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Understanding Kavanaugh’s Flawed Jesuit Education

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Editor’s Note: This article contains discussion of sexual misconduct and sexual assault.

The motto “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam” — which translates to “to the greater glory of God” — is a beloved trademark of the Jesuit schooling experience. Fordham Preparatory School and the University of Detroit Jesuit High School & Academy, our respective alma maters, instilled in us this vision of living a life for others.

Another graduate of an all-boys Jesuit school, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, is now a nominee for the Supreme Court. Watching the weeks of coverage culminating in yesterday’s hearing — where Dr. Christine Blasey Ford detailed how Kavanaugh, in the midst of his Jesuit education, assaulted her, has been gut-wrenching. Watching the world attempt to destroy Dr. Ford’s credibility affirms everything that feminists and assault prevention advocates have highlighted for decades. Kavanaugh and his band of boys from high school have drawn national attention to a dangerous truth of their high school experience: a synthesis of privilege, power, and brotherhood through masculinity.

The idea of brotherhood is core to the Jesuit schooling experience for boys, creating a community that permeates every part of a young adult’s life. Your brothers are with you in class, after school at Robotics or a soccer game, and with you on the weekends. You grow with them, experience difficulty with them, and by the end of your four years, love them unconditionally.

A stark reality is that women often carry the burden of this unconditional brotherhood. It is the persistent presence of subtle misogyny that taints the virtuous educational mission of these historic institutions. As more details develop around Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual assaults, it is becoming apparent that he and his boys lived comfortable lives. They attended a high-powered institution in the heart of the nation’s capital, drank heavily before they even touched the ACT, held the popularity of playing sports, and spent extravagant weekends performing all kinds of misdeeds.

They also openly disparaged women in the most public of settings — cruelty to women feeds the brotherhood. Kavanaugh boldly slut-shamed women on his own yearbook page. He joined many of his other classmates in identifying himself as an “alumnus” of a woman at a local high school. At a 1982 party, Dr. Ford reports that Kavanaugh attacked her while his buddy Mark Judge drunkenly laughed.

As other commenters have identified, the laughing here is what’s important. Judge and Kavanaugh laughed and enjoyed it. They bonded over it, were fed by it. The brotherhood strengthens at the expense of women. Kavanaugh is a running example of what happens when we allow young men — especially those who are wealthy, white, and starkly aware of their privilege — to live fearlessly and recklessly, simply because they’re men.

Many examples come to mind of instances when we witnessed sexism manifest in our own Jesuit institutions and sat silently by. At Fordham Prep, a young librarian had to resign after she received constant, covert harassment from her young male students. At UDJ, students would often remark on the appearances of young women teachers, and, at worst, make crude comments attempting to strip them of agency over their own bodies. In another instance, two students reported “Eiffel towering” a young woman from a different high school; news made its ways around the school and became a topic of conversation for a week.

Potentially even more pervasive at these schools is the culture of intellectual superiority that posits men as more sophisticated. Students were less willing to challenge men than women — they often made cruel jokes regarding women teachers’ weight, intelligence, and permission to teach at and be in an all-boys school.

Some might argue that acts of misogyny and inappropriateness in the mentioned academic settings are isolated instances. Others might question the similarities between U of D Jesuit, Fordham Prep, and Georgetown Prep — Georgetown Prep, Kavanaugh’s alma mater, being considerably richer, connected to D.C. elites, and a boarding school. Individual bad actors shouldn’t represent an entire philosophy of education. Just because some bad boys did some bad things doesn’t mean that the whole brotherhood is corrupt, right?

Wrong. These are not isolated instances; they exist in an ecosystem that feeds off the degradation of women. Jesuit schools, single-sex education, and the brotherhood may not be the origin of these challenges, but they are certainly incubators.

Furthermore, it is our inability as men to tackle difficult questions head on, in fear of damaging the coveted brotherhood, that stops us from identifying our complicity and allows these grave ills to live in perpetuity. The brotherhood isn’t stronger than our communities standing together and saying that enough is enough, that boys won’t be boys. The dignity of women should be non-negotiable at any point in young development or life.

Brett Kavanaugh seems to be a man who lived out the five “grad at grads” — virtuous pillars of values ideally developed by a graduate at the time of their graduation. He represents respected values — a family man, strong in faith with a deep community. But he also represents the not-so-hidden social and developmental realities of the Jesuit preparatory school experience.

