Ignatian Pedagogy for Sustainability: Vision and Themes

By Jay Leighter and Kathleen R. Smythe

We are in crisis and failing at our mission

Pope Francis, building on his predecessors, has declared it a moral responsibility to address the ecological crisis. Laudato Si is a call to action grounded not only in the Catholic tradition, but also in rigorous scholarship in the natural and social sciences. Jesuit universities have responded in a variety of ways. We cannot rely on the same ideas and technologies that have created these ecological threats. Our students know this in their soul. We must be the leaders and co-educators they need to respond to the large-scale challenges of global climate destabilization. We are living in a different world, undeniably altered by human impact. The challenges on Eaarth, as Bill McKibben calls this new planet, demand a different education.

Preventing environmental catastrophe will require collective action.  Yet individually, and in our various collective endeavors in the Jesuit educational network, we often worsen the situation. In 1993 the International Commission on the Apostolate of Jesuit Education gave The Ignatian Pedagogy Paradigm (IPP) a practical orientation. Now, a practical orientation in educating for a sustainable future is well past due. We in higher education are training shepherds for a flock and a pasture that we are failing to protect. By not teaching the civic, ecological and spiritual skills and dispositions needed to preserve the commons, we are contributing to the tragedy. This is a glaring mission failure for Jesuit educational institutions.

We need a new educational model to educate resilient citizens

We must grasp the opportunity to provide a civic education grounded in spiritual, ecological, and economic approaches appropriate for these times. Modern education tends to endorse Francis Bacon’s equation of knowledge with power, separating the Liberal Arts from other branches of knowledge oriented toward practical ends or economic purposes. But the power of such disciplines is based on knowledge that can only be properly directed and governed by a liberal arts education acknowledging the beautiful order that permeates all of creation.

The pedagogy outlined below was developed through intentional conversations among faculty who teach courses on the topic of sustainability. The original themes were characterized as a series of desolations, or obstacles or challenges in teaching. We reformulated the themes as consolations, proactive targets, goals, and outcomes to transform the learning experience for students.

Five Themes of Ignatian Pedagogy for Sustainability (IPS)

We propose a broadening and deepening of Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm (IPP) pedagogy to explicitly link personal growth (expansive self-understandings) to civic responsibility. We stress civic responsibility as important as social justice, which too often takes the form of palliative remedies (easier and shorter-term) rather than institutional change (harder and longer-term). The (IPP) calls for integration of context, experience, reflection, action, and evaluation. The salient element of our collective context and lived experience is an unsustainable ecological, ethical, social, and economic trajectory. Such a context is debilitating and unhealthy. The education we offer has to provide another kind of experience to build resilience and a capacity to act.

There are at least two ways to integrate IPS with our five themes. The first, outlined below, is to link together specific themes with each of the IPS elements noting opportunities for exploration because the themes provide inherent points of intersection in the study of sustainability. Second, there may be an intensive focus on a particular theme in the pedagogy and, thus, the faculty member may choose to engage with the IPS on a single theme.

Theme 1 (CONTEXT). Truth, honesty, and humility

In our classrooms, most of us feel a great tension between facing the facts of climate change, political gridlock, and economic determinism while also promoting hope and resilience. We must both say to our students that we are in the trenches alongside them, and also take the full measure of where we are. We must deliver the news with no hint of cynicism, impatience, or ignorance, but with a tenderness and a determination to keep trying, to not give in to fatalism or resentment. Individual action can illuminate what is possible to those who have started to despair, but to be effective it must build community and embrace collective action.

Reflection on this educational challenge leads us to communicate to our students our vulnerability as individuals and members of communities. It is essential that our students deem us trustworthy guides. While we are making ourselves vulnerable, we must also make use of the Ignatian approach to gratitude.

