When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I was teaching the novel “The Lord of the Flies” to a group of Georgetown students in the Middle East. Only one of them was an American. It was unsettling to watch with them as what seemed to be the thin veneer of civilization peeled off a major American city. It was even tougher to have foreigners ask, “How could this happen in the United States?”

Trying to answer that question made me squirm a bit. I found myself involved in conversations about some of the quiet ugliness of race relations, economic inequities and de facto segregation in the country I love with all my heart. My non-American students have helped me, through their questions and their friendship, to reexamine and rearticulate some of my basic assumptions and taken-for-granted givens about the United States and what it means to be American.

In the process of trying to explain myself to them, I have found that many times my students are not convinced by my answers. It has been jarring – in a good way – for me to be forced to engage in thoughtful back-and-forth with them. They have reminded me that it is not at all self-evident that democracy is the best form of government or that free-market capitalism is the most compelling economic option.

All of that has been good for me – it’s making me a better American.

In the same way, my students have led me to revisit some of the religious basics of my life. I have discovered, for example, that for most of my life, my instinctive, first-bounce reaction has been to think and talk about my religious identity in terms of my being a member of the Catholic Church. My interaction with my students in Qatar thus far has pushed me to look at and articulate my religious experience and my faith from a different angle. I have repeatedly been asked questions that have asked me to respond not so much as a Catholic, but as a follower of Jesus.

I have also come to experience first hand some of the deeply held and fundamentally wrong notions which people of good will can hold when it comes to thinking about Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. I have known for a long time that there are millions of people who think of the Trinity as little more than polytheism dressed up in fancy philosophical language and the New Testament as a corruption of the divine revelation, but my SFS-Q experience has brought me face-to-face, mind-to-mind and heart-to-heart with such folks.

That, too, has been good for me – it’s making me a better Catholic.

Last week, I came up against a similar dynamic with regard to what it means to be an educator in the Jesuit tradition. We at SFS-Q are in the early stages of imagining the permanent building that will soon be built for us here in Doha. In our initial stab at describing the sort of building we will need in order to provide a Georgetown education in the Middle East, we naturally included a theater, complete with all the accoutrements that will make it possible for us to bring the performing arts to life in the undergraduate experience of our students.

Fairly, our Qatari hosts (who will pay for the building) responded by asking, “Why do you need a theater? The performing arts are not part of your International Politics curriculum, after all.” This has, of course, thrown me back upon the foundational principles of Jesuit liberal arts education that provide the reasons for what we do and the way we do it, whether they find their way into the explicit curriculum or not.

Learning to articulate those principles in a new setting and in fresh terms has been good for me too. It’s making me a better Jesuit educator.

It strikes me that the sort of experience I am having in this start-up year for SFS-Q is exactly the sort of experience that Georgetown hopes all of her students will have while in her undergraduate embrace. Rethinking what we have come to take for granted. Asking not just what we believe, but why we believe it. Demanding to know the practical implications – for individuals and for nations – of what we say and believe about the nature and destiny of human beings. This is the stuff of a Georgetown education, whether in Washington or Doha.

For that, even for the unsettling discombobulation that can come with it, I say, “Praise God . and Hoya Saxa.”

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