Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Why Jesuits teach.

In the op-ed section of the latest edition of The Hoya, Georgetown University's newspaper of record, Father Ryan Maher, S.J. explains in very eloquent terms why Jesuits teach:
All Jesuits, in one way or another, are teachers. Teaching is a natural “vocation within a vocation” for us because of the experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola that undergirds everything we do and informs the imagination out of which we do it. In the Exercises, Ignatius provides a framework that enables us to discover that the spirit of God is active and laboring in every human life, whether people realize it or not. The Church asks Jesuits to help people realize exactly that and, further, the Church asks Jesuits to find ever more effective ways of inviting people, especially young people, to cooperate more fully in the grace-fueled project of their own lives.

That Ignatian two-step — helping people recognize reality with a capital “R” and inviting them to choose to cooperate with it — is what Jesuits do. That’s why our guts call us to go where people are asking tough, smart questions about themselves, God, the world and what really matters. That’s why the order gravitated so early and so easily to work among young people in schools. We came to that challenge with a particular way of proceeding, one born of great confidence in the power of the Spirit and steely-eyed trust in the ability of an honestly searching human heart and intellect to grow in understanding and trust to the point of being ready and willing to be grasped by God.

That’s why we’ve always been more concerned with coaxing people to ask the right questions than with trying to force them to memorize the right answers. We know that real learning takes time, sometimes a very long time. We understand our work in education in a strategic and optimistic way because we know that life is messy but good, that truth is elusive but knowable, that people learn by trial and error, and that God is very patient.

What happens in our classrooms will bear fruit (or not) decades and decades from now in the lives our students will choose to live. Ultimately, our success will be assessed not by some metric that can be displayed on a spreadsheet, but in the content and quality of the conversations that will take place between our alumni and their Creator before the judgment seat of God at the end of history. We believe that what we do at Georgetown can influence and inform those conversations. So Jesuits teach. So Jesuits love teaching.
To read the rest - and I hope you will - click here. Further on in the piece, Father Maher references recent conversations with other Georgetown Jesuits about the vocation of teaching.  "Not some abstract theory of teaching," Maher emphasizes, "but the actual human undertaking of a professor standing up in front of a group of intelligent young people and asking, 'OK, so what do you think of this?' and then engaging wholeheartedly in whatever happens next."

When I began teaching at SJU last fall, I quickly learned that "whatever happens next" isn't always that exciting; students may greet their professor's earnest question with inscrutable silence, or they may give answers that suggest that they missed the professor's point entirely. Over time, though, I've found that part of what makes teaching enjoyable as well as rewarding is the creative challenge of always striving to do better; if every question that I ever asked in the classroom provoked lively discussion or if every student gave brilliant answers, I would have little opportunity to grow as a teacher.

Over the past year, I've also become grateful for the unpredictability inherent in "whatever happens next." Individual students can react to particular books and articles in surprising ways, offering new insights that I might never have come to even after repeated readings of the same text. On a broader level, each class takes on its own unique collective personality - talkative or taciturn, acquiescent or skeptical, eager or wary - which necessarily affects my own approach to teaching. The element of mystery in all of this keeps things interesting, even as experience allows me to gradually hone my sense of what generally works best in the classroom.

The last two paragraphs are a long way of saying that I love teaching. As Father Maher's op-ed suggests, teaching is also an important part of who I am as a Jesuit. In a sense, one could also say that teaching is a part of why I am a Jesuit - both insofar as I discovered my vocation through the inspiration and good example of Jesuits who were college professors, and insofar as my attraction to the ministry of higher education helped confirm my desire to enter the Society of Jesus. I hope and pray that the work that Jesuits do in education - including my own humble efforts in the classroom - may be for God's greater glory. AMDG.

In the photo at the start of this post, legendary Georgetown professor Father Thomas M. King, S.J. stands before the blackboard during one of his lectures. Though I arrived on the Hilltop some years after this photo was taken, I can remember Father King drawing the same map on the board during class.


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