The following essay is a revised version of the talk given by Stephen M. Beall to the IDP Conference in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018.

It is a great pleasure to meet you this morning after so many online conversations. I wish to convey my special thanks to Tara Ann Thieke, Theresa Covich, and the other organizers of the conference. Benedictus benedicat!   


I will begin by sharing a slice of life from my home state of Wisconsin. In 2015, local newspapers reported that Governor Scott Walker was not content with a somewhat drastically reduced budget for the state’s university system. His office had also proposed a revision of the statute that expresses the mission of the system—the so-called Wisconsin Idea (c. 36.01.2). The old statute concluded with the following, unobjectionable assertion: ‘Basic to every purpose of the System is the search for truth’. Walker’s text not only omitted this statement, but inserted a new topic sentence: ‘The mission of the system is to develop human resources to meet the state’s workforce needs’.


It is difficult to imagine a more straightforward—not to say, brutal—indication of the priorities of neoliberal education. A closer comparison of the two versions, however, reveals the extent to which Walker’s grim functionalism was anticipated by the law in force. The purpose of the university, we were told, is not only to discover knowledge and to heighten the ‘humane sensitivities’ of students, but also to invest them with the ‘professional and technological expertise’ required ‘to serve and stimulate society’ and ‘to improve the human condition’. Walker’s amendment did not so much change the Wisconsin Idea as highlight its basic problem: it assumes that knowledge, virtue, and a sense of purpose are no more than ‘human resources’ oriented toward the ‘stimulation of society’. It is a short jump from this to ‘meeting workforce needs’. Is this really the way we should think about education, or is there another way to look at it?


It won’t surprise you that the approach that I will recommend today is connected with the philosophy of personalism, which has been around for the last hundred years or so. This philosophy has taken various forms, but common to all of them are two ideas. The first is that if you could get down to the basis of the universe, you would find a person, not a thing. The second, which follows from the first, is that the most important beings in the universe are likewise persons, not things. This is because persons have a unique kind of freedom: the freedom to make up their own minds, to choose their own friends, and even to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of other persons. The exercise of this freedom is the ‘business’ of being a person—the business of being human.


In 1938, the French personalist, Emmanuel Mounier, applied this principle to education. ‘The purpose of education’, he wrote, ‘is not to fashion the child into rigid conformity with any social environment or with any doctrine of the state. Nor is its ultimate object the adaptation of the individual, either for the particular function  which he is to fulfill… or for the role which he is foreseen to have’ (A Personalist Manifesto, p. 111). So much for ‘workforce needs’! Instead, Mounier insists that education should be designed to ‘awaken’ a person to the ‘proper activity’ of personhood. He defines the latter as ‘freedom and a striving for unity and aim of conviction’ (ibid., p. 112). Notice that there are two parts to this definition: freedom, or the absence of prior constraint, and integration, which gives one’s life a definite form and scope. Mounier’s definition must be regarded as incomplete, however, because it is limited to the subjective, self-directive side of personal activity. The fact is that people do not ‘integrate’ themselves in a vacuum; they require guidance in the form of objective standards. Where, then, do we find these standards?

Emmanuel Mounier

Pope Saint John Paul II replies that the objective content of education should be ‘a coherent, comprehensive vision of life’ (Address to the Bishops of Chicago, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee, 30 May, 1998). This vision is not a kind of procrustean bed into which every child must be squeezed. Rather, it is imparted ‘in the conviction that the truths contained in that vision liberate students in the most profound meaning of human freedom.’ In its most profound sense, freedom is not only freedom from, but also freedom to: the freedom to become the person that God calls each of us to be. Finally, the Pope noted that this liberating vision of life cannot simply be transmitted—like an object or a computer file. Rather, it must be cultivated, like a seedling, and this requires a certain ‘atmosphere, enlivened by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity.’ Here is the original meaning of the word, culture. Thus, the challenge of personalist education can be summed up as the creation of a cultural space for the sharing of an integrated vision, which enables students to correspond freely with their divine vocation.


