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Sapientia et Doctrina: When Tradition Seems Untraditional


Photo by Chris Taggart

Nicholas Lombardi, S.J.
Director of Web Design and Development

Back in 1980 when I was still teaching Classical Latin and Greek, a fellow Jesuit acquired a computer which then seemed to me to be a sophisticated toy. He insisted that we should and would discover some practical, even educational use for it and that if I played with it I’d “come to my senses” and see the possibilities as well. Well actually, I did play with it, played Space Invaders, as a matter of fact, obsessively, until I finally thought I beat the evil contraption when lo and behold the computer took my cannon away. Of course, I was immediately intrigued that the computer had been programmed to cheat, and even found it endearing in a perverse sort of way. That led me to learn how it was programmed and learn I did the languages of the day, Basic and 8 bit Assembly.

Now that I’d spent the time learning all his strange machine language, I had to find some practical use for it. I boldly tried to program my own mini-compuserve (for those not old enough to know what Compuserve was – it was an early AOL type of internet service provider). Called “Fordham Jesuit BBS,” it had over 1,000 members who logged on regularly (when they could get through the busy signals), leaving E-mail to one another back in 1983. Forget about Al Gore, I thought I invented the Internet.

Next, I started putting together some Latin and Greek language drills and left them running in a classroom where some students could “play” with them. To my own surprise, they did see it as “playing,” and I eventually wrote a number of the drills and sold them to a software company specializing in educational software. More importantly however, I continued to write Latin and Greek drills, quizzes, and tutorials for my students and found that it could serve as another educational tool that could enhance their learning. It was then I finally recalled St. Ignatius’ first principle and foundation.

At the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises in the First Principles and Foundation, St. Ignatius proposed the notion of Tantum Quantum which can be translated as making use of what helps us to achieve our goals and to discard that which is no longer useful. Not an easy thing to do despite the eminently reasonable logic. We tend to be wedded to what we found to have worked in the past and often continue along the same cobblestone road when the new freeway has been built. But if Ignatius Loyola started a tradition, it is a very dynamic and seemingly untraditional one. The principle is to be applied to every sphere of our lives from the spiritual to the everyday practical. Is our goal noble? Then we ought to use every good means to achieve it. Do some of the tools we have used no longer work? Then we should find new ones, remembering that these tools were never the end in themselves. Do some of the old tools work better than the new ones? Well, then keep those that still work, never missing the point that change and upgrades are useful mostly when they are superior to what came before.

I love Powerpoint, but I quickly learned that sometimes the black or white board may be more useful than a warm dark room after lunch time, and that the teacher and the students should be focused on each other much of the time. Posting notes on a website is wonderful, but without the interaction of a discussion, live or online, it is not much more useful than the bulletin board in a supermarket. And we all know the deadliness of someone lecturing from yellowed pages. I’m reminded of the passage in the original Ratio Studiorum of 1586:

“Teachers of literature who grow bored repeat the same material with minor variations so that a deadly chill comes over their classes (friget plene omnia). Greek should be taught more efficiently, for as it is now, boys grow old learning to conjugate a single verb.”

A teacher is in some senses a performer. Like the magician’s bag of tricks, the teacher’s tool box should have a variety of instruments to present the truth and learning as we know it to the audience. But a successful teacher updates that box and fine tunes the old standbys so as to continue to use the best means to his or her end.

The greatest misinterpretation of Jesuit tradition was exemplified by a comment one staff member made some years ago at our University during a presentation I gave to the faculty on the latest educational technology. He said something to the effect that we would never be encouraged to use Blackboard and the Web—as I had suggested—in such a traditional Jesuit environment. (I am a Jesuit priest and I wasn’t in disguise during that presentation.) Clearly this person had no idea what Jesuit tradition is all about. If anything, the Jesuit tradition militates against complacency. Ignatius himself often talks of striving for perfection and that must lead to adopting dynamic procedures which change to meet the goals, culture, and audience at hand. As a Chinese communist party member told me when I was in Beijing, Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci is still held in great esteem by the modern Chinese because of that very ability to adapt the means, tools, procedures in his goal as a teacher and missionary to China to their culture some centuries ago.

This is why I enjoy having a president such as Father Joseph McShane who presents us with the challenge to make Fordham the premiere Catholic University in our country. We are being encouraged to be followers of Ignatius Loyola and to find the best methods, the best procedures, the best disciplines, the best that it takes to achieve our goal. They may not be the same tools we used in the past, yet then again some may very well be, but only if they are the best. If so, then we will have truly adopted the Ignatian tradition, which may in fact not seem so traditional to the uninitiated.

By Nicholas Lombardi, S.J.


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