22 February 2017 : A newsletter of the Australian Jesuits

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Questions for the General #1: Education


Adam Lewis is the Director of Co-Curriculum at Saint Ignatius' College, Riverview and will become the Director of Students this year. He spent eight years working at Clongowes Wood College in Ireland and prior to moving to Riverview he completed an MA in Developmental and Educational Psychology at the Society’s Boston College in the USA.


Adam’s Question: A significant component of Jesuit Education is the pursuit of excellence. In contemporary society, ‘excellence’ or ‘success’ or ‘achievement’ seems to be measured increasingly by material or superficial outcomes, such as exam scores and statistics or a physical result on a sporting scoreboard. While these are important, surely an overemphasis on the ‘product’ diminishes the importance of the ‘process’ of education, where the real learning occurs in our context in terms of the education of the whole person. I feel this is a real challenge in our schools, that is, to be counter-cultural to an extent and draw our students back to the ‘process’. How do we do this in a society that is placing increased pressure on the ‘product’ over the ‘process’, when it comes to education?


I think this is a very relevant question. This will be, to my mind, an ongoing challenge to us.


My impression is that this will never be solved fully, because part of the process of education is that an education is successful when it's freely received, so education is a dialogue. It is not the work of the teacher, it's a dialogue, and therefore the receptivity of the student and their ability to digest and make it part of their lives is going to be always a part of education. Therefore it's going to be always an open question how much of what we give is digested, accepted and incorporated into a new frame of mind or a new spiritual framework.


Even so, the question at the end is, what can we do to encourage or to improve on this matter? I would say the first thing is to deepen the sense that excellence has nothing to do with social, financial or professional success, it's an excellence in humanity. It's forming better human beings; people with a heart, with compassion, with understanding; people who can understand our society without bias, without ideological impositions; people who can be attentive, responsible, understanding, et cetera. It is an effort of the whole Christian institution to help young men and women grow with this openness and this understanding. Whenever this excellence is put in terms of immediate results, we are being unfaithful to our message, so we are not giving the totality of the person, we are giving only one part. 


I remember I studied with De La Salle Brothers and Jesuits in my last three years, and that in the old times in order to stimulate the students to keep trying and to study hard there were some prizes set up, and the prizes were very much in the line of what you seem to criticise. The prizes were now we would say childish.  I got a couple of them but they were childish, because they centred us on ourselves, and they were prizes about results, about performance, exactly what you were saying.  Maybe if we as a school or as an educator or as an institution, we have some form of encouragement for serious study, maybe we could set up also prizes for process.  If we want to underline process, maybe we should celebrate service.  How do we grow together with others?  How do we play?  How do we exchange? 


From my class of 99 students, 19 joined the Jesuits. It was a special year - that was not the norm.  But I have asked myself several times why, and I think that for three years in a row we got very good Jesuits to accompany us, and in the last year one of the ways of accompaniment was precisely that when we were preparing for a test the Jesuit would ask those who were doing well to help those who were not doing well.  So when a student came to him to ask a question he would say, ‘Go to so-and-so and he will help you’, and he encouraged that. So we were all helping each other, and I think that created a sense that this was something worth continuing for life. I think maybe we can encourage service, and I would say I would include failure in the process as a normal event.


I feel that the majority of humanity experiences failure in life.  Failure of communication with children, failure in marriage, failure in their job, failure in promotions that don't happen, et cetera.  So failure is very much part of life for the majority of humanity.  There should be a way of incorporating failure also in celebrations, and I say we should celebrate failure for the kingdom of God, when someone really goes so much out of himself that in a sense he doesn't respond to expectations of others, but thanks to this sacrifice in a sense others do much better. This I think is a very good way of channelling the energies and the talents that God has given us.


When I went to Japan to study theology, I thought well sometimes we think ‘I have to perform’, but sometimes performing less myself but helping Japanese seminarians to move ahead is much better for the kingdom of God than if I am a star. Stars are very good for looking at, but not for life. If I help others, maybe I don't get the same results, but together we get better results in other ways.  Ten plus four plus six is only 20, but eight plus eight plus eight is 24, so that's more. 


This kind of encouragement, or these kinds of symbolic gestures where we evaluate the part of process that we want to encourage, would be a way of supporting students. We need something visual, something that we can bring home and be proud of. But knowing that at the end it is going to be about the freedom with which the person accepts these values or not. Particularly I would value teamwork rather than individual performance. I think this is something where schools can be very good, to create teams of people who know how to work together, how to help others who are not doing so well, et cetera.


Fr General fielded questions from six people at his address on 25 January. In this edition of Province Express, we feature the first three questions. The other three questions will be featured in the next edition.


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