One summer when I was in graduate school, I had a conversation with a fellow researcher about the thesis he was working on. Such conversations are part of the regular diet of beleaguered graduate students everywhere and are usually forgettable, but this one has stuck with me because of its implications for the project of Jesuit education, especially as it is embodied at Georgetown, a place and a project I love so deeply.

y buddy was investigating the veracity of the deeply ingrained American belief that sports teach values and bolster morals. An athlete and coach himself, he knew from experience that athletes learned skills and techniques fairly easily, and he knew that these were easily measured. But the transmission and assimilation of values are trickier quarry to pin down and measure. Still, he gave it his best shot.

What he found was that sports can indeed teach values and even facilitate the development of moral reasoning, but it all depends on the coach and his or her ability and willingness to serve as a teacher. My friend’s thesis suggests that athletes do internalize positive values and deepen their moral reasoning if, and only if, their coaches take an active role in articulating the big picture of their team’s experience.

What does that mean? It means that coaches serve as educators when they hold up a mirror to their teams and say out loud, as the beginning of a conversation, “This is what we did. This is why we did it the way we did it. This is what we learned from that experience. Do you see that?”

Again, this dynamic is not so important when it comes to learning particular skills or techniques – students will reap those benefits of participation in the life of a team fairly naturally. The deeper challenge lies in deriving the meaning from the experience. Here, students need help. They need guidance. They need a perspective they cannot give themselves. They need to have a larger vision held up before them.

In the years since I completed my graduate studies and went to work in a variety of Jesuit schools, it has become clear to me that this need for vision is not just an athletic need; it is a human need. It is at work not just in the athletic department, but in every corner of the Georgetown life. It has also become clear to me that we neglect this need for clarity of vision at great risk to the very character of our university.

We human beings have a need for a larger picture that helps us discover meaning in our experience. Reminding people of that larger picture is an important part of leadership in any organization that consciously seeks to pass on values or wisdom, which includes any school that claims the liberal arts tradition as its own, and all schools involved in the project of Catholic and Jesuit education. That is why the task of accurately and credibly articulating the soul of our tradition must be a fundamental component of all forms of leadership at Georgetown.

If leadership at Georgetown, broadly diffused as it is throughout the university, cannot or will not accept the responsibility for regularly and credibly articulating the traditions that animate Georgetown and explaining the difference that makes in what we do and the way we do it, then Georgetown cannot hope to remain a distinctive voice in the chorus of American higher education.

What does that mean? It means that deans and vice presidents, directors and coaches, department heads and section leaders, admissions and development officers all have to know – or be willing to learn – what Georgetown’s rooting traditions are all about, and they must further be able and willing to give voice to them in ways appropriate to their positions as the university continues the day-in, day-out conversation about what it means for Georgetown to be Georgetown.

The demands of this kind of leadership will vary from situation to situation but will almost always come down to what any good coach who accepts his or her responsibility as an educator does, namely keeping the big picture in focus for the whole team: “This is what we do. This is why we do it they way we do it. This is what makes us who we are. Do you see that?” And the conversation continues.

Leadership like that is not easy, and it is not always popular. It can take time for a leader to learn enough to speak for our tradition and even longer to develop the confidence to speak comfortably about it in public. But articulating the bigger picture, giving voice to Georgetown’s living tradition, must be a non-negotiable criterion for measuring, assessing and rewarding those who are entrusted with leadership at Georgetown.

If, after a couple of years at Georgetown, someone in a leadership position cannot or will not articulate the principles and particularities that make Georgetown’s mission what is it, then something is seriously amiss in the life of our community.

The Book of Proverbs insists that where there is no vision, the people perish. Experience teaches that where there is blurry vision, the people get less than they deserve. The challenge and responsibility for sustaining Georgetown’s vision falls broadly across our beloved Hilltop. The stakes could not be higher.

Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J., is an assistant dean for Georgetown College. He can be reached at AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT. appears every other Friday, with Maher and Fr. James Schall, S.J., alternating as writers.

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