Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

Essential thinking for reading Catholics.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Thinking up all the advice I would offer for today's college graduates sent me back to my own days as a student, and how much easier, for me, college was than high school. This was because I attended one of those hardass, Jesuit-run, old-school academic boot camps. Interestingly, someone sent me this link (which was not working 100%, so I reproduce the contents below) which crystallizes my teenage years.

The New Oxford Review:

The Way Jesuits Used to Be
October 1995

By P.M. Aliazzi

P.M. Aliazzi is the Director of the Wean Research Library, at University School, a prep school in suburban Cleveland.

What do you say to a white-haired old man in a black "bathrobe" toting a matching briefcase? "Court's in session in the cabana, Your Honor"? It was the first time I had ever seen a Jesuit, and I was both spooked and fascinated. I was used to kindly, comfortable parish priests in suits, but this guy -- these guys -- were something different: brisk, no-nonsense, "in-your-face" drill sergeants in insignia-free uniforms and far from slow to say that they had been given charge of some terribly unpromising raw recruits. Soon there'd be much more to worry about than how that wrap-around, buttonless, zipperless cassock stayed put; there was no time for idleness -- or student wisecracks -- in the Latin class of Arthur Walter, S.J.

From the second day until the end of the year, you began by passing forward your homework, in ink with no scratch-outs, never in pencil or without the obligatory heading of name, date, and A.M.D.G. (ad maiorem Dei gloriam, for the greater glory of God). Into the aged briefcase it went, exercises in Latin to English, English to Latin. From the third day on, and without fail, you came to class and found the previous night's work waiting for you face down on the desk every error (down to vowel length marks) corrected in a meticulous hand, and a percentage grade written at the top. He did that every day, for five classes of 35 to 40 students each, for I never learned how many years, in a demonstration of dedication hard to match apart from Inspector Javert in Les Miserables.

There was one escape, however. It was called an "exemption," and you earned one by besting the kids in your row in the sudden oral quizzes that were more like a cross between a gladiatorial show and a police line-up, with Father as Emperor Joe Friday seeking "just the facts" and determined to get them. After he chose a timekeeper from among the (temporary) spectators, the first group of combatants slunk forward, each to be participially probed, declensionally decimated, and generally found wanting -- within 10 seconds:"That they may have been praised," came the pitch."Huh?" And down went Casey at the bat."Was that 'praised'?" stalled another."Sit down," intoned Father, ignoring his timekeeper and briskly throwing his change-up to the next batter. "Bob Feller pitched...the camp.""Ut laudati sint," chirped Chaffee, answering not that question but the previous question out of some time-warp delay, clearly a victim of what today would be diagnosed as post-conjugational stress disorder.

On it went. To be left standing in what everyone knew was a smart row gained one a stature comparable to surviving the Bataan Death March. And the reward? Not a medal, but something even more coveted: the right to skip a single homework assignment of one's choice.

If it sounds mean, if he sounds mean, nothing, not even Casey, could be more wrong. It was just that Father had the seriousness, the weightiness, the dignity prized by the Romans he taught about. Here was someone who, you sensed from the very start, had no time for trivialities, and who wanted you to have no time for them either. Accordingly, his remarkably comprehensive written tests always had exactly 50 questions -- one per minute -- which he somehow always managed to cram onto a single side of one mimeographed sheet. Invariably smudged, the things came out of the machine looking rather like a 50-lobed purple Rohrschach. But they revealed in short order whether you knew the stuff or not. There was (literally) no room for fakery.

Nor for hiding from Roman history and culture, which we learned, somewhat like ancient kids must have done, through stories. Mucius "Lefty" Scaevola, Manlius & the Gauls, and the Horatii & Curiatii all made their appearance in Latin, and before the term was out, became the subject of oral questions and answers in Latin as well. And of course, there was always "Explication de texte meets Groucho":"Anseres clamabant...," read the anthology of stories."

The geese [pause] were shouting," construed the hapless Casey.

At that, Father's white eyebrows arched so high over his rimless spectacles that his usually impassive, even granite, face took on the look of an affronted Colosseum."

Cackled," shouted Father.

"Shouted?" cackled the class.

The overmatched linguist, desperate to change the topic, looked up in mingled exasperation and wonder, and spluttered, "Father, who taught you Latin?"

"Caesar," boomed the reply, uttered with such finality that for a moment we thought the old guy and Julius had been buds.

In that instant, I knew what it was to be initiated into a tradition; not just the classics (which were automatically assumed to include the Vulgate, St. Augustine, Prudentius, and St. Gregory), but into what I can only call the tradition of Christian humanism: It was from Fr. Walter that I learned neither to fear nor to idolize intellect; to take responsibility for my own education; to link self-respect to objective achievement, not to sugary compliment; to respect persons but not necessarily the ideas they hold; to expect to have what one says taken seriously and, as need be, seriously taken apart; to see that human dignity is grounded in the gift of an immortal soul, not the growth of an inflated self, and, above all, to understand that the doing of however humble a task can truly be A.M.D.G. (Emphasis mine.)

Self-esteem panderers might cringe at all this. Let them! A quarter century later, I shudder to think at the whiny, undisciplined, anarchic creature I could have become but for that gruff old priest. Turns out he was as good at construing boys as sentences. Requiescas in pace, Pater et magister.