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Some Reflections on Jesuit Higher Education

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Thomas Farrell
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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) September 24, 2018: My entire post-secondary education took place in Jesuit educational institutions. In addition, I was in the Jesuits (1979-1987). Consequently, the article titled "The Uncertain Future of Jesuit Education" (dated September 21, 2018) at the website of Jesuit-sponsored magazine America caught my attention. The author is the American Jesuit Michael C. McCarthy, an administrator at Fordham University, the Jesuit university in New York City -- and an associate professor of theology there.

The Jesuit religious order of men, known formally as the Society of Jesus, in the Roman Catholic Church was founded by the Spanish mystic St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556 CE). In the book The First Jesuits (Harvard University Press, 1993), the American Jesuit church historian John W. O'Malley details how the early Jesuits took up the work of founding and running educational institutions. The educational institutions the early Jesuits founded were referred to as colleges, but the students were teenage boys approximately the age of teenagers in American secondary education today.

Centuries before the Jesuit order was founded, the medieval university emerged in Europe. Typically, the medieval universities in Europe included the arts course of studies and three professional course of study -- in (1) law, (2) medicine, and (3) theology (by far the lengthiest of the three). The students in the arts course of studies were teenage boys approximately the age of teenagers in American secondary education today. The students in the three professional courses of study were approximately the age of undergraduate American students today.

From the earliest times onward, the Jesuits taught the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 CE), who, figuratively speaking, baptized the ancient Greek pagan Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and made Aristotelian philosophical thought acceptable in the Roman Catholic tradition of philosophical and theological thought. Long before Aquinas, the ancient Greek pagan Plato (428?-347? BCE) had been baptized, figuratively speaking, and Platonic philosophical thought had a long history in the Roman Catholic tradition of philosophical and theological thought.

Pope Leo XII (1810-1903; pope from 1978 onward) escalated the influence of Aquinas' philosophical and theological thought with his encyclical Aeterni patris (1879). Saint Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri (USA), where young Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955) did graduate studies in philosophy (in Latin) and in English in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and where he later taught English (1954-1984), was a leading center of Thomistic philosophy. However, at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) in the Roman Catholic Church, Thomism was downgraded a wee bit from its earlier predominance in the twentieth century in the Roman Catholic tradition of philosophical and theological thought.

Ong is my favorite scholar. His massively researched doctoral dissertation was a study of the history of the verbal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic (also known as dialectic) centered on the French logician and Protestant educational reformer Peter Ramus (1515-1572). Ong's dissertation was published, slightly revised, in two volumes by Harvard University Press in 1958:

(1) Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason;

(2) Ramus and Talon Inventory.

Ong liked to say that his thought is personalist and phenomenological in cast. For further discussion of his thought, see my essay "Understanding Ong's Philosophical Thought" that is available online at the University of Minnesota's digital conservancy:


In Ong's 1967 encyclopedia article on Renaissance humanism, he sees early Jesuit education as part of the larger educational movement of Renaissance humanism. His 1967 encyclopedia article is reprinted as "Renaissance Humanism" in volume four of Ong's Faith and Contexts (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999, pages 69-92).

Ong's three most important publications about St. Ignatius Loyola and Jesuit spirituality are the following:

(1) the article "'A.M.D.G.' [Ad majorem Dei gloriam, For the greater glory of God]: Dedication or Directive?" in the Jesuit-sponsored but now defunct journal Review for Religious, volume 11, number 5 (September 1952): pages 257-264; reprinted in the same journal volume 50, number 1 (1991): pages 35-42; and also reprinted in volume three of Ong's Faith and Contexts (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995, pages 1-8).

(2) the article "St. Ignatius' Prison-Cage and the Existentialist Situation" in the Jesuit-sponsored journal Theological Studies, volume 15, number 1 (March 1954): pages 34-51; reprinted in Ong's book The Barbarian Within: And Other Fugitive Essays and Studies (New York: Macmillan, 1962, pages 242-259); and also reprinted in volume two of Ong's Faith and Context (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992, pages 52-67).

(3) the book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press, 1986), the published version of Ong's 1981 Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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