Incidentally, you may have noticed that personalism avoids the mechanical and military metaphors that characterized both versions of the Wisconsin Idea, with their ‘resources’ and ‘forces’. In fact, it prefers the older conception of an educational institution as the alma mater or ‘nourishing mother’, a title once bestowed on the Blessed Virgin Mary. The scholastic alma mater cares for her alumni, her ‘nurslings’, precisely by shielding them for a time from the predations of commerce and politics. The day will come when they must enter the world as fully-grown children of God.


These remarks may serve as an outline of the theory of personalist education. The burden of the rest of my talk is to help you imagine what this could look like in practice. To do this, I will refer to the educational experiment with which I am most familiar, both as a student and a teacher: the schools of the Society of Jesus.


The thing that we call ‘Jesuit education’ is easier to understand, I think, if you approach it through the life of the founder, St. Ignatius Loyola. Ignatius might be described as a ‘late vocation’. Born in 1491, he had intended to pursue a secular career: the life of a soldier and courtier. These plans were dramatically altered when a canon ball shattered his leg at the Battle of Pamplona in 1529. This mishap led to a long and painful convalescence, which, quite unexpectedly, initiated a process of conversion and discernment. Ignatius distilled this process into the plan of a month-long retreat, which we know today as the Spiritual Exercises.   


The Catholics in my audience have probably encountered the Exercises in abbreviated form. They consist for the most part of guided meditations, in which one can imagine oneself physically present at the public ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These meditations are designed to lead to a decision about the nature of one’s vocation, and to create a strong determination to act upon it, whatever the cost. For as far as Ignatius was concerned, a calling is individual and total, like the recruitment of St. Matthew. Once it is accepted, it becomes the organizing principle of one’s life.


As Ignatius began to live out his own vocation, he he required a good deal of remedial education. First, he had to learn Latin, as a thirty-something in the company of school boys. After that, he enrolled as a ‘non-traditional’ student in the Universities of Alcala and Paris. With no time to waste, he formed definite ideas about the subjects and the teaching methods that are most helpful for training in the Christian life. As a student in Paris, moreover, he lived in an atmosphere that was charged with theological speculation and disagreement. This must have been exhilarating, but it also impressed upon him the importance of a stable ‘faith community’.  His ideal became the ‘perfect union of minds and hearts’ (perfecta unitas cordium et animorum) that he perceived in the sacraments and the magisterium of the Church. He went so far as to say that we should believe that ‘the white we see is black’ if we are told so by the proper authority. (This has become something of an embarrassment  to many Jesuits today.)


These three themes—vocation and discernment, proportion of means to ends, and the union of minds and hearts—help to explain the unique features in the Jesuit system as it took shape in the 16th and 17th centuries. Superficially, Jesuit schools resembled the humanistic academies and medieval universities that flourished at the time. Nevertheless, they were not initially conceived as factories for scholars, diplomats, or lawyers. They were ideally designed, in fact, for producing Jesuits. The whole curriculum was streamlined and carefully sequenced. Students were expected to master the ‘arts’ of reading and communication, before tackling the ’sciences’ of philosophy and theology. The formation of Jesuit priests was unusually long and arduous, because every one was expected to become a ‘renaissance man’, with a synoptic view of human knowledge. To some extent, this was expected of secular graduates, as well.


Finally, ‘unity of mind and heart’ was secured in relatively subtle ways. Harmful and morally confusing books were excluded from the curriculum, or sometime edited to remove the more scandalous parts.  Various contests, both athletic and intellectual, were introduced as an outlet for youthful competition. Corporate religious exercises, such as Mass and weekly sermons, were also part of the school’s routine. In this area, however, the Jesuits were careful not to overdo things; the practice of piety was mostly left to the personal inclination of the students. The most important element of the system was the example of the Jesuits themselves. Their intelligence, zeal, and charity were supposed to impress students to the point that all would be influenced by their teachers, and some would be moved to imitate them.


