What’s So Special About Jesuit Education Anyway?

Anyone who knows me knows that I believe in Jesuit education. When asked why, I never say it’s because Jesuit universities perform well during March Madness (except Georgetown, of course). Nor do I suggest our schools are special because they are academic powerhouses. No, what makes Jesuit education distinctive for me are two more important ideas: a commitment to social justice and a clear measure of institutional success.

During my time at Fordham University, I was able to immerse myself in the work of Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J. While best known for his assassination in 1989 at the hands of the U.S.-sponsored Salvadoran military, Ellacuría was also an important thinker on Jesuit education and its relationship to social justice.

In a commencement address that he gave at Santa Clara University in 1982, Fr. Ellacuría noted that one of the aspects of every Jesuit university is “that it must be concerned with the social reality — precisely because a university is inescapably a social force: it must transform and enlighten the society in which it lives.” In other words, Jesuit universities have a social obligation, particularly to the poor and marginalized in our communities, as Ellacuría would claim and Catholic social teaching demands.


(Photo: University of Central America / Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States)

Like Ellacuría, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., the 29th Superior General of the Society of Jesus, gave an important talk at Santa Clara University on the importance of social justice and Jesuit higher education (2000). At one point during his address, Kolvenbach suggested that the first and foremost measure of the success of Jesuit education “lies in who our students become.”

Taken together, and if taken seriously, Ellacuría’s call for social responsibility and Kolvenbach’s criterion of success summarize perfectly what I believe is distinctive about a Jesuit education. As Jesuit graduates, we cannot simply expect that our institutions promote social justice on their own; that would mean we are shirking our individual roles in the fight for social justice. When our institutions say that they judge their success on who we become, they call us to join them in transforming our society. Our schools ask us to become, in the words of Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J. (the 28th Superior General of the Society of Jesus), “men and women completely convinced that love of God which does not issue in justice for others is a farce.”

What makes Jesuit education so special, then, is that graduates are equipped, asked, and expected to bring this commitment to justice with them wherever they go, in whatever field they find themselves, whoever they become.

Matt Cuff is the policy associate in the Advocacy Office of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. In this role, Matt engages in advocacy on domestic social justice issues including poverty, racism, criminal justice, juvenile justice and immigration. In addition, he works with U.S. and Canadian Jesuit institutions as they seek to advance the social justice mission of the Society of Jesus. He is a graduate of Fordham University and Scranton Prep.