Ignatian pedagogy: a meaningful holistic paradigm for 21st century education

Drs Ilse Dekker, director JECSE

More | Reflective articles

Ignatian pedagogy: a meaningful holistic paradigm for 21st century education

Drs Ilse Dekker, director JECSE

More | Reflective articles

At Monserrat, a beautiful mountain in the Northeast of Spain, we find the old Benedictine Abbey where St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, first experienced the healing dynamics of personal spiritual (in this case Benedictine) exercises. In the square of the old monastery one can now find a modern-art-work of a human head; a sign explains “This atrium marks the transition between profane and sacred space, and the sculpture refers to the fundamental principle of Christian Humanism that human beings, with their longings for life, happiness and beauty, are the true path that leads towards divinity.”

I personally feel this beautifully symbolises Ignatian pedagogy – the basic paradigm for Jesuit education today – and how it stems from what I would call ‘a spirituality at the crossroads’, connecting the horizontal and vertical dimensions of human life.

Humanistic roots

Ignatian pedagogy’s strong ‘this-wordly’ dimension stems from its humanistic roots. Renaissance humanism, which profoundly influenced Ignatius and his first companions, embraced the ideal of ‘becoming a well-rounded person’. Contrary to the medieval preference for a contemplative life it valued an active life of civic virtue just as much. To the strong sense of community membership of those days it added a new sense of ‘being an individual, with feelings and opinions worthy of expression’. It strengthened a heightened sense of human dignity, an awareness of human being’s special place in the universe; and of our responsibility, with a God-given freedom of moral choice.

Theology for Ignatius was not a theory but a practice: a way of bringing people into relationship with God. Ignatius himself came to know God as a loving ‘inner teacher’, guiding him in his personal life mission through in-depth reflection on his own life-experiences and discernment on what way to go. Likewise, Ignatius’ spiritual exercises would aim to support the persons own ‘inner discoveries’; they requested a profound respect for personal experience and freedom of interpretation. Encouraging others to find their way to God, Ignatius helped them to explore what could console and heal their soul.

Personal experience would become the touchstone for all Jesuit spirituality. As Renaissance historian John O’Malley explains: “The ‘devotio moderna’ (the new spiritual movement of those days) tried to foster what is known as inwardness, valuing the movements of the heart over the thoughts of the head, with God speaking within at the center. Ignatius’ spiritual exercises built on this inclination to inwardness but added to it the dimension of ‘helping souls’, thus leading from the very beginning to a life of ministry.”

So, as educators, the Jesuits characteristically developed their ideal model for educating young people (their Ratio Studiorum) by learning from their experiences. And like other ministries, education should address the whole person: teachers were to show ‘cura personalis’, they had to get to know their students as individuals and be concerned about their whole development as human beings.

Faith and justice

The importance of a life of ministry was again emphasized by Fr Pedro Arrupe sj in the 1960’s. Embracing people’s ‘humanity’ to the full, Arrupe very much líved the Jesuit ideal of reconciliation. When working in a maximum-security prison in New York, he understood how being driven to the margins of society can make people ‘fall of the edge’, and realized these men were capable of terrible crimes but also of repentance and change. Instead of judging them, he embraced the contradictions in their characters as a mystery.

After witnessing the dawn of the nuclear age in 1945, just three miles up the hill from Hiroshima, Arrupe was invited for speaking tours around the world. As he declared: “Hiroshima revealed the vanity of all that can disappear in a flash and, at the same time, the substance of spiritual truths and values. Worse than the destruction caused by violence, is the hatred that gives rise to it. All treaties will be futile until people stop demonizing one another. Peace can only come from love, and love can only come from discovering God within ourselves and within the rest of humanity.”

From the moment Arrupe became the Society of Jesus’ next Superior General, in 1965, his passionate pledge would be for a faith that does justice. As for education: in 1973, during his address for an International Congress of Jesuit Alumni at Valencia, Arrupe would confront his audience with a remarkable question: “Have we Jesuits educated you for justice?” He himself would give an even more remarkable answer: “No, in all truth, we have not.”

For Arrupe justice meant a basic attitude of respect for all people, a firm resolve not to profit from the oppression of others, ánd collaboration toward dismantling unjust social structures. This, he said, was “… following Jesus, through humanizing the world, striving to overcome the egoism that dehumanizes both persons and institutions.”

Educating ‘men and women for and with others’

In the field of education Arrupe translated his pledge for faith and justice into ‘educating men and women for and with others’, which still directs Ignatian pedagogy today. Father Kolvenbach expanded its meaning, speaking of forming ‘men and women of Competence, Conscience, and Compassionate Commitment’. These so called ‘four C’s’ have inspired the renewal of Jesuit education in the last decades, with the mission of humanization and reconciliation still at its very core.