This is not to say that everything was ‘hunky-dory’ in the old Jesuit schools. In particular, the heavy emphasis on leadership skills and competition, which were the strengths of the old system, tended to create an elitist mentality that had little interest in marginal people and new ideas. In 1973, Pedro Arrupe, the General of the Society, bluntly told a group of Jesuit alumni: ‘We have not educated you for justice’ (‘Men for Others’, July 31, 1973). After this admission, he reformulated the ideal of the ‘renaissance man’ in explicitly personalist terms: ‘Gifted with conscience, intelligence and power, each of us is indeed a center. But a center called to go out of ourselves, to give ourselves to others in love–love, which is our definitive and all-embracing dimension, that which gives meaning to all our other dimensions. Only the one who loves fully realizes himself or herself as a person.’ The Jesuit apostolate, he concluded, had to be restated: the goal should be to make hombres para los demás, ‘men [and women] for others’.


‘Men for Others’ was the motto of the environment in which I was educated in the mid-1970s. Although my school was my no means immune to the confusion that characterized the Church in those days, Arrupe’s concept set a high bar for measuring the actions and attitudes of both teachers and graduates. Now, forty years later, I find that his concept overshadows—I might have said, haunts—much of my thinking about education and education policy. With your indulgence, I will share a little of that thinking. In the Jesuit manner, I will divide it into three points.


The first point is that our schools and universities, both religious and secular, should be less like training facilities as more like retreat houses: which is to say, places of personal and ethical discernment.


The term ‘discernment’  is based on the Latin verb for ‘separating’ and ‘making distinctions’. From a personalist standpoint, it is impossible to live a full life without being able to distinguish persons from things, truth from falsehood, and good from evil. These distinctions were the core of St. Ignatius’ spiritual practice, and they remain indispensable if the goal of education, in the words of a recent Jesuit document, is ‘developing the freedom that respects others and accepts responsibility’ (The Characteristics of Jesuit Education, 52). The practice of discernment, however, cannot be taught to young people who do not already possess the tools to make any kind of distinction at all. This is the main reason why the ‘logical arts’ of communication and reasoning—the classical trivium—must retain, or regain, their place in the curriculum. But the same document adds another priority, which we can also make our own: ‘to [help students] understand and critically evaluate the influence of mass media’. The hope is that ‘through proper education, these instruments of modern life can help men and women to become more, rather than less, human’ (Characteristics, 29-30).


The critical consumption of media, however, is only one kind of discernment. Another has to do with figuring out one’s calling in life. This is precisely where my current students seem to encounter the most trouble. When we hear the word ‘vocation’, we tend to equate it either with a state of life, such as the monastic vocation, or with a ‘career path’—what amounts to one’s fixed position in the ‘workforce’. St. Ignatius offers a helpful corrective. He recognized that discerning a ‘vocation’ is not one big choice, but a series of choices, both big and small, which build on each other. It seems to me that education can be structured in the same way, with discreet moments of decision built into the curriculum. To give a concrete example: we might designate a jumping-off point, during or after high school, for entry into the manual trades—something like the ‘school leaving certificate’ in Britain before the 1970s.  Likewise, the option of studying for agricultural or technical certification could be introduced midway through one’s college education. Pre-law and pre-med courses might find their place, as formerly, toward the end of the college course or in graduate programs. Allowance should also be made for trial and error, so that no one is permanently tracked into an expensive degree program for which he or she proves unsuited. What all programs should have in common, however, is some training in the methods of ethical discernment, so that students can be reasonably confident in the ‘rightness’ of their decisions.


This brings me to my second point: to the extent that we want to have a common or ‘core’ curriculum in schools and universities, it should be organized to promote discernment by means of shared reflection.