As America experiences a long-overdue reckoning on the realities of patriarchy, masculinity, and womanhood, Jesuit institutions with missions like UDJ’s and Fordham Prep’s should not shy away from problems in their own communities. In fact, we should be leading the way.

Helping reinforce the non-negotiable dignity of women in all facets of their experience, and calling ourselves out when we fall short, is essential to making sure we fulfill the word of God and our basic duty as responsible people on this earth. We must battle patriarchy in all manifestations — whether that be misogyny, homophobia, or class consciousness.

So many women — courageous, bold, and brave beyond our conception — are leading a brigade towards a society where women are treated in all facets of life as equal, autonomous, respected individuals. Men should let women speak without reservation, and at this point in 2018, all good men must feel compelled to vocally and passionately reject the same supremacist institutions from which we continue to benefit.

Institutionally, Jesuit schools across the nation must deeply consider the realities, both intentional and otherwise, of the experiences their young men are having, and at whose expense. St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, remarked, “He who goes about to reform the world must begin with himself, or he loses his labor.” If we are to really continue building Men for Others, we must start by building men for women.

No more silent good men. Good men aren’t silent.

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5 Responses to “Understanding Kavanaugh’s Flawed Jesuit Education”

  1. Neil McCarthy on September 29th, 2018 11:11 AM

    What a piece of tripe. First you assume Kavanaugh is guilty, then you pin a blood libel on all of us who went to all-boy Jesuit high schools.

    None of us knows what happened back in 1982. That’s why we have the legal principle of statute of limitations. Personally, I believe Kavanaugh has been the target of an obvious frame, and an organized political hit. If you can’t see it, you’re blind.

    About his misogyny, in 30 years of professional life not a word of impropriety, sexual or otherwise. By all accounts he’s a loving husband and father of two daughters, and has been a perfect mentor for scores of women judicial clerks,

    There must be something special about the guy for him to draw the wrath of so many on the Left. And some of it is raw prejudice against an Irish Catholic jock from nerdy poindexters. Can’t have his like on SCOTUS, now can we?

  2. Peter Schineller, S.J.JK. on September 30th, 2018 9:32 AM

    An excellent reflection – I hope it is shared widely with those involved in Jesuit education, especially at the secondary school level.
    Peter Schineller, s.j.

  3. Jeremiah Gold-Hopton on September 30th, 2018 10:25 AM

    Thank you, Kameron and Mattie, for writing this article. I am an Oberlin alum (class of 1986), and I am a Christian minister. I learned about Ignatius and the Jesuits in a church history survey class in seminary. But it was the type of survey class that covered many topics quickly, so I expect that you know more about the Jesuits than I do. But I remember learning about an Ignatian type of Bible study which asks us to imagine ourselves as one of the people in a story (such as the injured man in the parable of the good Samaritan), go through the whole story as that person and try to think their thoughts, feel their feelings, ask their questions, etc. And then do that again but as a different person (such as the Samaritan). And again with another (such as the inn-keeper). And repeat until we’ve “been” every person. I find this very helpful for unfolding all of the dimensions of a biblical story. And I am finding this method to be helpful in unfolding the dimensions of Dr. Ford’s testimony and Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony. Your article helps me to more fully “be” Kavanaugh by giving me more information about how his Jesuit education might have formed him.

  4. Elizabeth Huff on October 2nd, 2018 2:40 PM

    As a staff member at a co-ed Jesuit school, I believe in the values of the Jesuits a lot and see so much benefit from the community we have built, but I also see the opportunity for corruption. I appreciate this view point and hope that Jesuit schools use this moment to reflect. Let’s do an examen on our role in everything that’s going on.

  5. Ella Mc on October 4th, 2018 8:50 AM

    What a wonderful piece. As a girl who grew up and was educated in an SSND “sister school” to the Jesuit boys’ school nearby, it was assumed that the boys were not only getting the better education but they were the master’s of their universe. I pray that’s changed since the 1980s when I attended, but that was the reality (if never so clearly spoken) in that era. The fact that these schools are often linked to the girls’ schools nearby (including mixers and other events when I was a student) is also problematic. It’s like the girls are being supplied to the boys in some ways. I never saw boys come willingly to our school for plays, etc, but they did – almost exclusively – date and socialize with girls from my school, and we were openly encouraged to show up for their games or audition for their plays or whatever else happened at their schools. I can say definitely that I never saw a boy who wasn’t someone’s brother show up for any field hockey game at our school. This is so bizarre, and there is so much to unpack that it would be great if these were topics dealt with in these schools directly and not challenged only years after the fact.

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