O’Malley Traces Jesuit Humanistic Education

Rev. John O’Malley, S.J., professor of theology at Georgetown University and the keynote speaker for the Arts and Sciences Dean’s Colloquium, spoke to a gathering of students and faculty on the importance of the humanistic tradition in current-day college education on Tuesday in the Murray Function Room.

“The humanistic aim was to produce a certain kind of person,” he said. “The Jesuits bought the humanistic propaganda, hook, line and sinker.”

He described the origins of the studia humanitates, or human letters, a concept the Jesuits emphasized in numerous schools and universities. O’Malley highlighted the importance of the humanities in education, rather than the one-track approach from many universities.

“Universities did not care about the speculative, thoughtful, spiritual growth of the student,” he said. “Like many schools today, ‘getting ahead’ seemed to be its core value.”
O’Malley expressed concerns with the growing disapproval of the humanistic approach to education, especially within Jesuit universities.

He aimed to reintroduce the relative importance of cura personalis and “men and women for others” in today’s high-powered collegiate atmospheres. He described the rapid increase and downfall of the Jesuit humanistic tradition in education since fifth century Athens.

“In the 13th century everything changed, and changed radically,” O’Malley said.

The university was created and has changed little in its fundamental qualities, such as the presence of curricula, textbooks, faculty, and deans.

O’Malley argued that the Jesuit tradition adopting studia humanitates catapulted the world of education into a realm previously unknown.

“The humanistic education was a necessary prerequisite for satisfying life,” he said. “No other type of educational approach has been so focused on bettering both the body and the soul of its students.”

He discussed the importance of rhetoric, which has been emphasized within the Jesuit humanistic tradition since its origins. This rhetoric illuminates the curiosity, imaginations, and open-mindedness of the students, he said.

“Especially important were the Jesuits pedagogical innovations, among which was the principle that learning was not a passive activity, but required active engagement,” O’Malley said. “It was not enough, for instance, to read a speech by Cicero. Students had to deliver it. They had to stretch their inner selves.

“So what’s the point?” O’Malley asked. “What’s the importance of the humanities within the Jesuit education?”

He then introduced five unique basic goals valued today from a Jesuit education. The first point hinges on promoting the open-mindedness and acceptance of differences.

The “fly in the bottle” goal of Jesuit educators is meant to “help the fly escape the bottle.” In other words, the aim was described as encouraging students to expand their awareness beyond their normal comfort zones of thinking.

The topics of heritage and perspective were also included. “We can’t understand ourselves fully without the knowledge of our past,” he said. “Cultural enrichment is key in the humanistic tradition.”

Additionally, the spirit of service was a key argument, O’Malley noted. “We are not born for ourselves alone,” he said.

O’Malley stressed eloquentia perfecta, or the ability to iterate exactly what one wants to say and represent one’s intent flawlessly. This would arise through the study of great literature and rhetoric

He concluded his discussion of the present-day goals of the Jesuit education with the spirit of finesse. This teaches the student the ability to move within relations and interactions with his peers with an explicit acceptance of the unknown and imperfections in each of these encounters.

“Is the Jesuit humanistic tradition compatible with the high powered atmosphere of Boston College?” O’Malley asked. “Absolutely, but it must come from a faculty who is inspired and focused on being the best teachers they can be, both inside and outside the classroom. Inside the classroom, as well as outside, I want to help the students have satisfying lives.

“The Jesuit education has not, and will not, fail,” he said. “The ball, my dear colleagues, is in our court.”