De rhetoribus australe

The Jesuit formation process since the days of the first Ratio Studiorum has been largely influenced by the Renaissance ideals of the ars liberi, or liberal arts, as the foundation for being human. More importantly, as Michael Buckley, SJ noted in his The Catholic University as Promise and Project, the intent of the ars liberi as appropriated and practiced by the Jesuits had its fulfillment in the work of theology, in other words, in not only reflecting upon the “faith once delivered,” to use a favorite expression of Anglican reasserters, but also to preach and live that faith in the mission context.

One of the dimensions of the liberal arts that the Jesuits have always emphasized to a varying degree is that of rhetoric, the art of communicating well in speech (mainly). It has been for the Jesuits both a source of admiration and of utter contempt. On the one hand, I can cite the example of a recent Ateneo de Manila graduate who expressed her admiration for the former Jesuit provincial’s preaching as being “down to earth without being dumbed-down.” On the other, the former dean of St. Andrew’s Seminary told me last year of his suspicions of the Society because, well, they were just too persuasive. (Of course, some Anglicans in every age have had some form of contempt of the Jesuits. Witness Edward Campion.)

I understand that the juniorate phase of scholastic formation is in part devoted to the development of this skill. In past years, it has involved some form of classical philology and performance of Latin or Greek plays. These days, though, the emphasis is on developing (at least in the Philippine province) a working knowledge of English and Filipino, culminating in a Filipino-language play performed for the Jesuit community and their friends. I had the privilege of watching the Jesuit juniors perform the Pagsanghan brothers’ Sa Kaharian ng Araw in 2006, under the direction of Eduardo Calasanz, at the Loyola House of Studies, and it was a very interesting experience.

In the nearby university, it has historically been the case that rhetoric is a key skill, if one wants to put it that way, that one acquires in the course of their undergraduate education. Part of the English core curriculum, for instance, which was launched in a revised form in 1998, does place emphasis on this skill and now involves both debate (a form of rhetoric I have enjoyed in one form or another) and theater (ditto). My sister, for example, directed her English class play in her first year in 2002. I am also told that first year students these days are required to do Asians or Worlds style debate (can Exie confirm this) in English class. A supporting activity has been staged by the Ateneo Debate Society in this context, which is the de la Costa Cup, a tournament for first years. 

I am writing this as the Ateneo de Manila hosts the Australasian Intervarsity Debating Championship starting today and until next week. It is a competition bringing together debaters and adjudicators from Australia, New Zealand, and Asia in an atmosphere of competitive fun (hopefully). Hosting international competitions is nothing new to the ADS; I am proud to have been part of the 19th Worlds in Manila which was the first big one staged here, and since then Ateneo has played host to the World Schools Debating Championship in 2003, if I recall correctly. But the point, apart from scoring the usual prestige points, has to be made clear—debate in Ateneo is connected to the heritage of Jesuit humanism. I hope the University will not waste time in pointing that out.

One of the reasons I really appreciated Michael Buckley’s work on Jesuit education was that he set out a very good argument for what Jesuit humanism ought to achieve in our time. His argument, in a very simplified form, is this: those who have been educated in the Jesuit tradition learn the humanities and liberal arts in order to achieve not only sympathy with human suffering but to work for a better world. (One conservative critic took Buckley to task for failing to mention the favorite causes of single-issue conservatives in the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, whether these very same people support violent and needless wars in the Middle East is another matter. I would not be surprised what side a fair number of them are on—for as long as the President opposes abortion…)

The art of rhetoric should, in my view, have as its goal understanding between peoples, persuasion toward ways of proceeding that subvert the “values of the world,” and most importantly, in our common Christian heritage, clarity in expressing the Gospel whether explictly or implicitly in order that all may believe and become one. It is in this last goal that I believe we ought to work harder upon, not only among the Jesuits, but among Christians of every part of the broken body of Christ. Working for justice and peace may be an integral part of the Gospel, but proclaiming the Kingdom of God is our first priority, not the reign of endowment or mammon.

So on this note, I wish the organizers all the best and I hope that the University community will be edified and inspired to achieve what God has called us to be.

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