Annotations: Liberal Arts

The liberal arts has been the core of Jesuit education since the early days of the Society of Jesus. As John W. O’Malley, SJ, notes, founding Society of Jesus members inherited the humanistic educational tradition that had historically defined Western civilization up to the 1500s. Embodied in the liberal arts, this tradition, in O’Malley’s view, had competed and coexisted with a parallel scientific-based academic tradition that dated back to Ancient Greece. The humanistic tradition dominated until the Middle Ages when the rise of the university institutionalized scientific-based education and pedagogy. 
The Renaissance renewed interest in the humanistic educational tradition and provided a forum to institutionalize it as practice in the 1500s. Society of Jesus members embraced this tradition and codified its principles in the 1599 Ratio Studiorum, which Allan P. Farrell, SJ, defines as the foundation of Jesuit education. In practice, this foundation has evolved and adapted to the times, the places, and the context where Jesuit education operates. Still, it continues as the core of Jesuit education.
The humanistic educational tradition that 16th century Jesuits embraced did not entirely write off the scientific viewpoint. It drew on some elements of the scientific and saw it as a junior partner. It prioritized the physical, moral, religious, and cultural aspects of human development. It aimed at educating the whole person—the body, the mind, the soul—to produce well-rounded and socially aware members of society deeply engaged in community affairs and the common good.

O’Malley sees the humanistic educational tradition as inherently different from the scientific, which, in his view, prioritized intellectual problem solving, dispassionate analysis, and studying the physical world for career advancement. He sees Jesuit liberal arts education as a tent that has housed both traditions from the start but expresses concern at the size, weight, and clout of the humanistic tradition in that tent.  
Like O’Malley, Dean Rader and others have recently grappled with the role and purpose of the humanities in the liberal arts tent. Rader frames his liberal arts tent on Max Weber’s distinction between the instrumental rationale and the value rationale, not the humanistic or scientific viewpoint O’Malley traces to Ancient Greece. He praises the humanistic tradition within that tent and paints it as the most sensible way forward. He sees the liberal arts as central to who we are as human beings, what we do, and the very meaning we ascribe to things—including our lives. 
Questions for Reflection

  • Based on O’Malley and Rader's views, how would you characterize the liberal arts tent at the University of San Francisco? Are we educating hearts, minds, and bodies, or are we simply training young professionals for today’s workforce?  
  • O’Malley sees teaching the humanities as introductory classes for someone pursuing a career as the increasing clout of the scientific and professional tradition in the Jesuit liberal arts tent. Do you agree with his view? How do you balance the inherent conflicts he sees in both traditions within the liberal arts tent?


Farrell S.J., Allan P. (1970 July 21). The Ratio Studiorum of 1599, English translation. Jesuit Global Network of Schools.

O’Malley S.J., John W. (Spring 2015). “Jesuit Schools and the Humanities Yesterday and Today.” Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits, Seminar on Jesuit Spirituality. Vol. 47, No. 1.

Rader, Dean. (May 2020.). “A Case for Liberal Arts.” USF Magazine, University of San Francisco.