The Impact Dialogues by Koldo Echebarria

Koldo Echebarria, director general of Esade, talks with Father Arturo Sosa SJ, 31st General of the Society of Jesus, about the role of higher education and the value of Ignatian pedagogy in times of Covid-19.


Koldo Echebarria [Director general of Esade]: The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the fragility of our social and economic welfare and our healthcare safeguards. Everything seems to have become more vulnerable. The pandemic has accentuated existing inequalities, causing even more abject poverty and social exclusion. The coronavirus fallout will reverse much of the progress made in humanitarian issues and accelerate the digital transformation of the most advanced societies, widening the education gap even more.

It is precisely in these difficult times that our role as educational institutions is more important and relevant than ever. How can we build a beacon of light in these asymmetric circumstances? How can Jesuit values and education prepare the leaders of tomorrow? To reflect on all this, today I am in the Vatican, together with the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Father Arturo Sosa, one of the most emblematic figures in cultural and social spheres, with an extensive career devoted to education and research.

Today’s pandemic affects different social classes, religions and race alike, and we will only pull through if we are able to think about the common good whilst exercising our individual responsibility towards society. How can we convey this message? What efforts can we universities, for example, make to convey this message?

Father Arturo Sosa SJ [31st General of the Society of Jesus]: Models are the best way to teach and convey something. If what we want to put forward is not embodied in a model, it is very difficult to convey it. When we think about a model we think about people. But I think that the great challenge at the moment is having institutional models and organisational models that point in the same direction, and creating institutional models and organisational models that focus on common good. This is far from easy but I think this is the challenge and the great change we can make today. But there has to be a joint effort between people for whom the common good is what gives their life a meaning and organisations that have the same aim too. And I think this is the path we Jesuit universities should follow.

The great challenge at the moment is creating institutional and organisational models that focus on common good

Koldo Echebarria: How do you regard this in the context of a university like ours, a university that aims to educate professionals in the business world who obviously have career aspirations? How can we improve our ability to convey this idea of life as a community and this responsibility towards the rest of society?

Father Arturo Sosa SJI’ll explain by telling you a family anecdote. My father was a businessman when he was young, but following a political shift in Venezuela in 1958 he was appointed minister of finance, and again, twenty years later. His friends criticised him and said “How can you be a minister when you have a great business career?” and he would say, “My family and my company cannot be well if the country is in bad shape... If people who are capable or even ambitious, and people who want to do something really great in their lives do not regard public life as the scenario for doing it, then we are creating a division that goes nowhere. And our universities and institutions must encourage the vocation of public service that is, I would say, as big a challenge as any career in business. If qualified people do not occupy the public arena, it will be occupied by people with other interests.

Koldo Echebarria: This can definitely be seen in this pandemic. Countries with more capable public sectors are coping much better than countries with less able public sectors. Either we focus on building public capabilities at everyone’s service or we really won’t be able to overcome this pandemic or any other future crises. This line of thought involves the idea that the public arena extends beyond the state. When we talk about the public arena we’re talking about many institutions that can play this role, aren’t we?

Father Arturo Sosa SJWhen we talk about the public arena, we’re talking about citizens as a whole. We’ve reduced the public arena not just to the state, but even worse, to governments. And the basis of any democratic policy are the citizens, the people. Only when citizens are really strong can thought be given to states working for the public good, the common good. And governments subordinate to the state. Because once again the government absorbs the state and becomes the only expression of the state, but that’s not how it is, the state has balances and counterbalances with democracy and active citizens precisely because some functions can be controlled from other viewpoints, hence the division of powers, and hence all the institutions that have been created in the last few centuries specifically to avoid the hegemony of one group or one person. The basis is the citizens, citizens who are aware, active, responsible, a community we must all take part in. Anyone not wanting to engage in this task is really sidelining a human dimension that is hugely important for personal development.

Only when citizens are really strong can thought be given to states working for the public good

Koldo Echebarria: Allow me to mention a matter that connects the university to society, the matter of merit, meritocracy, intelligence and effort, shall we say, all combined. I think our establishments are based on meritocracy and yet, at the same time, meritocracy is under scrutiny because it sometimes depends on socioeconomic factors that discriminate against those most in need and the poorest. What is your opinion of this? What can we universities do to create a non-exclusive meritocracy?

Father Arturo Sosa SJI would go a little further. What are our universities inspired by? They are inspired by the gospel, the model Jesus gave us. The logic of our university is the logic of service, not merit but service and what should be done. Merit makes us focus on ourselves, in the sense that it is my own effort, my career or something for my benefit or that of my family or my group. And then, we once again face a conflict with the wellbeing of others. If our universities do not educate professionals able to do this as well as possible, but in order to serve, to pave the way …

Koldo Echebarria: In other words, merit must not be an end in itself; it must be capability in which we find our vocation to serve.

Father Arturo Sosa SJThat is the real merit. The aim of a Jesuit education is to maximise the potential of people and all their qualities. But these qualities are not for you, they are to enable you to grow by helping others develop. This is the real meritocracy, and the outcome is a real, collective meritocracy. The challenge the university faces is how this mindset can be conveyed to students. How can these dynamics be changed so that the university really can be transformed into a place where people are able to question their own life and develop their qualities as much as possible, but knowing that the best development is when all this can be delivered to others?

The challenge the university faces is how the mindset of collective meritocracy can be conveyed to students

Koldo Echebarria: The pandemic obviously suddenly changed the way we work at university and develop face-to-face connections with students by forcing us to adopt new teaching methods. This is something we discussed a lot at Esade when this whole change was contemplated and we talked about how to maintain the educational experience that characterises our establishment, and we had discussions about the meaning of this in Jesuit pedagogy. From this standpoint, what do you think is most important in the transformation we have undergone, in today’s very difficult situation?

