Teaching the Mission by Institutional Example

By Paul Lakeland

This topic brought to mind an old saw ascribed to Francis of Assisi, probably apocryphal but charming nonetheless, that we should preach the gospel always and everywhere “and use words if necessary .” The truism also comes to mind that students will not remember what you said, but they may remember how you said it. In a word, our impact as educators has at least as much to do with our presence to students as it does with the material we put before them.

Holding up the institution itself as an example of teaching the mission complements Ignatian pedagogy with the equally important notion of paideia. In ancient Greece, paideia meant training both body and mind to form someone with a harmonious blend of the physical and mental faculties. In its early Christian dress, paideia was the word used to designate the entire course of study that would produce the good Christian citizen. James Fowler declares that it “involves all the intentional efforts of a community of shared meanings and practices to form and nurture the attitudes, dispositions, habits, and virtues – and in addition, the knowledge and skills – necessary to enable growing persons to become competent and reflective adult members of the community.” You or I would accurately consider paideia as the entire educational process, what the Jesuits call, with even more accuracy, the formation process, through which an individual becomes a moral citizen of the world. It encompasses not only classroom activities but also what we learn from and teach to everyone around us through the manner of our comportment, through the architectural style of our buildings, through student culture and faculty culture, and through the institutional commitment to a Catholic and Jesuit frame of reference. It includes, too, all the interactions faculty and students have with all manner of administrators and staff persons, all of whom are both teaching and learning. A healthy institution teaches the mission by modeling the world that our mission envisages, one which we hope our students will help create and maintain the rest of their lives.

In the not-so-far-distant past, institutional example was visible in the large numbers of Jesuits teaching in the classrooms and holding important pastoral and administrative responsibilities, above all as presidents of our schools. While we might be nostalgic about those days, and while most of us would like to have more Jesuits at work on our campuses, the complacency that often accompanied it could make institutional example a mere shell. Mission was something we left to the Jesuits, and the rest of us got on with our teaching, hopefully employing some approximation to Ignatian pedagogy. Inevitably, too, this meant that mission was commonly understood to be primarily a religious activity. But when “the promotion of justice” was proclaimed as a vital component of “the service of faith” in 1975, things began to change. And at that moment, it seems in retrospect and coincidentally, the numbers of Jesuits available to staff our campuses began its slow slide to the present situation.

Now that the honor and burden of teaching the mission by institutional example has devolved largely upon people who do not belong to the Society of Jesus and may indeed be neither Catholic, Christian, nor even theists, we enter a dangerous but energetic era. Complacency gives way to responsibility, and every member of the community needs to take ownership of the mission, doubtless each in her or his own way; but the exigencies of running a fiscally healthy institution can mean that a disproportionate amount of the work and rhetoric that proclaims “us” as “Jesuit and Catholic” may be off the mark, if not indeed seriously off the rails.

So, what is this mission that all this talk is about, what is the “it” that paideia must communicate through the human beings and the bricks and mortar of the college or university? Like so many things Ignatian, the key lies in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, above all, I believe, in the central Meditation on the Two Standards. In Ignatius’ own formulation, the exercitant must choose between the banner of Christ and the banner of Satan. In our communities we cannot put it just like that. More important is Ignatius’ instruction to look at all the people going around in the world, conducting their business and making their choices for good or evil. Ignatius tasks us with determining where we stand in that world, whether we choose to be with those who affirm the fullness of humanity in the world that is our home or with those who choose their own narrow self-interest, a choice that is ultimately destructive of humanity and of the non-human world on which we depend.

Ignatius’ emphasis on “seeing” the world going about its business and placing ourselves in the picture is key to teaching the mission by institutional example. If our mission is to help form human beings who will freely choose the good, who will be “on the side of the angels” in a world of complexity, then our dual responsibility is to a pedagogy that explores the actual world we live in at great depth, with fine analytical and critical skills, and to a paideia that makes our institutions models of the world we wish for and wish our students to choose. We cannot force this. As they used to say, you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. We will not succeed with all our students or, for that matter, with all of our colleagues. But if the paideia, the teaching mission by example, is not present, we fail at the deepest level, no matter how many highly paid financiers or how many Nobel Prize winners we can count among our former students.

In conclusion, one more quaint old proverb: “fine words butter no parsnips.” The proof of our commitment to mission is not in the rhetoric with which we surround ourselves or the institutional smoke and mirrors that our universities fall into from time to time, but in the impact we have upon our students and through them our world. And this happens only when the life of our institutions, at the deepest level, teaches through paideia, using mere words only when absolutely necessary.

Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P . Kelley, S.J., Professor of Catholic Studies and the director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University. His most recent book is The Wounded Angel: Fiction and the Religious Imagination.