Not long ago I heard a modern parable that goes something like this: In the early 1960s, shortly after committing this nation to “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” President Kennedy paid a visit to the folks at Cape Canaveral whose workaday task it was to make his promise a reality. Before giving a speech to a large and eager NASA audience, the president was given a tour of the space facility. Along the way, he met all sorts of people who worked there.

He engaged each of them in the polite banter that such occasions prompt. “And what do you do here?”Well, Mr. President,” said one, “I am the telemetry engineer. My job is to make sure the flight vectors are all within acceptable parameters.” Another replied, “I am the flight surgeon. I make sure the astronauts are all physically fit to fly.” A third, “I am the communications director. I monitor and maintain the satellite and radio networks that enable us to talk to the astronauts throughout the mission.”I see,” Kennedy said, and the tour continued until just before the president was scheduled to speak.

Standing in a crowded hallway backstage while waiting to be introduced, Kennedy found himself standing, somewhat awkwardly, next to a man who worked on the loading dock of the facility. The man was holding a broom. Dutifully, the president inquired, “And what do you do here?” Without so much a moment’s hesitation, the man replied, “Why, Mr. President, I’m helping send a man to the moon.”

A simple question evokes a surprisingly, even startlingly, rich and multi-layered answer. The stuff of parables. The stuff of Jesuit education.

The experts in the parable answer quickly, almost instinctively, from their professional and technical expertise. The “back story” that informs their answer to the president’s query is shallow and narrow, all about immediacy, specificity and functionality. Their broom-pushing colleague’s answer is deeper and broader, all about meaning, motivation and purpose. Both sets of answers are, of course, true. Neither is unimportant. But one is more deeply true and therefore more deeply satisfying and more deeply important in the project of education at Georgetown.

You know all too well that part of what Georgetown aims to do is provide you with the ability to enter into the life of the world beyond college with the kind of competence and know-how that will enable you to get a job or get into graduate school or enter into a year or two of significant service. That reflects the pre-professional tendency that characterizes most Hoyas. Some bemoan that aspect of Hoya-ness. I do not.

Jesuits founded schools precisely with an eye toward making a difference in the life of the world, not in theory but in practice: in courts and hospitals, in schools and theaters, in banks and law offices, in the halls of political, economic and cultural power. Georgetown wants you to be able to give an answer along with the first crowd in the Kennedy parable. “This,” we hope you will be able to say, “is my job, and I do it well because of what I learned at Georgetown.”

But Georgetown will not be satisfied unless you can also give a different kind of answer, a deeper answer, an answer grounded in a back story worthy of a human being fully alive, a back story informed by the deepest truth of what it means to be a human being. Helping you piece together and appropriate that back story is the point of a liberal arts education in the Catholic and Jesuit tradition.

We want you to have what the Second Vatican Council called a “comprehensive view of reality,” an understanding of the nature and meaning of creation, and of your place in it. We want you to be able to answer along with the broom-toting guy on the loading dock at NASA in a way that speaks to the bigger picture which gives context and meaning to the smaller-picture aspects of your life. We want to help you search for good answers to life’s big questions, and we believe that our tradition provides exactly that.

All of that, of course, involves a lot more than just developing and honing your analytical and cognitive skills. It primarily involves nurturing and expanding and informing your imagination, as my Jesuit confrere Fr. Jim Walsh, S.J., pointed out so well on this page last week (“GU Education Needs Imagination,” THE HOYA, Sept. 12, 2008, A3).

Georgetown’s hopes for you are big and serious because we know that your talents are many and your destiny eternal. That’s why we hope that should you bump into President DeGioia one day during your time here and he should ask you, “What are you doing here?” your answer will be something deeper, more fully human, than “international economics” or “pre-med” or, God forbid, simply “research.”

So, pick up your brooms, my beloved Hoyas, and aim for the stars.

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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