At Georgetown University, we think in centuries. We dream big. As I like to tell incoming students, we have a vision here that is expansive, that recognizes in each present moment an arc extending far into the future. And this perspective charges the start of this new semester with immense meaning.
We date our community back to 1789, some 230 years ago, the same year as the U.S Constitution. We trace out our heritage in monumental buildings like Healy Hall, built 90 years later, or Lauinger Library, 90 years after that. We feel the weight and promise of these centuries, with their beauty and brutality ever more visible as we interrogate them in retrospect, and we feel a sense of purpose in shaping the next century.
This year, 2019, we celebrate 100 years since the establishment of our Walsh School of Foreign Service. The centennial anniversary has captured my imagination and inspired me to let my mind and horizon expand anew.
The SFS was founded in a world still reeling from the First World War. It sought, in a time of division and lingering suspicions, to develop the ties of trade and investment, of respect and solidarity, that would allow peoples around the globe to flourish and make war and violence less likely.
The intellectual underpinnings and aspirations of the SFS were path-breaking. More than simply addressing well-known challenges, Fr. Edmund Walsh, S.J., called for a novel project. He saw the school’s mission as centered on the “recognition of new problems and the assumption of new obligations, broadening our scope in response to the growing demands made on human knowledge by the ever-multiplying specializations of human activity.”
Walsh and the founders of the SFS believed in progress, and they understood that they needed a forward-looking vision that would draw on the best of Georgetown’s heritage while also embracing ideas and opportunities they could scarcely imagine. It is mind-boggling to think that they drew up their plans nearly a decade before the discovery of penicillin and three decades before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it is sobering to recall that even with their best efforts, the 20th century would be the most violent in human history.
Recalling this history makes me wonder: What would our semester look like if we approached it with the same grandness and seriousness of vision of Walsh and that first group of faculty and students in 1919?
Thinking in centuries, rather than moments or hours — or seconds, as often occurs on social media — transforms our perspective. It helps us distinguish between vital questions and superficial ones, and it provides the impetus to engage the issues that matter most. It affects the classes we choose, the projects we undertake, the communities we seek to form and understand. It does not allow any kind of complacency in the face of pressing problems, but rather it charges each of our actions — for justice, inclusion and the flourishing of our planet and each of its inhabitants — with lasting importance.
Walsh closed his inauguration of the School of Foreign Service with a prayer, asking that the newly founded school form a community of “great soul, great heart and great mind.” Many will recognize in this phrase the Jesuit ideal of magnanimity — greatness of soul, expansiveness of vision, generosity of concern and compassion.
It is a vision that can inspire us today as we take up the work of this new semester at the start of 2019: to think in terms of lifetimes, of centuries and the arc of history. To have hopes and ambitions no less far-reaching, no less weighty and expansive, than those who have walked this Hilltop before us and who send us into our next century.
Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., is an associate professor in the Department of Government and the Walsh School of Foreign Service, and he currently serves as director of the Center for Latin American Studies. As This Jesuit Sees It appears online every other Tuesday.