And then I wrote… ten years ago there was an active blog site (which I can no longer find online) edited in Britain called “Book Foxes” where a number of writers wrote about books and the people who wrote books. Kirsty Jane Falconer, a British author who has gone on to become a successful freelancer living in Italy, decided to interview me about my book God’s Mechanics for the site.
The interview was split into two parts; last week I ran Part I
The idea of a religious university as they exist in the US is not a familiar one for those of us in the UK, although of course our university system has deep confessional roots. Could you tell us something about the idea - and the practice - of a Jesuit university?
The Jesuits got into the education business pretty much by accident. They started out as a group of men who’d met at the University of Paris, who all had advanced degrees, at a time when there was a huge need for educational reform in Europe, and so they were asked to set up schools throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. These schools trained not just clergy but also the children of the burgeoning middle class. The great strength of these schools was a common (and pretty good) curriculum, with the books to support it; an international outlook; and the self-confidence to push knowledge and learning beyond the safe boundaries of what had been done before.
When the Jesuits were suppressed in the mid 1700s (their internationalism got in the way of the strongly nationalistic zeitgeist in Europe, as various kings pressured the Pope to put them out of business) a lot of their European schools were taken over by other entities, both Church and secular. In Europe, at least, the tradition of Jesuit universities was broken, although after the Napoleonic wars (when most of those kings were history and the Jesuits were re-established) the Jesuits did establish a system of secondary schools. Some, like Stonyhurst, actually endured through the suppression.
However, outside of Europe the situation was rather different. For example, even though during the 40 years of the suppression of the Jesuit order the Jesuits in the American colonies could no longer call themselves “Jesuit,” they didn’t go away. After all, they were in essence the only Catholic clergy around in the colonies. They all still knew each other and worked together. One thing they did during the suppression was to start a school in the Maryland colony/state that eventually became Georgetown University. (Bill Clinton attended Georgetown.)
Likewise, there are lots of Jesuit universities to this day in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
As the Americas were flooded with immigrants in the 19th century, many from Catholic nations like Ireland, Poland, and Italy, the Jesuits set up 8-year schools (for students ages 13-21) to educate the children of those immigrants. By the early 20th century most of these schools were split into separate high schools and universities. Thus, for instance, I attended the “University of Detroit High School” when I was aged 13-17 which was a separate institution, with its own campus, about a mile from the University of Detroit itself.
By the mid 20th century the Jesuit high schools had become very competitive, academically rigorous “college prep” schools whose pupils were the children or grandchildren of those immigrants who had “made it”. It was (and is) expected that everyone attending such a school would be going on to university studies. I recall taking three different entrance exams to get into U of D High, including an IQ test (you had to test at least one sigma above the norm at a minimum before they would even consider you for admission) and a language aptitude test (I placed in the Latin-Greek-German track).
(Nowadays there is also a growing number of new Jesuit high schools focused directly on kids from poor neighborhoods. Many have work-study programs where the kids are found jobs within the community to help pay their tuition costs... and give the kids work experience in the larger world.)
By contrast, most Jesuit universities maintain their tradition of educating immigrants and the first in their families to go to university. Loyola University in Chicago, for example, has a sizable Muslim population because there are lots of south Asians who have moved to Chicago. They produce lots of pre-professional students, who go on to become doctors and lawyers. And in fact the larger Jesuit universities have well-respected postgraduate-level medical and law schools.
In the past, a large number of the faculty of these schools were Jesuit priests and brothers, but that is no longer the case. A faculty of 200 at a small school might have only half a dozen Jesuits among them. But the schools work hard to maintain their “Jesuit” identity. There’s a long tradition of Jesuits and laypeople working together, and the laypeople who are brought into administration are precisely those who buy into the Jesuit identity. (Note that while the schools are unabashedly Catholic, there is no religious requirement to attend or to teach there. In fact the current president of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles is non-Catholic.)
And what is that “Jesuit” identity? You can find all sorts of pious boilerplate on various university websites... I would boil it down to a few essentials.
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