O'BRIEN: Intellectual Risks Yield New Insights
Published: Friday, January 25, 2013
Updated: Friday, January 25, 2013 03:01
Emile Allais died last year at the age of 100. Few outside of the realm of competitive skiing would recognize his name, but his popularization of the tactic of keeping skis parallel to each other to maintain speed on turns revolutionized the sport in the 1930s. According to The New York Times’ Hugo Lindgren, “His contribution to skiing qualifies as one of history’s ‘duh’ moments: What if we try it this way instead? ”
In this wondrously instructive obituary, we are taught an important lesson about Jesuit education. If we are true to our spirit, we should regularly elicit such “duh” moments.
A Jesuit education should inspire in students a certain creativity that impels them to ask the next big question, to never to settle for easy answers and to think out of the box. While we must humbly seek to learn from others in our intellectual, religious and cultural traditions, we must also be free to contribute to those traditions with bold thinking. Because the tradition of learning is a living one, sincere learners have something to contribute to the conversation. The educator’s job is to help the students recognize their talents, give voice to their thinking and sometimes take worthwhile risks.
Over a dinner of pulled pork at Old Glory, I asked three juniors whether they thought Georgetown students were having enough of these “duh” moments. One pointed out that we are too distracted. To think out of the box, we first need to perceive the need or opportunity. But that can be very difficult in a culture where our attention spans have been reduced by information overload and incessant multitasking. Another wondered whether we are too easily lulled into inaction or apathy because problems often seem too complicated to address. Or perhaps, we are too comfortable to risk giving up what we have or know in pursuit of a solution that may ultimately elude us.
The third student was lost in thought. Then he picked up the ketchup bottle, the new inverted kind that stood squarely on its cap. No more shaking or patting the bottom to get the ketchup out. “Duh,” he said. “Why did it take them so long to figure that out?”
Insights sometimes take a while to crystalize. Jesuit education should create time and space for ideas to marinate and for conversations of depth to take place — even over pulled pork. We all need more patience. We cannot rush the answers. We can, however, ferment creativity by reading widely, listening attentively to people different from ourselves and finding more silence and solitude to allow insights to incubate.
To ask “What if we try it this way instead?” inevitably means going against the grain. Immediately, one is put on the outside, which can be a lonely place. Thus, Jesuit education must instill courage in students. Out on the proverbial limb, we risk being wrong. While we rightfully applaud success, we need also to commend the noble pursuit of a cause greater than ourselves, even one that leads to failure.
While I applaud Allais for making skiing more exhilarating and the Heinz Company for getting ketchup on my burger more quickly, I am most edified by those who bring their own brand of creative courage to today’s social problems. Looking at the divisions that mark our society and its endemic poverty and injustices, these out-of-the-box thinkers and doers insist,“It does not have to be this way. What if we try it another way instead?”
“Duh,” the rest of us say, resolving to take on the next challenge with a bit more creativity and holy boldness.
Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., is the vice president for mission and ministry. AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT… appears every other Friday.