"Pedagogy and Principles in the Early Jesuit Schools: So What for Today?"
Third Annual Distinguished Guest Lecture
on Jesuit Pedagogy
by The Reverend Father John W. O'Malley, S.J.
University Professor of Theology at Georgetown University
almost any subject can be liberating, depending on how it is taught... curriculum is less important than pedagogy.
The Reverend Father John W. O’Malley, S.J., delivered Fordham’s Center for Teaching Excellence’s third annual distinguished guest lecture on Jesuit Pedagogy on February 19th, 2014. Father O’Malley is University Professor of Theology at Georgetown University and the author of, among other works, The First Jesuits and What Happened at Vatican II.
His lecture, entitled “Pedagogy and Principles in the Early Jesuit Schools: So What for Today?” delineated two historical models of education in the West, both active today and both deriving from ancient Greece: the university and the humanistic school.
The university tradition, Father O’Malley claims, draws from Aristotelian thinking. It has had, from its institutionalization in the thirteenth century until today, two purposes: what we would now call “research” or the creation of new knowledge on the one hand and preparing students for professional careers on the other:
In the nine hundred years since their founding, universities, despite the radical changes they have undergone, have never deviated from these two, closely related aims---intellectual problem-solving and career advancement. If we don’t understand that, we don’t understand universities.
The other model draws from Isocrates, that early Greek rhetorician and teacher, and focuses on what Father O’Malley calls “humane letters.” The humanistic schools that epitomize this tradition, he says, are organized under a different set of values from those of the university.
Rather than placing first importance on the development of professional and technical skills, [the humanistic school] put in first place the human development of the student.…Its aim was to produce a certain kind of person.
Jesuit schools, even those that are now universities, with their emphasis on cura personalis and on educating “men and women for others,” are rooted in the humanist tradition, Father O’Malley explains. But, he argues, Jesuits attempted from the first to combine the two educational models, pulling some of the university disciplines into their humanistic schools—“principally natural philosophy, a subject that especially engaged the young laymen for whom the schools were intended.” “Natural philosophy” became what we would call “science.”
In their academic programs the early Jesuits managed to balance “science” and the humanities. Do they provide any guidelines for today?
Jesuit innovations to the humanistic tradition also included an emphasis on learning as “active engagement,” so that “It was not enough to read a play by Terence. That play had to be produced, and the students had to play the parts before an audience—an exercise that promoted poise and self-confidence.” Doing so asks students “to stretch their inner selves by inhabiting the personality they were playing.”
Understanding this history, understanding the Jesuit effort to connect the two educational traditions, the science of Aristotle and the humanist letters of Isocrates, and understanding their innovative pedagogy, focused on the individual as a contributor to the whole, offers potential insights about the problems that today face education, especially the liberal education of the humanist tradition:
No subject, no text, is automatically liberating. It all depends on how it is taught! It all depends upon what our goals are in teaching it. Let me go further: almost any subject can be liberating, depending on how it is taught. And go even further by giving forth with an axiom: curriculum is less important than pedagogy.
Bridging the gap—between the university model, whose purposes are to conduct research on the one hand and to certify students for professional advancement on the other, and the humanistic college model, whose purpose is to form the moral and intellectual character of the individual who will serve his or her larger community—cannot succeed, according to Father O’Malley, without the efforts of the faculty. It is the faculty who must “strive for it in their own persons.” But he believes that many faculty do so strive.
Whatever else is to be said about the compatibility or incompatibility of these two great traditions of schooling on the institutional level, there is in my mind no doubt that they can be reconciled in ourselves. The ball is in our court.
The CTE thanks Father O’Malley for his fascinating lecture and the many attendees for their challenging questions and lively conversation!