Sunday, February 1, 2015

On How My Jesuit Education Taught Me I'm Not a Very Good Catholic: Implications for Bilgrimage

I'm not a very good Catholic, you understand. One of the first ways I learned that lesson decisively, as a callow convert to the Catholic church studying at a Catholic university, was from a Jesuit. Father Henry M. was an old-school Jesuit — ramrod straight military bearing, no-nonsense teaching style as he barked out his lectures from notes he'd long since memorized, taking deep draws on an endless succession of unfiltered cigarettes as he did so, flicking the ashes dismissively from his black cassock. 

We had no textbook. As he explained on day one of the "Philosophy of Man" class he taught, there simply were no textbooks that could possibly teach us what he had to teach us, none written in the past, say, century in English that precisely captured the dry syllogisms and terminology of the bastardized neo-Thomism in which he wanted to drill us as he taught us about who and what "man" is.

I was a dismal student in Father Henry M.'s "Philosophy of Man" class. In my entire academic career, which had been, if I say so myself, illustrious up to this point, I had never fallen asleep in class. I did so several times in Father Henry M.'s class.

There was all that barking, all the dismissive, peremptory classification of man this and man that, as if, should we be able to open the brain of "man," we'd see right inside it those accidents and essences and neoscholastic what nots about which he issued his orders as if they were scientific descriptions of the world as it actually is, and not philosophical constructs reflecting shifting historical and cultural perspectives that might well be questioned at other points in time, in other cultural contexts.

One essay after another, one test after another, came back to me in this class savagely annotated with scrawls that inevitably read: "This is interesting. You seem to understand. But you're not using the terms I've taught you. So it's wrong."

I was unprepared for the kind of education Father Henry M. was offering me in his "Philosophy of Man" course, because I'd never encountered education like this in my entire life. In fact, it was precisely opposite to what I'd been taught to regard as education by the cultivated, well-educated, well-bred Southern ladies who had taught me in my public high school, who did everything but stand on their heads to teach me to express what I had learned in my own language.

In my schooling before Father Henry M. and his band of Jesuit brothers, we were encouraged to demonstrate that we had understood and internalized what we'd learned, not by parroting back what we'd been told in the same words that had been barked at us, but by showing that we'd brought the lessons or the texts inside us, mulled them over, made them a part of ourselves, and could then explain them in terms that meant something to us. The clash between what I had been taught to see as the very essence of the educational process and Father Henry M.'s Jesuit "Philosophy of Man" approach to education could not be more stark: in his view, education seemed to consist of perfect obediential parroting of his barking back to him. (Yes, parrots can most certainly bark when they've been around dogs.)

Catholicism as "Philosophy of Man" as repeating back dogmatic formulae with deadly accuracy: it was in Father Henry M.'s class that I first learned in a very decisive way I'm just not a very good Catholic, and don't have the fiber to be one. 

So, for those among you kind readers who keep insisting that I march to your tune, that I repeat back your words and don't reach for my own, that I say what you dogmatically dictate must be said about Pope Francis or anything else: it's important that you recognize that I'm not a good Catholic. Not like you, even if you've distanced yourselves from the church. I grew up in a different culture, different world, one that didn't enjoy all the advantages of a dogma-oriented, male-dominated "Philosophy of Man" education that you enjoyed growing up Catholic.

From where I stand, it's a sign of bad education and lack of breeding to try to force other folks to say what I imagine should be said, in dogmatic terms I dictate to them. Given my formative educational experiences, I view it as insulting in the extreme to imply that, when people struggle to formulate their insights in words meaningful to themselves, they're beating around the bush, not being forthright, being triumphalistic or nonsensical or less than manly and direct.

My formative educational experiences, which are clearly deficiently Catholic, cause me to bridle when people try to force and belittle me in those quintessentially male-bullying ways (whether the person doing the bullying is a male or an old boy of the opposite gender). I value language not as a tool to dominate others, but to engage others so that together, from our very different starting points and perspectives, we may seek better understanding of a world each of us will always understand imperfectly.

And, of course, I do things this way because I'm simply not a very good Catholic, as Father Henry M. tried repeatedly to tell me in his "Philosophy of Man" course many years ago. Thank you all for understanding. 

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