Reflection into the Future

By Timothy Law Snyder, Ph.D., vice president for academic affairs 

In his “Jesuit Perspectives” essay in the August 2010 issue of Loyola magazine, Rev. James Miracky, S.J., dean of Loyola College, wrote about how Loyola’s core curriculum guides students to become witnesses to the diversity of God’s creation, to become persons of conscience, and to become prime—lo, stellar!—candidates for a wide variety of careers. Dean Miracky’s focus was on the benefits our students derive; in the Ignatian tradition, others benefit from students educated at Loyola by the service and creativity our alumni generously share.

But the virtues of a Jesuit education do not stop with the individual student and others, within our current lifetimes. They extend into the human and environmental future and are becoming increasingly valuable as humankind advances through time.

Can you imagine a time in which an individual’s thought can be sensed, displayed, divulged, automatically? Such a moment will place demands on us that eclipse any we have experienced or imagined. How might we ready ourselves, intellectually, socially, spiritually, for such a moment? How might you plan to live and interact when, as you meet me and shake my hand, I am aware of what you are thinking, and you can witness that awareness as it happens? We will come back to this in a moment, but let’s first go back a bit in time.

Because I am not a professional historian, I will resist the temptation to review recent eras and epochs and how Jesuit education—and Jesuits—have influenced our success. Rather, I wish to review recent and emerging phenomena—technological, social, global—to note that St. Ignatius’s vision was stunningly robust in poising us for the human future.

Step back for a moment to 1540, the year of the founding of the Jesuits. High tech was cannonballs, muskets, printing, and maps, and the Earth was still deemed the center of the Universe. Ignatius’s time was preceded by two million years during which we hunted and gathered, with caves providing our shelter. Our DNA and our available tools were assembled in tiny steps, each one taking thousands of years. But today, just over 100 years following the invention of the telephone, we chat routinely across vast global spaces. Through books and writing, and, yes, tweets, which ultimately serve as offloads of human expression and memory—we communicate not just across space, but also across time. For example, we can access not only the text of works by Homer, which were previously promulgated through oral transmission from singer/poets, but we can also access the thoughts of Homeric scholars who studied Homer’s epics before we were born.

As we have progressed, we have used the likes of print, computers, and, now, the Internet, to offload some of human processing, and increasingly more of it, to machines and devices that outsource routine processes and tasks in favor of, we hope, opportunity for deeper reflection and revelation. Meanwhile, however, as our offloaded communication, offloaded processing, and resulting global interactivity have blossomed, our capacity for accomplishing greater goals has become more complicated. In affairs personal to global, from love to war, areas of inquiry such as economics, religion, sociology, technocracy, psychology, ethics, and more have intermixed to create systems that have made our decisions and our everyday lives more intricate. The resulting escalation of complexity demands that any challenge—any striving for good—requires significant knowledge of many fields at once, along with an ability to conjure and sense interactions and their effects, if one is to address or refine—even recognize—a given problem that needs our attention.

How might we assure a better future amidst an increasing array of complicated collisions between concepts, individuals, and societies; an accelerated disruption of paradigms; and an increasing need for us to adapt and evolve more quickly than nature may allow? Relying on evolution through natural selection—physical evolution, through which we have grown, small step by small step, over spans of millions of years—will not allow us to keep pace with the changes that our current state of living and our increasing invention require. Like it or not, we are in an age in which education has become a primary evolutionary necessity, the critical key to adapting to what we have created and are creating.

A successful education will increasingly require that students not only learn a vast array of fields, but also develop habits of intellectual discernment, abilities to recognize patterns and contexts that comport meaning or new possibility, and, most importantly, an ability to continue to learn through the course of one’s life.

Where is Jesuit education in all of this? The above list is consistent with the principles St. Ignatius advocated in establishing the Jesuit order and the style of education that emerged in the early years of the Jesuits, over 450 years ago, amidst those muskets and maps. For example, the early Jesuits prescribed a curriculum that delayed any specialization in order to create persons of capable and nimble mind—a tradition that today remains a hallmark of Loyola’s curriculum. Talk about a lasting legacy!

But Jesuit education offers more than the features listed above and the renowned cura personalis for which Jesuit educators are known. Another feature that becomes too often lost in the mix, in the interest of assuring an openness to all people, is the power that God brings to learning and life. Ignatius wrote eloquently about God’s informing and inspiring a given individual, seeing a trustful relationship with God as a basis for human learning, development, and ultimate good. A habit of discernment is, in Ignatius’s world, a partnership with God; education helps us practice in determining what is right, what is wrong, which path is best, and which we should avoid.

Now, take all of the above, and add Ignatius’s practice of seeing God in all things. The Jesuit learner gathers from the world manifestations of God’s grandeur, with an option to explore a place in which Ignatius saw God coming from “above,” toward us, and we striving to meet God, seeking guidance, in universal trust, in how we tip the balance of difficult decisions toward what is best. From there, we reimagine, reinterpret, and recreate—toward a more viable and meaningful future. Though carrying out these steps has never been trivial (for heaven’s sake, God is in the mix!), I submit that current times demand such an approach more than any time of our past, and that coming times will bring demands that are even greater.

So let’s return to our future—the one in which we can ascertain what the other is thinking. I know what you are thinking now: “This is nuts.” But, though the scenario I describe seems far-fetched, researchers at IBM today are predicting that we will control a computer’s cursor using only our minds—just four years from now. Reading a mind for control of a mouse is to reading ultimate thoughts what the Wright brothers’ 12-second flight was to the trip to the Moon and back, 60-some years later, or what the invention of the transistor was to machines becoming stock traders, world chess champions, and psychotherapists. Even minimal thought about such a time leads us to questions we have never considered, and toward needs yet to be contemplated. It leads to a realization that accomplishing even the simplest or purest actions—e.g., caring for a whole person—is an art destined to change over time, requiring new and persistent Jesuit learning and Jesuit life-learners.

Recent rapid communication and commerce have created huge challenges for which we are barely prepared. Reading minds and, eventually, reading minds at remote distances, will require an education that offers an integration of the traditional liberal arts with our Jesuit practice of discernment and, yes, help aplenty from the Creator.

Of course, many students of Jesuit education do not call on God. In his essay, “The Experience of Ignatius Loyola: Background to Jesuit Education,” Rev. Howard Gray, S.J., keenly relates to us the distinct value of high-quality teaching and scholarship for which Jesuit education is known. He speaks to a transitivity that occurs when teaching that cradles the learner as valuable, even when the teaching takes place apart from direct reference to God, creates learning that brings about love and goodness, ultimately providing us with a path toward God.

All told, as human and earthly needs multiply and their dynamics accelerate, we realize that Jesuit education is presently more valuable than it has ever been, and that it is to become even more important as our future unfurls. I invite you to imagine what various futures will demand from us and consider how Jesuit education might meet them. In the meantime, thank you for reading my mind.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: The author thanks Rev. James Bowler, S.J.; Rev. James Miracky, S.J.; and Amanda Thomas, Ph.D., for their helpful comments on drafts of this article.