Father Arturo Sosa SJCaring for people. I think caring for people is the core of what is known as Jesuit pedagogy. This means finding the best ways of listening, i.e. you can only care for someone by listening to them, understanding them, and understanding them by listening. Each person has their own path and at university they must find the way to express and nourish it. Listening and companionship comprise the other key factor of the Jesuit pedagogy or spirituality taken from the gospel.

Koldo Echebarria: As regards another issue discussed a great deal, what do you think about the contribution of technology from the viewpoint of Jesuit pedagogy?

Father Arturo Sosa SJFrom the viewpoint of Jesuit pedagogy, it is a very interesting challenge because technology is not merely a device or form of connection but a different anthropology. Technology and the change of an era are the same thing. Those born in the new era think differently, it’s a different anthropology. How can we talk in this language, how can we learn this language and really communicate? We must listen to young people and all together make it possible to journey towards a hopeful future. In this pedagogy, we all learn. It’s not just about us having and conveying knowledge, it’s not just about the university having and sharing knowledge. The categories of teachers and students have been broken down, and we learn together. Much more two-way dialogue is involved and technology is obviously useful for this in many respects but it really has to be done.

The categories of teachers and students have been broken down, and we learn together

Koldo Echebarria: Once, during a conference about the role of universities, someone mentioned a very interesting concept: universities must be out in the elements, must go out into the elements. The speaker was talking about university knowledge but also about how universities position themselves. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, could you give us an example of a university out in the elements?

Father Arturo Sosa SJThe pandemic cast us all out into the elements, and obliged us to generate knowledge in these circumstances. People are out in the elements when they step out of their comfort zone. We have so many opportunities to do this now because the change of era we are experiencing constantly puts us in situations not contemplated by any science, and I mean particularly the social sciences which must devise a new concept of humanity based on anthropology, how people relate to each other, and from a political and legal viewpoint. Being out in the elements really gives us the privilege of generating knowledge and teaching it. If teaching becomes a dialogue and we are all able to have a diverse experience, it really could be a stellar moment for university research.

Koldo Echebarria: And emerging from our ivory towers because in fact, what we need is not more technical knowledge but rather, as I think you said, more wisdom based on multidisciplinary knowledge and which looks at things from a different perspective.

Father Arturo Sosa SJI think that ideally, universities should not be creating very knowledgeable people but wise people. Wisdom is not the same thing as knowing a lot... What use is a lawyer who knows all legislation off by heart and can interpret it for his client’s benefit but lacks the wisdom to put it into context and transform the law into a vehicle that really benefits society. A person can be very knowledgeable about a subject and a great expert in something, but not be wise. Universities are obliged to making their students, professors, employees and directors wise to ensure that universities are veritable sources of wisdom for society.

Koldo Echebarria: As a matter of fact, the other day I was talking to a Jesuit in Cova de Manresa about this and he said that rather than conveying knowledge, we should inspire and raise awareness in order to generate something valuable for the common good, through an awareness of knowledge.

Father Arturo Sosa SJExactly, but universities cannot fail to convey knowledge. We must ensure that Jesuit university graduates not only have a basic knowledge but also the best possible knowledge in their field. Wise persons are out in the elements.

Universities should not be creating very knowledgeable people but wise people

Koldo Echebarria: Next year is the 500th anniversary of St Ignatius’ wound in Pamplona, or the conversion as it is known, and the start of a series of events to celebrate the 5th Centenary. Thinking about this in relation to young people, how can we convey St Ignatius’ inspiration to them? Judging by what I know about St Ignatius’ life, I sometimes think he was a man able to admit his mistakes and carry on working, a man who said he was sometimes blind. I think this contains a message that can reach out more to young people, i.e. that despite his vicissitudes, St Ignatius is a human being they can relate to. What do you think about this idea? What do you think about St Ignatius’ mistakes and the possibility of celebrating them too?

Father Arturo Sosa SJSt Ignatius learnt to recognise his inner motions and recognise them in others and in society. This was the great transformation that happened to him after being wounded in Pamplona, and I think that what we can try to teach young people is precisely this, that as one learns to recognise oneself, not to judge oneself, one can interpret and learn from oneself and learn from one’s relationship with society, and learn that inside every person there is a struggle or conflict that pulls them in different directions. It’s a matter of understanding which direction will take me to where I feel I can be better, or discernment as it is known, because it is present in every moment of life. No one takes a decision for the rest of their life, they take decisions all the time.

Koldo Echebarria: I think that talking about these inner conflicts and also those of individuals and communities is something that young people can relate to. I believe that young people want to find a meaning for life but I also see all sorts of other monsters everywhere that are very active in society through technologies and other things.

Father Arturo Sosa SJI feel that young people have reasonable doubts about the world they live in. Why is our world unable to stop destroying the environment and unable to think about the long-term future of the planet’s resources?

Koldo Echebarria: Thank you Father, it has been a pleasure talking to you. I have no doubt that this is an extraordinary time for humanity, an extraordinary opportunity to reconsider many of the things we do today.

Father Arturo Sosa SJThank you to all and thank you for what you do. I hope we really realise that even out in the elements we can create things together and join forces and become not bigger but better.

Koldo Echebarria: I would like to end with a quotation by St Ignatius of Loyola that sums up the words of the Superior General quite well: "Those who wish to change the world must begin by changing themselves or they will not achieve their mission."

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