About Michael Agliardo
I was born in a suburb of New York City in 1961, grandson of immigrants from Italy, son of a working-class father and a mother who devoted herself to making a home for her family. My parents tell me that even before I could read I would carry a book with me everywhere I went. When I finally learned to read, I thought it was such a privilege to be able to garner knowledge from the pages that others had laboriously penned. There were so many wonderful things to read about, and I wanted to learn everything I could. As a child I was amazed that we could go to the town library and borrow books as we liked. It seemed to me that learning was the greatest adventure one could undertake. As a young person, I thought of learning as an exercise of wonder and imagination. I did not think of education in terms of job preparation or future career. I was not very practical. What child is? Though my parents were not wealthy, they lived within their means, and we always had food on the table and a roof over our heads. As a result, I was fortunate enough to be able to pursue my education for the simple reason that I loved to learn.
Today I am a sociologist. Sociologists study society and culture, often trying to look at things from
unusual angles. As a sociologist, I do understand how education and ideas can open the mind and
expand the imagination to see life in new and important ways. So perhaps children can teach us
something in the way they experience new ideas and new points of view. The ordinary things of life;
the way we transform what the Earth provides into a meal; the way we capture the complexity of life
in symbols called words; the way thousands of people bring a city to life each day that the sun rises;
all these things really are wonders to contemplate. And truly education does help us to appreciate the
depth of ordinary experience and how it all fits together.
I had many great teachers during my days in school. One was Mrs. Trapanese, a teacher of English
language and literature when I was in the junior high school. She took an interest in each of us
students, and she took seriously what she taught us. That was very important. Often contemporary
society does not seem to value teachers. Other professionals often get much higher salaries, and we all
seem to accord great status to great wealth. So teachers can be tempted to think that what they are
doing is not very important. However, Mrs. Trapanese knew that what she was doing was important.
Her devotion was a lesson in itself. As a result of being in her class, over and above learning English
grammar, we learned about the importance of education itself. And I suspect that in the process we
learned something important about caring for one another, working hard, sharing the gift of
knowledge, and being human.
After I graduated high school, I attended Harvard University. I was the first in my family to attend
college, and it was quite an honor to go to Harvard. Harvard is famous for its educational accomplishments. From my experience, what is most characteristic of a Harvard education is its “realism.” A Harvard education is an exercise in “realism” in many senses. In the first place, Harvard students are taught to think critically, rather than to accept ideas unexamined. Of course, many liberal arts universities can make the same claim. Harvard’s realism also manifests itself in constant effort to understand and engage the world as it really is. Harvard prepares people to be doers. Many graduates of Harvard go on to live extraordinary lives of service. It was at Harvard that I learned of the struggles of the people of Southeast Asia, and also of the challenges that immigrants to America face.
I was raised in a Catholic family, and since I was young, I knew that one day I would be a priest.
After I graduated Harvard I became a member of the Society of Jesus. The Society of Jesus is a group
of Catholic priests and brothers formed in the 16th century. Its members are known as “Jesuits.”
Down through the centuries the Jesuits founded many schools. They are a group that has always
thought education to be important. After I entered the Society of Jesus, the education I received
helped me to understand much more about human life in all its dimensions than I had previously. Like
the education I received at Harvard, I also found Jesuit education to be “realistic,” but beyond that, it
excelled in its devotion to “humanism.” In other words, Jesuit education offers one resources for
reflecting on how all the different subjects of learning - the arts, the natural sciences, the study of
history and culture- are part of the very human quest for value and meaning. Given their emphasis on
education, it came as no surprise that one day my Jesuit superiors would ask me to study for a
doctorate in sociology. I now teach sociology at the Jesuit university in Chicago, Loyola University.
During my first years as a young Jesuit, I went to work at Saint Rita’s Center, a community center in
the Bronx (a section of New York City). Saint Rita’s Center provided services for new immigrants to
America, especially immigrants from Vietnam and Cambodia. While working at Saint Rita’s Center, I
developed a program to prepare young people for high school. We recruited teachers who worked
hard and believed in their work because they wanted to make a difference in the lives of their
students. And I know they succeeded. It was at Saint Rita’s Center that I met Peter Mach. At 14 years
of age, he was a delightful but somewhat mischievous young fellow. (I could relate many stories from
Peter’s youth, but for obvious reasons, I am forbidden to do so). Peter is one bright example of the
success that the teachers at Saint Rita’s Center achieved. He is not only a successful businessman. He
is a devoted husband, father, and friend. He has great integrity. And he is committed to serving others.
Certainly, Peter’s personal qualities are his own, and no one else can take credit for them. At the same
time, these qualities enabled Peter to make inspiring use of the education he received. Indeed, I have
learned a lot from him.
In sum, my education has shaped me. Teachers like Mrs. Trapanese combined learning with joy and
seriousness of purpose. Harvard taught me to connect learning with a critical acumen and a
commitment to making a difference in the world. And the Jesuits helped me to appreciate that not
only does education inculcate practical knowledge; it also fosters our growth as human beings.
It is a great joy to know that Peter is establishing the Agliardo Mach Award for students and teachers
at Ho Chi Minh City University of Pedagogy. It is certainly humbling to know that he has named the
award in part for me. I strongly believe that teaching is an extraordinary vocation. It is an important
way to serve others and to continue to grow as a person throughout life. I hope that those who receive
this award will find joy in their work and always be confident that they are making a difference in the
lives of their students.