Over the stove in my kitchen, I have a small brass plaque that bears an inscription attributed to Michelangelo. It says simply, “I am still learning.”
My mother gave it to me on the day I received my Ph.D., offering it as a gentle, slyly humorous admonition to not let all this education stuff go to my head. In a deeper way, she intended the words to keep me grounded by reminding me of just how much I do not yet know and how unaware I am of this lack of knowledge.
When I came to Georgetown, I placed it in my kitchen with a similar humor, recognizing that cooking is one of the mysterious arts in which I find myself most in need of continued education.
Over the years, though, that phrase — “I am still learning” — has taken on new layers of meaning. It has become a refrain, expressing a desire that does not seem to go away even as I get older. It is a posture that keeps me leaning forward into life, eager to find new meaning, new depth. And it makes times like the end of the semester, with their implicit sense of closure, a bit richer and more hopeful.
That word “still” makes all the difference. It reminds me, as I remind my students, that exams and final papers are not ends in themselves, but check-in points along the way.
The project is bigger than just a class or a grade, and what we are learning is more than a series of facts or skills. The project is the person that each of us is becoming, and the community that we are creating and shaping together.
Dynamically, transformatively — through our courses and internships and activities and relationships and reflection — we are becoming something new.
We capture glimpses of who we are becoming, especially during this time of exams and paper writing. In looking back at our class notes and blog posts, assignments and projects, all that we have studied and practiced, we also look forward, as each small step this semester has opened a door to a new experience in the future.
Our interests and gifts — and perhaps a few of our limitations — have shown themselves to us, and they remind us about the glorious “more” that still lies ahead. We have made progress, and we are now closer to being the people we dreamed of becoming — or never dreamed we could be — when we first set foot on this campus.
What is even more exciting is what lies ahead — the part of ourselves and our community that we have not yet fully discovered.
There is a sweet beauty in that our period of finals does not occur in a vacuum. Rather, it happens in the context of the arrival of winter — a time of hunkering down, when the earth goes quiet and new life lingers below the surface.
It also happens in the context of the Christian season of Advent, a time of hope and expectation, four weeks pregnant with possibilities leading up to Christmas. Nestled and nurtured in the darkness of short days and long nights, we await the light that even now is preparing to dawn.
At Georgetown, we are still learning, and we prize the newness that is “adventing” in our midst. As a research university, we are a community that thinks thoughts that have never been conceived or articulated before, and we uncover realities never observed before — miraculously, this even happens on the second floor of Lauinger Library.
In our Jesuit mission, we commit ourselves to fostering understanding and inclusion, celebrating the beauty of our diversity and affirming the dignity of each person in ever-new ways. Our experience here sends us forth into an emerging world that no one has fully seen, yet we feel called to serve and accompany in its yearning for justice and shared opportunity.
In these days of exams, of coming winter, of Advent, it is good to still be learning, and to be learning together.
Matthew Carnes, S.J., is an associate professor in the department of government and currently serves as the director of the Center for Latin American Studies. As This Jesuit Sees It appears online every other Thursday.