05/16/2014 05:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Charted Territory


The story of education as we know it began five hundred years ago during the Renaissance. In that age of cultural ferment, the range of subjects taught in schools expanded and the numbers of students increased dramatically. Grammar schools, the term indicative of their mission, began to appear in Europe in the late fifteenth century, training students in Latin and Greek so that the pupils of their day might reflect the glories of the Ancients. But as competition between towns and cities grew, so too did the desire for better schools. By the mid-1500s, the time was ripe for further innovation in education: it was then the first schools based on a standard teaching model were opened, providing instruction in grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy to greater numbers than ever before.

This particular moment in the unfolding of the Renaissance demands our attention in the midst of the current debate over charter schools. Like that one, our age is a time of great debate over the future of education, both in content and mode of delivery. Voices in our modern contest are conscious of change over time, with either side insisting on the pedigree of their ideas or rejecting old ways in favor of new ones. It is precisely at such times that the study of history is beneficial, not just for its cautionary tales but also to surprise us with the oldness of what we think to be new. Looking into that distant mirror, we can more clearly see what belongs to the past in order to move decisively into the future.

An explanation of the rise of the Jesuits, the most ambitious and influential schoolmasters of the modern era, is one such mirror. How did this group of priests become so closely associated with education? In the beginning the Jesuits were a group of college graduates looking for work in Italy. Under the leadership of Ignatius Loyola, the first ten men were granted papal permission for a new religious order in 1540. They had all taken degrees from the University of Paris, but their first base was in Rome. Pursuing other pastoral projects, it took the Jesuits ten years to realize that education would be their central mission. Yet when opportunity came knocking, their response was swift and enthusiastic.

The first request for a school came from Messina on the island of Sicily in 1548. Since the Jesuits had few resources, a deal had to be struck. The city fathers, considering how schools were typically run, were happy to oblige. Previously, wandering instructors visited Messina to teach grammar on short contracts. They were not paragons of virtue; how could they be if they spent their time on the road in search of steady employ? Still, the Sicilian worthies objected to giving schoolmasters the standard terms for city workers: If they set a bad example, a contract would prove an intolerable burden. It was foolish to link the city's fortunes--because that was precisely what the local sons were being trained to generate--to anything short of the best. By contrast, the Jesuits could offer something different, education in a new style. Unlike contemporary Italian teaching techniques, their "Parisian method" emphasized dividing students according to skill level, constant drilling and dialogue between teachers and pupils, and a clear link between moral and academic instruction.

The fledgling order had few men, but the deal was too good to pass up. Teachers would be sent to the city to offer classes in the rudiments in exchange for a building. Students would be admitted without regard for their parents' status or income, but they had to take part in extracurricular activities. Best of all, the Jesuits would work for free: In exchange for real estate, the city had no other obligations; the order would take care of its teachers, from lodging to meals to recreation to retirement. Philanthropists were soon swayed to give endowments: the order's motives were pure, its men were talented and upright, and the price was right.

Results were quick in coming. The Jesuits were tireless in their pursuit of educational rigor. Their new model worked, even if their status as upstarts rubbed more than a few the wrong way. But the city fathers were overjoyed, and soon other requests were received from rival cities at the order's headquarters, offering the same terms or better ones. In less than half a decade--with the help of one of the richest men in Europe, the Spanish Grandee Francis Borgia--the Jesuits opened a model school in Rome. And within a few more years, thanks to the creation of dozens of schools and the rapid expansion of the Jesuits' ranks, a uniform set of educational rules was elaborated. Proven success gave rise to a plan, a charter that would be instituted in scores of cities from Québec to Quito and Munich to Macau--as well as in the southern Portuguese city of Évora, whose Jesuit college is shown in the photo.

This is an impressive story of education success. The Jesuits led nothing short of a revolution in teaching whose impact would be felt for generations. The ambitions of today's education reformers are scarcely less, and should be compared to this historical model. Perhaps the most important question to be asked is the most fundamental one: What made the Jesuit schools so effective?

The reasons will comfort and displease both sides of the charter school debate in equal measure, but they must be confronted. A few factors made all the difference: First of all, there was financing for the Jesuits' schools -- endowments and real estate given by local authorities, at least in order to get the institutions running. Second, there was a proven instructional method that produced results. The Ratio Studiorum, "Plan of Studies", was developed and implemented in all Jesuit schools, ensuring a uniform education with set standards. Third, there was strict discipline, with corporal punishment proving to be a useful adjunct to classroom instruction. Lastly, the Jesuits were not obliged to educate all; advancement in their classes was a function of intellectual merit alone.

These factors would have been of limited use without zeal. The Jesuits' educational program was both academic and moral: Students were taught grammar and rhetoric, as well as Christian doctrine. The Jesuits' project was above all a religious one, where a solid education in grammar and rhetoric laid the intellectual foundations for committed Catholics. Membership in their schools' prestigious poetry and oratory academies was predicated on regular attendance and participation in religious rituals and devotional groups.

The Jesuits approached education with missionary vigor; indeed, many of them became actual missionaries. After spending their youthful years in the classroom, Jesuits often headed to the European countryside, into Protestant areas, or overseas, to continue their mission in other ways. Crucially, they made solemn vows upon entry into the order, pledges of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It takes no stretch of the imagination to see how the absence of salaries and a strict hierarchy removed the two main obstacles about which today's reformers continually complain.

One of the greatest stumbling blocks to reasoned debate about the future of American education is our inability to come to terms with the assumptions inherited from the past. We want our teachers to have missionary zeal, but we have not truck with them teaching doctrine, whether it be from churches, state and federal mandates, or colleges of education. We want them to use the best methods and demand results, but we pay them as if they had taken vows of poverty. Jesuit schools, and others like them, still exist for those willing to accept all aspects of this historical model. For those whose idea of public education is rooted in secular goals and expectations, it's time to leave the past behind.