Dear Straight Dope:
In our search for the right college, my daughter and I have found several private colleges and universities that claim to be Jesuit institutions. Would you please explain what this means as opposed to traditional schools?
The Howells in Oxford, MS
SDStaff Alphagene replies:
Well, I’m a product of a Jesuit school. That might frighten you off right there.
There are 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States, among them some of the top schools in the nation. Some of the better known Jesuit institutions are Georgetown University, Boston College, Fordham University, and Loyola University. According to the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, “though each institution is separately chartered by the state and is legally autonomous under its own board of trustees, the 28 schools are bonded together by a common heritage, vision and purpose.” So who are these Jesuits and what is their purpose?
The Jesuits, or more accurately The Society of Jesus, are the largest Catholic religious order with over 25,000 members worldwide. The order was founded by Ignatius Loyola in 1540. Interestingly, “Jesuit” is an old term which essentially meant “a guy who mentions Jesus way too much.” Considering the term was an insult, Iggy himself never liked it, but the name was later accepted by the order.
Innovative from the start, the Jesuits emphasized flexibility and education and developed a reputation for scholarship that earned them great influence in the Church. The order is often considered one of the powerhouses of the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic response to Protestantism. Often controversial, the Jesuits have excited their share of distrust. The order was abolished in 1773 by Pope Clement XIV due to political pressures but was reestablished by Pope Pius VII in 1814.
A lot has changed since the days of Popes with goofy names like “Clement” and “Pius,” but the Jesuits are still big on education, including the secular kind. Today, there are Jesuits participating in just about every aspect of secular life including business, law, politics, community service and even science. Jesuits have made significant contributions in atomic theory, optics, non-Euclidian geometry, and astronomy. There are several craters on the Moon named after Jesuits.
While Jesuit schools are Catholic institutions, forget about the stereotypical images of nuns whacking students with rulers for not memorizing the “Our Father.” These days, Jesuits make up a small percentage of the faculty of your average Jesuit university. Jesuit schools usually require you to take a basic theology course, but their rationale for this requirement is that religion is a strong force behind human history and culture. Even if a student is not religious and has no desire to change, an understanding of religion is important to an understanding of humanity.
This viewpoint is expanded on at Georgetown University’s website. “[The University] neither wishes nor expects all its members to be Catholic, but it does assume that all of them share a basic, widely accepted view of humankind. . . . It imposes no religious creed on any faculty member or any student, but it expects them to respect the religious convictions of each person.” As a Jesuit university, it has a firm commitment to Catholicism but there is an impressive diversity among the students and faculty. The scores of active student organizations on Georgetown’s campus include the Jewish Student Association, Native American Student Association, Women’s Empowerment League, Black Student Alliance, GU Pride, and Right to Life.
Although you’ll assuredly get varied opinions from each of the one million alumni of Jesuit universities, I can personally attest to the quality of education I was given at my Jesuit alma mater. You know what else? The Jesuits I met were not only wise and brilliant but also a hell of a lot of fun. If you’re one of those guys who waxes philosophical after pounding a few back, I definitely recommend you start hanging out with Jesuits.
I still remember when a Jesuit professor was asked by a student why a university with Catholic roots would offer extensive courses about Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. He replied, “Jesuits believe that you can never learn too much.” If that attitude appeals to your daughter, sign her up.
SDStaff Alphagene, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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