by Dr. John Pustejovsky, Arts ’76
Dr. John Pustejovsky has addressed the Jesuit honor society, Alpha Sigma Nu, annually with remarks that lead to hushed acknowledgment that something special happens at a Jesuit university.
This is worth sharing.
What I know of Jesuit education — that experience common to all members of Alpha Sigma Nu — I’ve learned as a student in this university, as a teacher in this same university, but also as a father, a son, a spouse, a friend, a Catholic, as a colleague. What I can say about it, any one of you can say equally well. What’s most important for me to say is, I know, what you would say: It changed me. It continues to change me.
The more years I spend as part of a Jesuit institution, the richer this experience grows, and the clearer it becomes that this is about one thing, and about one thing only.
As an undergrad I was in love with philosophy. Michael Vater and Jim Robb were my teachers. To me they seemed wonderfully unafraid to ask what Father Francis Wade, S.J., called the “eternal questions,” and to go at them not sideways, not piecemeal, but head-on. The asking — What is the nature of a human person? How should I live? — and the answering, even when difficult and slow, became an occasion, truly something to witness, because there was both courage and purpose in the questioning.
Years later, when I had learned to teach by just asking questions, I realized that a genuine question — one for which I don’t have an answer — can call forth from a student not only intelligence and insight, but also courage, courage he may not have known he has. And now I am changed: Admitting what I don’t know and can’t answer for myself shows me the generosity of an honest answer.
My first German teacher at Marquette was Gisela Benda. She carried with her a quiet, visible energy, an enthusiasm for being in the classroom, an unembarrassed happiness to interact with young people as they learned. When I found myself in a classroom of my own, and began to translate my own delight in being there into a way of teaching larded with bits of clowning, improvisation and jokes about bald men, I discovered that students responded with more than laughter. They enjoyed coming to German class; and they accepted my goofiness and my teaching as a kind of gift meant only for them. And now I am changed because it is plain that whatever learning goes on comes from the student’s own freedom, an irrevocable declaration that she is at home in the world and means to understand it.
It is difficult to describe how distant was the world I found in my first German literature class: Germanic tribes, epics of blood and revenge, the madness of the Thirty Years’ War. But my teacher, Esther Hudgins, a native German who had herself lived in the most-dangerous places and the most-dangerous years of the 20th century, somehow caused these strange works to reveal a world with the same depth and beauty, joy and heartbreak as our own. I learned from her to teach literature as the lived experience of others. I have learned to let it speak, and to let it ask its own questions rather than me trying to speak for it. I have seen my students’ wonder when they recognize there the same world, the same unanswered questions. Even though the poem may be 500 years old, students receive these ancient lines as gift meant for their hearts.
This, too, has changed me. I have discovered that I am better at listening than at talking. That I am grateful for the stories my senior colleagues share when they stop at my office, because the story is the world as they have lived in it. I trust their experience as much as I trust my own.
Even now when students seem more likely to seek company in a smart phone than in the person sitting next to them, they recognize the invitation that an honest question presents or a story from someone’s own life presents. I’ve learned how fiercely these allegedly indifferent students hold on to the stories of others — whether belonging to parents, a child, a spouse or a stranger met at a service site. In some unexplained way we all know that we assume a responsibility for holding onto that experience when we make others part of our lives. In it lies something of the truth in being human that each of us knows and is born to tell. It keeps us restless, even as we think we’ve begun to get what life is about.
There’s a saying that a well-loved child has many names. Jesuit education seems always to be finding itself named afresh: Men and women for others. Magis. Cura personalis. For my part the clearest and best name is not a Latin phrase but a rather clunky sentence I heard many years ago from Father John Padberg, S.J. He said: “A Jesuit institution is responsible for providing the experience of loving and being loved based on the enduring worth of the person.”
By being here we all carry this responsibility — not just those of us who are formally part of Marquette. Father Padberg said Jesuit institution not university, meaning all of us touched by this wonderful enterprise — teachers, students, accountants, dentists, managers. It gathers us into one single endeavor: to know how deeply and in what countless ways we are loved, and to let the certainty of this love become the sign and certainty that make the world livable and lovable for others.
It is about one thing only: to grasp — as Jesus did — how wide and long and high and deep is the love of God.
Dr. John Pustejovsky began teaching German to Marquette students in 1982. He received the Rev. John P. Raynor, S.J., Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence in 2004.