Jesuits operate the largest network of higher education in the world.

Jesuits operate the largest network of higher education in the world.

by Alistair Highet

In April, hundreds of presidents and educators from close to 200 Jesuit institutions of higher education from around the world met at the Jesuit Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

The focus of their discussions centered on how the global Jesuit network should work together to address the challenges of an increasingly interconnected world.

Entitled “Networking Jesuit Higher Education: Shaping the Future for a Humane, Just, Sustainable Globe,” the conference was the first international gathering of Jesuit educators since 2001 and the largest ever. The purpose was to begin to reimagine how the worldwide network of Jesuit institutions could work together in a more robust and imaginative way given the opportunities created by the speed and ease of global communications.

The hope is that by finding new ways to work together, Jesuit colleges will have a more transformative impact on the issues of our time – including poverty, injustice, ecological degradation, the dialogue between faith and culture, and the imbalances of knowledge and access to education between those with resources, and those without.

Fairfield University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., was among the participants at the conference, and was joined by Dr. Renée White, professor of sociology and anthropology and the University’s academic co-coordinator for Diversity and Global Citizenship.

The timing of the conference was fortuitous, as Fairfield has made “global citizenship” the area of focus that will inform academic programs and cultural offerings during the coming academic year. Fr. von Arx said the conference stimulated his thinking, and that he hoped that in the coming year Fairfield would really look at “concrete means of collaboration” with Jesuit institutions in other parts of the world.

“Meeting with people from every corner of the globe from the Society’s educational apostolate was absolutely fascinating,” he continued.

Fr. von Arx was asked to be part of a group that discussed Catholic Identity and Mission, and included in that group were representatives from South Korea, India, Europe, and the Philippines. He noted that while Jesuit colleges and universities in the U.S. share, to a large degree, a common perspective, the definition of “mission” becomes more complex when applied to the global network.

“There is such a tremendous variety of Jesuit colleges and institutions. Those of us within the United States still operate within a Catholic culture – we have many Catholic students and faculty. But there were people there from South Korea where the great majority of students and faculty aren’t Catholic, and you have Sophia University in Tokyo, where the president is not a Christian. So what does mission and identity mean in those contexts?” Fr. von Arx asked. “We need to step back and look at it from a global perspective. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution.”

The highlight of the conference was the keynote address by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, the Rev. Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., in which he specified three challenges that he wanted all of those in attendance to take to heart.

He noted that while all of the Jesuit institutions present were committed to the service of the communities around them – what he described as each university’s social project or proyecto social – and that they often worked together regionally, the Society was not taking sufficient advantage of its international reach to work together as a global entity.

He asked: “How much more can we increase the scope of our service to the world if all the Jesuit institutions of higher education become, as it were, a single global proyecto social?”

He also called on the educators to re-embrace the Ignatian tradition of “learned ministry” – the Society’s almost 500-year tradition of working on the frontiers where reason and faith find themselves in conflict.

But Fr. Nicolás felt the biggest challenge was the one that the explosion of globalization has posed to the inner life of the human person, what he called the “globalization of superficiality.”

Speaking of the cut-and-paste, non-stop chatter of the Internet, he said: “When one is overwhelmed with such a dizzying pluralism of choices and values and beliefs and visions of life, then one can so easily slip into the lazy superficiality of relativism or mere tolerance of others and their views, rather than engaging in the hard work of forming communities of dialogue in the search for truth and understanding ….

The globalization of superficiality challenges Jesuit higher education to promote in creative new ways the depth of thought and imagination that are the distinguishing marks of the Ignatian tradition.”

And Fr. Nicolás concluded by asking a rhetorical question: If St. Ignatius were starting the Society of Jesus today, would he still make education central to his mission, would “running all these universities still be the best way we can respond to the mission of the Church and the needs of our world?”

Asked this upon his return, Fr. von Arx reflected for a moment and said that universities are still well poised to make major and lasting transformations to the culture.

“I tend to think if you went to St. Ignatius and said, ‘We’re going to give you 28 institutions of higher education in the United States, where you are going to have some influence, and where Jesuit thinking is going to have a really important role to play,’ who wouldn’t say: ‘Wow,’ that’s great!'” Fr. von Arx said. “Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of that?”

An excerpt from Fr. Adolfo Nicolás’ address

I think that all of you have experienced what I am calling the globalization of superficiality and how it affects so profoundly the thousands of young people entrusted to us in our institutions. When one can access so much information so quickly and painlessly; when one can express and publish to the world one’s reactions so immediately and so unthinkingly in one’s blogs or micro-blogs; when the latest opinion column from the New York Times or El Pais, or the newest viral video can be spread so quickly to people half a world away, shaping their perceptions and feelings, then the laborious, painstaking work of serious, critical thinking often gets short-circuited.

One can “cut-and-paste” without the need to think critically or write accurately or come to one’s own careful conclusions. When beautiful images from the merchants of consumer dreams flood one’s computer screens … . When one can become “friends” so quickly and so painlessly with mere acquaintances or total strangers on one’s social networks – and if one can so easily “unfriend” another without the hard work of encounter or, if need be, confrontation and the reconciliation – then relationships can also become superficial … .

The globalization of superficiality challenges Jesuit higher education to promote in creative new ways the depth of thought and imagination that are distinguishing marks of the Ignatian tradition.

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