It is a commonplace among educators that school should be more than rote memorization and the regurgitation of undigested facts. At the same time, they warn us that the classroom should not become an echo chamber of a teacher’s cherished opinions. In recent years, I have noticed an increasing reluctance on the part of my students to discuss controversial issues; most of the time, they simply do not want to ‘go there’. There could be many reasons for this, but one of them may be that students lack a safe and reliable mechanism for defining a problem, weighing various solutions, and applying them in a relevant way.


It was to supply such a mechanism that Jesuit educators in the 1980s devised the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm (IPP). At first glance, the IPP looks like the kind of nightmare that schools of education are always churning out these days. In fact, however, it is simply a lesson plan based on one of the methods of meditation recommended in the Spiritual Exercises. The idea is that one can approach just about any topic in the same way that one would meditate on a story from the Gospels. The first step is to establish the context and the facts of the case (these are termed ‘context’ and ‘experience’). This leads to an analysis of the main themes or issues of the topic (‘reflection’ in the proper sense). Finally, there is ‘action’, which takes the form of resolutions to do certain things or act in a certain way as a result of the analysis. The exercise concludes with an review or ‘evaluation’ of the whole experience.


I like to use a simpler version of the IPP when I teach a classical text, such as Homer’s Iliad. For example, I may spend some time on aspects of the material culture of the Bronze Age, so that students can visualize the environment of the poem. Then we review the narrative itself. The essential part is to break the narrative down into its component themes and motifs, so that we can identify the lessons that an ancient audience might have drawn from it. The great advantage of working with texts like the Iliad is that they deal with perennial issues. It is easy to see, for example, how the rules of martial engagement evolve, or rather disintegrate, when sympathetic characters begin to die and the battle becomes more desperate. Students have no trouble finding analogies with modern warfare, or even with their own experience of violence. Ideally, every class or unit becomes a kind of controlled experiment in ethical analysis and decision-making, and it is gratifying to see students get the hang of it.


To move from pedagogy to policy, I think that this sort of exercise is the best justification for incorporating the humanities into standard curricula. While it is true that liberal courses teach useful ‘skills’, such as critical thinking and written communication, and good ‘dispositions’, such as respect for other people, their real value lies in the fact that they can be a kind of apprenticeship in the work or activity that is proper to persons, according to Mounier’s definition given earlier: ’striving for unity and aim of conviction’. Sorting the complexities of ‘peak’ experiences such as passionate love, battle, childbirth, conversion, and death is the great challenge of life: it is essentially what we were made for. The classroom is the place to get some practice. Incidentally, this may explain why a single work of literature, studied in school, so often changes the course of a person’s life. One of my god-daughters decided to become a Catholic when she was reading the Confessions of St. Augustine in a truck-stop, with country music playing on the juke box. Who knows how many truck stops could be the locus of a personalist revolution, if only we put the right books into the right hands?


The analogy of apprenticeship brings me to my third and final point: we must explore ways in which discernment and reflection can be assisted by a common culture, even in non-sectarian schools. I have just suggested that the school years can be regarded is a kind of ‘on the job training’ for mature personhood. But none of us works a job entirely in isolation. The farm, the factory and the firm are societies organized around a common activity, and each of these settings has a distinctive esprit de corps. Indeed, modern companies seem obsessed with ‘building a culture’ through retreats, workshops, tee-shirts, and other devices for creating a ‘team spirit’.  So how do we bring the good spirit, the Spirit of Truth, in the culture of non-sectarian schools?


I mentioned that the old Jesuit schools were somewhat hands-off when it came to religious exercises. My father, who was raised by an agnostic father and a protestant mother, recalled that students in his Jesuit high school in the 1940s had the option of attending Mass every day; they were not required to do so. Mandatory exercises, such as retreats and days of reflection, were infrequent and generally self-directed. By the time I graduated from the same school in the 1970s, the proportion of non-Catholic students had increased still further, and Jesuit schools were obliged to work out a more definite plan for getting everyone on the same religious page. In The Characteristics of Jesuit Education, we find this formula: ‘To all, whatever their beliefs, Christ is proposed as the model of human life. Everyone can draw inspiration and learn about commitment from the life and teaching of Jesus, who witnesses to the love and forgiveness of God, lives in solidarity with all who suffer, and pours out his life in the service of others’ (61). It appears that the degree to which one responds to the example of Christ is up to the student. The school is responsible for making this response possible, through classes in religion, individual direction, and ‘appropriate community forms of worship’ (68).

