Georgetown students love politics. As a professor of government, this is a very good thing for me. It means that my classes are always full, students actually do the reading for my courses — at least most of the time — and there is always a group eager to debate current policies and political choices.
On Tuesday night, I invited a group of students to my Kennedy Hall apartment to watch election returns. Even amid differing viewpoints, it was a marvelous experience of students’ passion, energy and commitment to the political process. Some had worked on the elections; nearly all were voting for the first time. As results came, you could feel excitement — and in some cases, disappointment — surge through the room.
Much earlier than we expected, the election was decided, and some students went rushing out to run to the White House. Others soon left to do their homework. And faster than I would have thought possible, my apartment was empty and the long electoral process was over. Much like after a Super Bowl or World Series game, it felt like a long season had come to an end.
As I began cleaning up the chips, cookies and popcorn, I found my thoughts turning from this election and its outcome to the deeper tasks we are about here at Georgetown. Rather than an end or finish line, it strikes me that this election — at least for this generation — was a beginning. It was a first step in acquiring a virtue, the virtue of citizenship, which is at the heart of a Jesuit education.
Indeed, when the Jesuits founded their first college in Messina, Italy, in 1548, it was at the request of parents who wanted their children to be trained to be exemplary citizens. They wanted to foster a generation of creative, visionary leaders who could make their city more dynamic and inclusive. It was with this in mind that the Jesuits chose to strike a new balance between two competing visions of education in the Europe of their day. On the one side stood the universities, which professionalized learning and scholarship and had, as their highest aim, the discovery and cultivation of truth. On the other side were the humanistic primary and secondary schools, which taught poetry, rhetoric, drama and history in an effort to foster virtue, both personal and civic. The Jesuits did something radical when they embraced both of these pursuits in their schools, coupling the highest levels of rational and scientific inquiry with a humanistic formation of conscientious citizenship.
Jesuit education was thus crafted to form citizens who would be high minded, far minded and practical. Students would learn to be high minded enough to see above the ebb and flow of political victories and defeats in order to grapple with the perennial questions of justice, truth and freedom. Scholarship and learning were meant to beckon them to a relentless quest for a life of meaning and human achievement, marked by creativity, discovery and reverence.
And they were to be far minded, able to dream of long-term goals of social, political and economic transformation. These citizens would have the vision to imagine what society could be like, and they would have the idealism and commitment to work toward its realization. They would recognize the need to step beyond their own self-interest and pour themselves into the lifelong quest of the common good, which is not just the additive total of individual goods but the good of society as a whole, in all its members — especially its weakest and most vulnerable.
And they were to be practical. This is a distinctly Jesuit addition to the classical tradition they inherited. They recognized the importance of decisive action undertaken today, which can open the horizon to long-term goals and values. By fostering wisdom, decision, reflection and evaluation, they sought to habituate a kind of practiced practicality that would make each day’s steps lead toward their good purpose.
This week, especially as the heat and fervor from the election begin to fade, it seems to me that we at Georgetown are called to recommit ourselves to the same virtue of citizenship that the early Jesuits embraced. High minded, far minded and practical, we have work to do. Much of it will be done in quiet, at least for a while, in our study and research, in our service, in internships and especially in our reflection. But it is forming us for much, much more.
We are to be citizens for the long haul, especially between Election Days. The work of the nation and the work of human society happens between elections. Our world needs citizens with the vision, the courage and the virtue to make good on its promise.
Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., is an assistant professor in the government department. He is one of the alternating writers for AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT …, which appears every other Friday.