clear to St. Ignatius that these schools offered the greatest possible service to the Church, by moral and religious instruction, by making devotional life accessible to the young and by teaching the gospel message of service to others.

The Jesuit system of education formally began with the opening in Messina, Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1542. During the last nine years of his life, Ignatius opened 33 schools. Within a century, 300 colleges dotted Catholic Europe. Jesuits became “the schoolmasters of Europe”.

Today, in the United States, there are 27 Jesuit colleges and universities and 46 secondary schools. Currently, there are 1,000,000 living alumni/alumnae who have graduated from an American Jesuit college or university and over 300,000 living alumni of American Jesuit high schools. In addition to this, since the late 1980s, the Society of Jesus has opened a number of middle schools for minority students throughout the United States. Worldwide, there are 90 Jesuit colleges in 27 countries from El Salvador to Indonesia and 430 secondary schools in 55 countries from Egypt to Japan.

The system of education adapted by the first Jesuit colleges was strongly influenced by Ignatius’ own experience at the University of Paris. This system would be formalized in 1599 as the “Ratio Studiorum”. For over 400 years, Jesuit education has stressed the study of the humanities. In the earliest Jesuit colleges, Renaissance humanism was the primary focus. In addition to the traditional materials of medieval scholasticism, like Aristotle’s Greek philosophy and Aquinas’ Latin theology, the curriculum proposed by the Ratio also embraced the rich variety of Greek and Roman texts, in verse and prose and oratory, which made the Renaissance so fundamentally formative of modern intellectual life.

Jesuit image The genius and innovation Ignatius brought to education came from his Spiritual Exercises whose objective is to free a person from predispositions and biases, thus enabling one to make free choices. These Exercises are based on the premise that people who are free enough to say reality is good will recognize their own goodness and will live happy and fulfilled lives.

The goals of Jesuit education have always been to offer this means to become a person of choice, thus inviting students to be more concerned about their fellow human beings.  The most direct way to help the young is to help them find God. The goal of Jesuit education is to help students find God in all things. Thus, Ignatius infused this goal into the existing pattern of humanistic education, which included appreciation of the arts to appreciate beauty, grammar to learn how to read, rhetoric to express oneself, mathematics to enable one to think and theology and philosophy to find God.

The College of the Holy Cross is the only Jesuit institution of higher learning in the United States that is exclusively a liberal arts college in the Jesuit Tradition. At Holy Cross, students experience the same approach to education that has challenged others for the last 400 years. Jesuit education begins with a deep respect for the individual and that person’s potential for one of the hallmarks of Jesuit education is cura personalis, personal care. Another principle is magis, “striving for the more”. Students are called to do their very best and to always strive for personal excellence in all aspects of life – intellectual, emotional, moral and physical.

At Holy Cross, students discover that education is directed at both the mind and the heart. The goal of Jesuit education is homines pro aliis, “men and women for others”. For this reason over 600 students are involved in the College’s outreach programs to the poor and disadvantaged. Another 350 students volunteer for one or two weeks working with the poor, building homes or encountering the reality of life in the third world through the college’s programs in Appalachia, Habitat for Humanity or the Mexico Program. Such experiences challenge students to use the talents and abilities to make this a better world.