SAN FRANCISCO—What place do philosophers like Boethius, theologians like Aquinas and novelists like Flannery O‘Connor have in the world of the third millennium?

On its 20th anniversary, a great books program at the University of San Francisco is expecting much from its class of 2000.

John Galten, the director of the St. Ignatius Institute, said the program leaves students well equipped. “Among our alumni are two state congressmen, one Canadian parliamentarian, many physicians and lawyers, physicists, chemists, nurses, authors, editors for major national newspapers and magazines, priests and nuns, teachers, businessmen and computer wizards. What we are most proud of is the crowd of highly articulate, well-educated wives and mothers.”

Galten, a layman, a former college basketball player and Vietnam veteran, has been the director of the institute since 1994. He says the school's secrets are the Spiritual Exercises and the ratio studiorum, twin blueprints of Jesuit educational philosophy emphasized by St. Ignatius of Loyola. The ratio is the plan of studies that gave Jesuit educational institutions success throughout the world, and the Spiritual Exercises has for centuries trained men and women to see their lives through Christ's eyes.

The St. Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco is based on two principles, said Galten: “education of the mind and the will of the students.” The courses are based on the program of great books of Western Civilization which was designed by Mortimer Adler at the University of Chicago in the 1940s. Semester-long seminars of these classical works are dovetailed into ancillary seminars of philosophy, theology, history, science and contemporary culture.

Religious retreats, daily mass, monthly eucharistic adoration and individual spiritual direction are some of the ways the students receive religious and moral formation. Freshman and sophomore students live together in the university — residence halls and social and athletic events, Galten says, are instrumental in creating an esprit de corps that has characterized the institute's men and women since the time of the program's inception.

Dan Ambuul, an alumnus, said this keeps the students from becoming “bookish.”

“One thing we're particularly proud of is the SII intramural football team's record. We've been undefeated on campus for more than a decade,” said Ambuul, 35, the first of several brothers to attend the St. Ignatius Institute. His brother Steven is still attending the school — and, like his older brothers, playing intramural football.

A School Within a School

Ambuul said an added advantage of St. Ignatius Institute students is that they form an integral part of a wider postmodern campus in a major cultural center.

The St. Ignatius Institute's curriculum works in tandem with the university's requirements in areas like history, literature, philosophy and theology.

By pursuing classes in the institute and outside it, students “are able to speak in depth with peers who often hold opposing views. It helps you to see how the ‘great ideas’ are as relevant today as ever,” said Ambuul.

“Our students certainly do not live in an ivory tower,” added Galten. “They are encouraged to bring their learning and their faith to the marketplace.”

In 1976 four University of San Francisco Jesuits designed the St. Ignatius Institute and turned it over to Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio who put the plan into operation. Father Fessio, who is no longer associated with the institute, directed the program in its infancy. Jesuit Father Robert Maloney took it up to its adolescent years, and Galten has guided it into adulthood.

“I hope he is still director,” said Michelle Sullivan, a recent SII graduate, “when — sometime within the next 20 years — I send my first child to USF.”

R. Erick Pecha writes