Bridging the Intellect with the Spirit: The Ratio Studiorum and Jesuit Pedagogy
The pedagogical paradigm for Jesuit education, the Ratio studiorum, issued in 1599, is a testament of Jesuit achievement in inspiring impressionable minds and spirits. The Ratio, although more of an instructional and methodological document, illustrates the vitality of Jesuit education practices in advancing a once neglected and sub-par facet of society. Serving as an authoritative written guide for educators and students alike, this document, as Claude Pavur, S.J. indicates, has value beyond the confines of a classroom and has played a role in the unfolding of Western modernity. Since the founding of the Society of Jesus in 1540 by St. Ignatius of Loyola, who did not live to see the completion of the Ratio, Jesuits have found a particular voice in the enterprise of education. Embracing institutional holistic instruction, where both the spirit and intellect are formed, Jesuits, unsurprisingly, are often remembered as the “schoolmasters of Europe” for nearly three centuries. Upon Ignatius’ death in 1556, members of the Society of Jesus were operating 33 colleges and universities; in 1599 there were 245 Jesuit schools; by 1640, more than 300; and by 1773, the year of the societies’ repression, there were 669 schools and 176 seminaries. Today there it is estimated that the network of Jesuit schools reaches over one and a half million students worldwide. These rising figures reflect Ignatian progressivism not only numerically, but also philosophically and intellectually.
Jesuit pedagogy insists on the humanistic quality of learning, where the intellectual formation of a student is often secondary to spiritual and emotional growth. Wilfred LaCroix, S.J., author of The Jesuit Spirit of Education: Ignatius, Tradition, and Today’s Questions, draws attention to the introspective and affective quality of a Jesuit education, where learning is personalized, critical, and not restricted to rote memorization. “The core of Jesuit education has not been in its pedagogical methods. Rather the core has always been in its concept of what education was for.” While the Ratio studiorum is in many ways a technical and rule-oriented document, in providing Jesuit educators with curricula and school regulation policies—ranging from recess times to tardiness and absences rules—it nonetheless celebrates learning as a life-long process and instructs teachers to attend to the psychological and religious needs of students. A mere glance at the “Table of Contents” uncovers the thoroughness of the document in addressing the procedural, disciplinary, and spiritual layers of the school day. Sub-categories on religious devotion, sacred scripture expression, and solidarity of the Blessed Virgin, sit side by side more mundane sub-categories on regulations for taking exams, ceremonies for awarding prizes, and methods for correcting a composition. What makes the Ratio distinct and avant-garde, however, is the subtle pairing of the logistical with the supernatural. Members of the Society of Jesus in the 16th century were able to transmit what was most sacred in their lives while reforming the abysmal state of education. Ignatian followers, with the Ratio in hand, could adopt, as LaCroix suggests, an orientation of both evangelization and teaching. “This was to be an orientation not restricted to the basics of the faith, but one to fit people to act well in society and thereby help reform, from inside, a Europe and a Church rife with ignorance and abuse” (LaCroix).
LaCroix astutely draws parallels between the Ratio and Ignatius’ earlier writings, particularly the Spiritual Exercises. The First Principle and Foundation, serving as the underpinning of the First Week of the Exercises, invites the exercitant to cultivate a relationship with God, to “praise” and “serve God Our Lord” and by doing so “move towards the end for which we are created.” In the context of a classroom, a student, as the Ratio studiorum demands, is responsible, just as the exercitant in the Exercises, to seek God’s grace. The Jesuit mission of accompanying learners in their faith journey and soliciting their imaginative and reflective faculties is no better spelled out than in the segment on “Purity of heart and intention” in the Ratio:
Jesuit students should try above all to guard their purity of heart and to keep a right intention in studies, seeking in them nothing other than God’s glory and people’s spiritual benefit; and in their own prayers, they should frequently ask for the grace to progress in learning, so that, one day, finally prepared, they may go to cultivate the vineyard of Christ our Lord.
Humbling and authoritative, this excerpt in the sub-section of “Rules for Jesuit Students” asks students to invite God into their intellect and allow His leadership to direct their studies and life choices. Jesuit contributors to the Ratio combine sensitively God with academia and expect students to work diligently, but realistically, while always maintaining focus on the Creator.
Monumental for its spirit and meticulousness, the Ratio studiorum, or “Plan of Studies” for Jesuit schools, is much more than a handbook to assist teachers and administrators in the hum-drum operation of their school. Coupling the intellect with the spirit, and allowing one’s faith to reinforce academic pursuits, the Ratio has assured the “delivery of certain goods year after year to generations of students” (Pavur). Although modern-day Jesuit universities and schools encounter challenges of contemporary society very foreign to schools in the 16th century, the Ignatian education tradition continues to enthuse young minds. Perhaps today the practical value of the Ratio lies more in its spirit than in its literal codex.
For further discussion on the value of Ignatian pedagogy, consider the following questions:
Just as the Spiritual Exercises are rooted in adaptability and accessibility for the exercitant, does the Jesuit education model uphold this same quality? How is a Jesuit education amenable to the learners’ needs?
How is the whole person developed according the Jesuit pedagogical model?
How are the psychological, spiritual, and expressive needs of the student cared for in a traditionally intellectual and instructive environment?
Does the Ratio studiorum of 1599 have practical application? Is this pedagogical paradigm in step with modern society?
LaCroix, Wilfred, S.J. The Jesuit Spirit of Education: Ignatius, Tradition and Today’s Questions. Kansas City: Rockhurst College, 1989, p. 2.
Pavur, Claude, S.J. The Characteristics of Jesuit Education. Washington D.C.: Jesuit Secondary Association, 1987, p. 28.
St. Ignatius of Loyola. The Spiritual Exercises. New York: Penguin Books, 1996, p. 289 
The Ratio studiorum: The Official Plan for Jesuit Education. Trans. Claude Pavur, S.J. Saint Louis : The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2005, preface.