Jesuits and Higher Education

The Proper Education of Youth

Ignatius never originally intended for Jesuits to open schools, but he soon discovered how greatly people’s lives could be improved by an education rooted both in gospel values and in the humanistic revival of the Renaissance. As one early Jesuit put it, “all the well-being of Christianity and of the whole world depends on the proper education of youth.”1

The Jesuits quickly built a reputation as teachers and scholars. Students from all over Europe flocked to the burgeoning Jesuit schools, and Jesuit missionaries opened schools where none existed before. Even prior to the establishment of the first colleges in the United States, Jesuits operated more than 800 universities, seminaries, and secondary schools around the world.

The work of the Society of Jesus in higher education is an important chapter in the historic role that the Church as a whole has played in education from its earliest beginnings. For example:
“In founding [universities] the popes and the secular rulers co-operated; in university teaching all the then known branches of science were represented; the student body comprised all classes, laymen and clerics, seculars and religious; and the diploma conferred was an authorization to teach everywhere. The university was thus, in the educational sphere, the highest expression of that completeness which had all along characterized the teaching of the Church; and the spirit of inquiry which animated the medieval university remains…the essential element in the university of modern times.”2

Jesuits and a Liberal Education

The desires that first drew Ignatius to serve God led him from the pursuit of worldly fame to a genuine inner freedom. As a result, Jesuits have always believed that education would liberate students.

They endorsed in their first schools the Renaissance notion of a liberal curriculum, and Scranton’s core curriculum today still exposes students to the full range of academic disciplines and modes of inquiry, encouraging them to challenge previously held assumptions and opening their minds to a true, and therefore liberating, vision of the world. The liberal arts tradition shapes the educational philosophy of the entire university. As the words from the Gospel of John at the entrance to the Weinberg Memorial Library state, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (8:32).

Ignatius believed that this new vision of the world's goodness and God's work on its behalf would draw forth from us loving appreciation and reshape our desires. The Ignatian vision raises serious questions: What is my vocation? What are my talents and gifts and the deep desires that accompany them? What kind of work gives me joy and energy? How can I preserve and enhance the goodness and beauty I have discovered around me?

The variety of subjects required by a liberal arts education helps students discover a way of life that draws forth from them their most passionate response, the work to which God is leading them.  Because a liberal education, especially in a Catholic humanist context, celebrates the goodness of the world, it also works to transform the personal ambitions of students into great desires for the promotion of justice and the common good.

1 Pedro de Ribadeneira, Monumenta pædagogica Societatis Jesu, 2nd ed. rev., 1:475.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume V
Copyright ©1909 by Robert Appleton Company Online Edition Copyright ©2003 by K. Knight Nihil Obstat, May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York