Thus, Ignatian pedagogy is about providing students not just with an academic background (competence) but also, in addition to knowing themselves, with a consistent knowledge and experience of society and its imbalances (conscience). It is about striving to foster in them the compassion to open their hearts and be in solidarity with the suffering of others; and about fostering the commitment to work, through peaceful means, for social and political transformation of their countries and social structures.

It is only in this light that the Ignatian pedagogical cycle of experience, reflection and action gets its meaning. We could ‘simply’ refer to Ignatian pedagogy as a model, forgetting the model is embedded in a whole (holistic) spiritual and humanistic paradigm. But Ignatian pedagogy is neither ‘just’ this, nor ‘just’ about the way we express our religious identity at special moments in school-life. It is a spirituality very much connected to the content of our curricula, to our approach of teaching in general and to our school culture and community life; a pedagogy at the crossroads of human life.

Characteristically Jesuit schools practice this dynamic according to their context, ‘in creative fidelity to the tradition’. But of course, there are key elements like facilitating time and (safe) spaces for personal ‘interiority’ and sharing of experiences with others, as well as curricular creativity, real-life social projects, inspiring role-models, and structured possibilities for critical reflection. A major aspect is to create an environment that enables students to discover meaningful values and life-perspectives themsélves, starting from their own context. Such holistic education, touching the heart, is life changing. It inspires life-long learning, helping our students to discover our common humanity, to embrace our differences, and to find meaning in their lives through serving others in whatever way addresses their talents and calling. This ‘life-long-learning is one of the characteristics of Jesuit schools, touching (as explained by the latest document ‘Jesuit schools, A Living Tradition in the 21st century’) “ … our major source of hope and animation: finding God in all things. What does this mean? It means experiencing the generative expansive core of wonder, hope, joy, delight, compassion, connection, everywhere, with all, in all. There, we find God.”

A challenging mission of hope

I feel Ignatian pedagogy, with its spiritual roots and deeply humanistic paradigm, offers a profoundly meaningful perspective, able to promote peace and reconciliation in a divided world. Some years after the horrific event of 9/11 in 2001, a small book was written with the title ‘Peace can be learned’. Shocked by the growing amount of fundamentalist violence and worried by the tendency to fight it with violence, the authors – historian David van Reybrouck and therapist Thomas d’Ansembourg – found each other in their pledge for a different kind of response. Peace, they say, can be learned! Mindfulness, compassion and non-violent communication lead to higher self-esteem, better mutual understanding, ánd better learning capabilities in general: that’s why their practise should be integrated in all our education! I think indeed, in the context of today, our world cries out for holistic education: one that touches the intelligence of the heart and not just the brain.

To promote this and help transform Ignatian education in response to the context of today, Jesuit (and Ignatian affiliated) schools are supported by their global and regional networks. JECSE is the European part of the global network, governed by the Jesuit Conference of European Provincials JCEP. An online global community called EDUCATE MAGIS continuously provides helpful resources to all its member schools around the world.

Obviously, without visionary leaders, passionate teachers and a school-climate were true companionship is lived, all programs loose impact. And providing this holistic kind of education during these times of economic pragmatism is not an easy assignment; schools are under a lot of pressure to reduce education to ‘training for employability’. Sustaining an Ignatian paradigm in this context demands critical thinking, a heartfelt compassion and sometimes even ‘countercultural courage’; if we are truly committed to shape a healthy future, we educators should be wise trendsetters rather than mere trend-followers.

For this we need a pedagogy of hope. Think about the power of the hopeful signs among all despair after 9/11: people lighting candles for peace; people not giving in to violence and fear, to scapegoating, polarization and revenge; people holding on to human dignity and hope.

Likewise, Pedro Arrupe during his days of agony, still believed what people need most is hope.  As mentioned by professor of theology Ronald Modras (Ignatian humanism; a dynamic spirituality for the 21st century):

“Arrupe had every right to be a pessimist, to be cynical about human nature and call it realism. But instead he put his hope and trust in the God whose healing power and presence he had experienced during his life, the God busily at work in all aspects of the world and in people’s lives.”

Helping our students trace these signs of hope may still be one of the most essential callings of education today. For more information see www.JECSE.org

Christian Life Communities

Ignatian spirituality is not just an inspiring source for a holistic pedagogy in a secularised and economised school-context; in its capacity to connect the horizontal and vertical dimensions of life it is also a bridge-building spirituality for modern-days Christian communities. In more than 60 countries all over the world there are so called ‘Christian Life Communities’ (CLC) inspired by the spirituality of St Ignatius. This movement is an international association of lay Christians, connected to but independent of the Society of Jesus, which has adopted an Ignatian model of spiritual life. They embrace this way of life as a means of enabling them to bring together their faith and their lives so that they are aware of God working in every aspect of both. See also http://gclnederland.org/ or http://www.gclvlaanderen.be/index.html

About the author

Drs Ilse Dekker, director JECSE

Drs Ilse Dekker, director JECSE (Jesuit European Committee for Secondary and primary Education)