What makes a Jesuit education different? Over the years, I have heard many efforts to describe the unique chemistry of a place like Georgetown. Last week, though, I heard one that was genuinely new for me. A Jesuit who has served as president of two universities summed up our educational ethos with the somewhat inelegant yet spot-on phrase: “bothered excellence.”
The phrase has echoed in my ears ever since — especially the first word: “bothered.”
When Jesuit education works, it bothers. It gets under your skin. It disquiets, and it challenges, even as it goads and encourages and inspires. It is a worldview in which “mediocrity has no place,” and it resists complacency at all costs.
We find ourselves unsatisfied with superficial thoughts or simplistic reasoning. We experience a relentless desire to learn, because we recognize that our growing knowledge is vastly exceeded by how much we do not yet know. The search for truth and meaning beckons us forward, leaving us always a bit restless.
Jesuit education also beckons us into grappling with our world — the real world, as it exists today — and all the ways that it is bothered in its political, economic and social relations. It gazes unflinchingly on injustice and suffering and challenges us to ask “Why?” It pushes us to take the risk to reach across the most profound divides of beliefs and history to try (and sometimes, to fail) to build new relationships.
It invites us to not only observe the poverty and mistreatment of so many of our fellow inhabitants of our planet, but to take these on as our own. The world we study becomes more than a subject in class, but a responsibility in life.
Indeed, the Jesuit vision of “bothered excellence” also unsettles our understanding of success. That first word transforms the second: Our excellence is different because it is bothered, and because it bothers us. Being simply outstanding is not enough; it actually leaves us feeling flat. Rather, we want our efforts to be at the service of something bigger, something more meaningful.
Most importantly, Jesuit education calls to us on a personal level. The former superior general of the Jesuit order, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, noted that “the real measure of our Jesuit universities lies in who our students become.” The task is not skillbuilding, and even less resume building; rather, it is character building, identity building.
If we fully take this on, it will bother us. We will find that we are not satisfied with inherited roles, jobs or views; we will want to take on the freedom and responsibility to create such things ourselves. We will not be content waiting for someone else to deal with the issues we see. We will step out to try to address them, even when we are not yet entirely sure what to do.
Bothered excellence. Perhaps the phrase rings so true to me because I’ve talked lately to several students who are living a bothered excellence in all its fullness.
There’s one recent graduate who has had a marvelous experience working for a consulting firm for a few years, but is now leaving the industry to take the risky step to try to address structural issues through governmental service.
Then there’s another young alumnus grappling to find creative ways to unite the two worlds to which he has given his life — one of direct action in low-income immigrant neighborhoods and one focused on policymaking and academia — in spite of how far apart the people in these two communities see themselves.
I think of a sophomore who has been set on fire by her environmental science course, and who is now shaping her choices of major and study-abroad locations so that she can address what she sees as the defining issue of her generation.
And I think of a junior who has poured himself into gender studies and preventing relationship violence, and who is now pushing himself to engage these issues where it is most challenging and yet most important — among his group of friends.
These excellent students are bothered in the best of ways, and they inspire us by the questions they ask of themselves, of our community and of our world.
Of course, there are a host of petty issues that can bother us in unproductive and unhealthy ways, and indeed, on our stress-addled campus, we would do well to avoid them. But at heart, Jesuit education is about allowing the best and most meaningful questions to bother us relentlessly. This kind of bothered excellence is not a passing condition; it is a welcome way of life.
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.
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