At the age of 19 I left college at Stanford to become a Jesuit. It’s not that I didn’t love being a student there; I did. But somehow it wasn’t enough. By contrast, the Jesuit high school I attended in San Francisco stressed a very clear educational objective: to form men and women for others. We learned, among other things, that an education not oriented toward justice for others was a farce. Despite Stanford’s extraordinary resources and possibilities, I missed the clarity of purpose. I left to enter the Jesuit order. Never have I regretted the decision.
That was in 1983. Since then I have spent most of my life in higher education. But as much as I love teaching and scholarship, my relationship with academia has been an awkward one. In many respects I find academic culture to have the same flaw that Catholic clerical culture does: the tendency to turn in on itself and guard its privileges rather than spend its energies in humbly serving the world.
Occasionally, however, great leaders rise up and challenge us to be more.
On Nov. 16, 1989, the Jesuit rector of the Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador, the Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night and shot point-blank in his garden by an elite military squad. Five other Jesuit priests and educators, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, were ordered to lie face down on the lawn and were killed execution-style.
The clear aim of the assassination was to silence Father Ellacuría. He was outspoken in his denunciation of atrocities on both sides of the Salvadoran civil war, which raged for over 10 years and claimed the lives of more than 75,000 people. At issue was a society in which a dozen or so families virtually owned the country and treated their peasant laborers as if they were feudal serfs. The Salvadoran military, materially supported by the Cold War foreign policy of the United States, felt compelled to protect the status quo by attempting to disable a university committed to being a positive social force.
Trained as a philosopher, Father Ellacuría was known to be a tough thinker and natural leader, who persuaded his colleagues to embrace his vision of what a university should be. In his first year as rector, the university stated that as an institution it would offer a “response to the historical reality of the country.” The state of the country was judged to be “an unjust and irrational reality that should be transformed.” Thus, the university’s purpose was “that of contributing to social change in the country. It does this in a university manner and with a Christian inspiration.”
While Father Ellacuría has often been identified with “liberation theology,” that phrase is often mistaken as a cipher for Marxism. He was committed to what in larger Catholic circles has often been called a “preferential option for the poor” — the principle that a society or an institution must ultimately be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members, not those with access to power and privilege. In this analysis, the capitalist system does not emerge without criticism, but another Jesuit (who certainly does not identify as a liberation theologian), Pope Francis, has been advancing the same principle. To many, the pope’s challenge is unsettling, but he is hardly a Marxist. In his own time, when Father Ellacuría was so accused, he replied, “I am not a Communist; I am a Christian.”
The other Jesuit scholars who were killed with him also applied their academic skills to real-world problems. For instance, the Rev. Ignacio Martín-Baró was a social psychologist whose research focused on the psychic conditions of living in a context of structural violence. The Rev. Segundo Montes taught anthropology with a view to the effects of social stratification and the displaced victims of the civil war. The Rev. Amando López Quintana was the chairman of the philosophy department but worked on weekends as a parish priest and championed a mass-literacy campaign.
At the time, I was a young Jesuit studying classics at Oxford and worrying about the quality of the weekly essays I wrote for my tutor. The deaths in El Salvador reminded me that there were more substantive things in life. I was shocked and outraged by the news. But I also felt proud that scholars mattered so much that they could be a threat to the Salvadoran Army. I was deeply moved by the courageous example of Father Ellacuría, who saw the responsibility of his institution as lending intellectual support to those who did not have the academic qualifications to legitimize their rights. His life has challenged me to keep my sights not on conventional measures of success but on what really matters: the contribution I am making to the world.
Even more, his vision of what a university could be has inspired me, especially at a time when education is increasingly treated as a commodity, rather than the cultivation of a moral vision. While students, more than ever, are anxious about economic concerns and rightly ask whether a university education will get them a job, economic satisfaction or the learning of a marketable skill set will not, ultimately, satisfy them. A strong sense of purpose and commitment to their community will.
As the future of higher education remains so uncertain, and as the financial pressures of running universities increase, I find great courage in those schools that strive to be driven by something more than the market economy. Father Ellacuría championed the vision of a university that would be an “inescapable social force” for good. That is no less important in 2014 than it was in 1989. I still believe that an education not grounded in justice is a farce and that we desperately need wise, courageous, even heroic academic leaders to realize the highest purposes of education.
The Rev. Michael C. McCarthy, a Jesuit priest, is a professor and the executive director of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education at Santa Clara University.