Theme 2 (EXPERIENCE). Multiple modes of knowing (scientific, embodied, spiritual, cultural, artistic, humanistic, experiential)

faith and are interdisciplinary by design. Our form of education focuses on studia humanitatis, the study of our humanity. Concern for the public good stood as a central principle in the educational philosophy of the first Jesuits. It aimed to create responsible citizens, capable of identifying and articulating the common good and taking a leadership role as circumstances demanded.

Rhetoric, vocabulary, interpretive skills, eloquence, even some philology, served the tasks of persuasion and consensus building. All this implied that the cultivation of written and spoken expression could not be separated from the process of thinking itself. The humanistic school produced public persons, engaged in the life of their communities. In honing skills in communicating worthy ideals and goals, rhetoric became known as “the civic discipline.” Such an education, complete in itself, came to be seen as essential preparation for participation in public affairs.

What this version of humanistic education is missing is scientific, embodied, and artistic learning. In agreement with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, we find it hard to explain why the social sciences have been detached from the natural sciences. Both embodied and artistic pedagogies are scientifically proven to promote human welfare. Instructors will incorporate not just multiple disciplines but also multiple ways of knowing within each course, seeking to create spiritual and ecological citizen entrepreneurs.

Theme 3 (REFLECTION). Time, concentration, and imagination

We find ourselves fragmented in a fragmented world. Our own attention is taken from us or we too easily give it up, resulting in a loss of authority to control what, when, and how much we attend to, which fosters an incapacity for self-responsibility. Technology and globalization increase the challenges of sustained attention to ourselves, each other, and the pressing challenges at hand. This is an important element of the context in which we and our students find ourselves.

As a result, our pedagogy must include direct access to strategies and practices, such as meditation, mindfulness, discernment, and general self-care. These strategies must be part of class time, assignments, and integrated into evaluative and assessment measures. Instructors will afford opportunities for deep concentration and reflection as ends in and of themselves but also as a prerequisite for creativity, imagination, and collective action.

Theme 4 (ACTION). Community, service, obligations

IPS comes to essential engagement with damaging structures, institutions and values with this theme, grounded in humility and resilience, self-care and other-care (including the earth), and a commitment to interdisciplinary, artistic, and embodied learning. IPS comes to fruition when we and our students are ready to belong and act in community.

We emphasize this dimension of relation necessary for honest and ethical interaction among disparate and unique communities. The future is uncertain but that is in no way a justification for inaction; it is necessary to act in the face of uncertainty. Individuals and community groups must assert long-term commitment to one another while simultaneously acknowledging that no one involved has a true sense of what the future holds.

Democracy, civic and communal life all require the artful deployment of interactional, political, and relational skills. Moving to a more sustainable future requires students to build, contribute toward, and enliven our civic institutions and commitments, including those within the Jesuit network.

The IPP highlights action. In an IPS, we emphasize leading our students to collective action to change institutional structures for planetary and human welfare, ensuring that these include opportunities to learn from working with their hands and bodies. Such work means engaging in political activities, building community gardens, and leveraging the Jesuit community for local, national and international advocacy and action. Community obligations and service provides pathways to vocation through exposure to a wide variety of people and opportunities, as well as application of values and ideals.

Theme 5 (EVALUATION). Integrity with nature

Laudato Si’ is firmly grounded in science and asserts an integral ecology must now be the animating principle for our spirituality and economic systems. We must answer Pope Francis’ moral call to care for creation and prioritize the needs of the poor and vulnerable most damaged by environmental harm and least culpable in creating it.

In our assessments and evaluations of our teaching and our students’ learning, we must start from the premise of our interdependency with the poor and vulnerable and the natural world. Drawing on the wisdom of Native Americans and perennial polyculture, we use nature as measure, land as pedagogy, emphasizing belonging to the land.

Jay Leighter is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Creighton University. He is also the Director of the Sustainability Studies program. Kathleen R Smythe is Professor and Chair of the History Department at Xavier University. She was also a Senior Administrative Fellow for Sustainability and Environmental Imagination.