A Jesuit Education

In the past I have criticized this approach, because I did not consider it sufficient to maintain a robustly Catholic identity. Nevertheless, I think it can be useful in situations where Catholic identity is no longer an issue (as in many Jesuit schools today), or where it has has never been so. It reminds me of what the American Jesuit Avery Dulles—who is probably the smartest man I have ever met in person—called the ‘Deist minimum’ (First Things, January, 2005). Using Thomas Jefferson as a typical representative of Deism, Dulles identified the following principles:  the existence of God, divine providence, the divine moral law, rewards and punishments after death, and Jesus as an incomparably great moral teacher. Dulles notes that Deism completely failed as a theological system, but it became the basis of the ‘civil religion’ that ‘has been expressed in our national institutions and in the great pronouncements of our national heroes, most notably Abraham Lincoln.’ As a substitute for an authentic state religion, it ‘produced a favorable climate in which the various forms of biblical religion could and did thrive.’ Similarly, Characteristics makes no theological claims beyond the existence of God, the necessity of human solidarity, and the Christian example of sacrificial service. Jesus himself becomes a sort of archetype of the ‘man for others’. This is certainly not integral Christianity. Nevertheless, if these modest claims and the example of Christ were really assimilated, they could make quite a difference in the outlook of teachers and students.


I propose that something like this be re-christened the ‘personalist minimum’, and that it be developed in various ways. For example, Characteristics proposes that the mission of Jesuit schools be formulated with four principles: ‘a spiritual vision of the world, in the face of materialism; a concern for others, in the face of egoism; simplicity, in the face of consumerism; and the cause of the poor, in the face of social injustice.’ These four principles are non-sectarian, but they are entirely consistent with Christianity, and they run very much against the grain of neoliberal culture and neoliberal education. They also provide four pegs on which to hang the evaluation of institutional policies—not the least of which is the cost of an education.


I should add that the ‘personalist minimum’ is not the sort of thing that can be imposed top-down through legislation, subsidies, and similarly coercive tactics; rather, it should be allowed to emerge spontaneously from local experiments. Thus, the ‘minimum’ would probably take various forms. One may hope, however, that it would eventually lead to the creation of a common ethical and religious language that could be used in both public and private schools.  Such a language would at least serve as a defense against the vocabulary of egoism and dehumanization that has infiltrated our schools at present.


It is time to summarize the major points of my talk. First, personalist educators stand opposed to the functionalist model of ‘workforce’ training that is promoted by the Scott Walkers of the world. Second, they see education as a process of discernment and an apprenticeship in the work of being a person. They do not ‘teach to the test’; rather, they teach to texts that invite reflection on the world and one’s place in it. Finally, they try to create a culture that encourages prayer, altruism, simplicity, and justice, without encroaching on the freedom of conscience.


You may have noticed that I am speaking now of ‘educators’, rather than ‘education’. My mind goes back to another remark by my father, that agnostic product of a Jesuit education. After I started working at Marquette, I asked him what he considered to be the distinctive feature of his schooling. He replied that, for him, the difference was the Jesuits themselves; these were men, as he put it, ‘that a boy could respect’. Setting aside the particular dynamics of male role-modeling, I think that this is a very useful remark for all of us in IDP. Young people will learn the most from teachers that they admire and wish to emulate. In politics, as well, people will agree with us if they want to be like us. The best vehicle of personalist politics is personal example—how we project, albeit imperfectly, the image of God.