In Defense of Jesuit Education

Some Jesuit students make St. Ignatius Loyola more happy than others. (Andrew Beecher/THE OBSERVER)

Some Jesuit students make St. Ignatius Loyola more happy than others. (Andrew Beecher/THE OBSERVER)


In light of the alleged conduct of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, an alumnus of Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, M.D., the idea of Jesuit education and the culture it promotes has come under heavy fire. More specifically, the all-male education common in Jesuit high schools has been portrayed as a breeding ground for toxic masculinity, elitism, secrecy and binge drinking.

I attended an all-male Jesuit high school in Buffalo, N.Y., and from my experience and the experiences of my friends at Jesuit schools around the country, these allegations are at best outdated and, at worst, false. They are sweeping generalizations based on a lack of knowledge of Jesuit schools.

Contrary to the claims of long-graduated alumni propagated by many media outlets, all-male Jesuit schools are not hotbeds of toxic masculinity. I do not doubt that these institutions may have once failed to adequately address this kind of behavior, especially during Kavanaugh’s high school years, well before the term “toxic masculinity” had even entered the common American lexicon. However, I do not believe that these corrupted values were ever integral to all-male Jesuit education.

Now, as perceptions of masculinity are evolving, it is in fact the all-male Jesuit schools that are leading this charge against unhealthy ideas of male identity. Toxic masculinity views the expression of feelings as a weakness; Jesuit schools confront this by recognizing and aiding the development of boys’ emotional sides. During retreats designed to facilitate emotional discovery, in-class reflections and a capstone project at all Jesuit high schools called the Graduate at Graduation, young men are encouraged to examine and process their feelings.

For many of us, it was not easy at first. Even by 14, we had been conditioned by societal standards of masculinity to reject the expression of emotion and ensure that we were always seen as tough and stoic. The Jesuit mantra of cura personalis rejects this distorted view; we were taught to care for ourselves and our feelings, regardless of what standards we saw on television or heard in music. We learned that humans are emotional creatures by nature, and understood that ignoring our emotions would result in a disconnect from our humanity.

Toxic masculinity is not just the rejection of emotions; it also designates manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. We were taught not only to reflect on how warped perceptions of masculinity influence ourselves but also our interactions with others. Our teachers and administrators, both women and men, ingrained in us a respect for women. It was well-known that if any teacher overheard a disrespectful comment about a woman, they would not hesitate to pull the offender aside and explain their wrongdoing. Referring to girls as the “whores on the hill,” as students in the ’80s allegedly did, would lead to an immediate reprimand. The Graduate at Graduation document states that a student should have begun to “identify and work against personal prejudices and stereotypes,” which would certainly include the use of the word “whore” as a reference to girls.

That’s not to say we were all angels. I will be the first to admit that I made inappropriate comments, especially when I first started high school. Every teenage boy says things they should not, but most of us understood the problem with the derogatory nature of vulgar comments by the time we graduated. It was because of our Jesuit education that we outgrew those offensive statements.

There are also, of course, the boys who will never learn the importance of respect. There are alumni who will make inappropriate comments throughout their lives, but, from my experience in the two years since graduation, I can say that there are far fewer of these boys than there are graduates who live as men for others.

There have been accusations of elitism at Jesuit schools. These claims are not unfounded, but they stem from a simple misunderstanding. It was best described by Fr. James Van Dyke, S.J., in a letter to the Georgetown Prep community: “That we are elite, we cannot deny … But we are not entitled.”

This distinction is necessary to understand the difference between students educated at Jesuit institutions and those taught at other private schools. Students at Jesuit schools, like all of us here at Fordham, are admitted by their academic and extracurricular merits and are accepted without regard to financial need. We are privileged here at Fordham because we are offered an elite education in one of the world’s greatest cities.

Most of us, however, do not feel entitled to our privileges; instead, we feel grateful for them. Michael Finnan, Gabelli School of Business (GSB) ’21, a graduate of St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, Ohio, explained the mindset of Jesuit students well. “The mindset was: ‘I’m grateful my parents are able to spend this money,’” he said. We both agreed that it was much more common that students enter school, whether it be high school or college, with elitist tendencies and graduate without them than it is for students to develop an elitist mentality while attending a Jesuit school. Elitist attitudes are not a product of Jesuit education; rather, they are in spite of the Graduate at Graduation principles that students are taught to embody.

As it goes for wild parties and binge drinking, I will not dispute the fact that many high school students drink underage. However, there is little to no distinction between the frequency and amount of consumption between private, specifically all-male Jesuit schools and public schools. As Finnan recalled, public and private school parties were “the same because we were friends with a lot of the public school students so we would be at the same parties.” The elitist parties that Kavanaugh attended in the ’80s are a far cry from the social scene in high school today.

Furthermore, schools today would never look the other way on underage drinking.  In my experience, the dean of students carried a breathalyzer at all school events, and anyone suspected of drinking would be asked to submit to a breathalyzer test or leave immediately. Their punishment would then be assessed at school the following day. It would also be a shock and scandal if anyone listed themselves as “Keg City Club (Treasurer)” in their yearbook. As editor-in-chief of the yearbook, I can confirm that every single page had to be approved by a school official, and all suspected references to sex, drugs and alcohol were removed.

Drug use was treated even more stringently than drinking. In fact, St. Ignatius required its students to take an annual drug test, and if students failed, they were not punished; they were provided with substance-abuse counseling. This is an incredibly progressive way of addressing the abuse of drugs at a young age. The school did not sanction, condone or ignore the use of alcohol or illicit drugs. The ideal of cura personalis requires one to care for their whole body, which includes refraining from the abuse of drugs and alcohol.

High school students of all genders are not perfect. I will never claim that they are. But I do dispute the claims that it is Jesuit schools like Georgetown Prep, St. Ignatius and my alma mater, Canisius High School, that raise men like Kavanaugh. The toxic masculinity that leads to binge drinking, bar fights, sexual assault and elitism is not a byproduct of all-male Jesuit schools. Young men enter these schools already guilty of these character flaws. It is the mission and determination of Jesuit educators to combat them and reinforce healthy ideas of masculinity. Though Brett Kavanaugh attended a Jesuit school, he clearly did not embrace the Jesuit mission of “Men and Women for Others.” Kavanaugh rejected his Jesuit education.