Tag Archives: georgetown

Georgetown Beauty, Georgetown Power

8 Jun

My time at Georgetown was a complicated four-year blur, one I’ve struggled to relate back to non-Hoyas without falling into clichés. This past week’s five-year reunion was a chance to revisit it in all its madness: old friends together again, another afternoon of pitchers at The Tombs, of reminiscences of past exploits and ruminations of future plans, plus some hopeless overplaying of “Despacito.” I took a couple of extra days in DC to get some more one-on-one time with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and to run the Mall, dine in Union Station, and wander up around Dumbarton Oaks, those old haunts of a wide-eyed college kid. With time and distance the peaks and valleys fade into a haze, and above all I’ve come to realize how ridiculously fortunate I was to live out those four years.

After some time away, the most striking aspect of Georgetown was its beauty. There’s the beauty of the neighborhood, the first thing to strike me upon my arrival in DC ten years ago: pastel rowhouses, lush gardens, brick and cobblestones, perfect urban form, sheer aesthetic perfection. There’s the beauty of the campus, with its historic architecture and well-manicured lawns perched up over the Potomac. Sure, there was an unfortunate brutalist phase, but we’ve moved past that, and the most recent stuff, tasteful blends of modernism with the old brick and stone motifs, will stand the test of time in a way plenty of contemporary architecture won’t. And then there’s the beauty of the people: Georgetownites, both students and townies, men and women, are a remarkably attractive bunch. A walk around Georgetown is a constant brush with high fashion, sunny dresses, bronzed skin, casual elegance, and a certain excess of boat shoes and salmon shorts. My wardrobe for the weekend wasn’t exactly the one I break out for lazy Saturdays in Duluth.

Georgetown also knows how to throw a party to show off that beauty. Nearly any weekend night features a glitzy affair somewhere, with girls wobbling down cobblestone streets in high heels. College-era parties brought together the attractive people on back patios and rooftops and at the occasional event at an embassy. (They’re technically foreign soil, so lower drinking ages apply!) After final exams my senior year, there was a full week of university-sponsored partying, with various bar crawls and sporting events and a boozy journey to a farm somewhere out in Maryland. It culminated in a ridiculous night in which the university shut down Union Station to throw a final ball, its grand classical halls reimagined as elaborately themed rooms. The pomp and circumstance of commencement brought out Kentucky Derby caliber attire from the attendees. Reunion was no letdown here either, with a party at the Ritz-Carlton one night and candle-lit tents strewn around lawns on campus the next. These carnivals of beauty allow Georgetownites to revel in their own awesomeness, as inheritors of a claim to status available only to a select few.

I don’t have any illusions about what makes all this beauty possible: an incredible concentration of wealth. The neighborhood overflows with money and power. My graduating class featured more people from families in the top one percent of American households than it did from households poorer than my (very middle class) childhood. Most of my friends are now either employed by companies or attending graduate schools with very recognizable names. The dumpy off-campus house I lived in my junior and senior years, a rowhouse barely over 1,000 square feet with no garage and an eternal slick of Natty Light on its floorboards, sold for $910,000 last year. I could get myself a mid-level robber baron’s mansion in Duluth for less.

Moreover, a view of the Hilltop takes on a new light that it didn’t really have a decade ago. An electorate motivated by disdain for controlling elites is flexing its muscles, and there are few schools that scream “controlling elite” quite like Georgetown. While it may not have quite the prestige of the best of the Ivies, it has an East Coast bluebloodedness to rival any of them, to say nothing of the fact that it is located just two miles from the White House. Georgetown, with its steady flow of politicians in and out of the front gates, is as well-entrenched as any school in the status quo of the past half-century. The phrase “Georgetown cocktail party” has long been a slur directed at events for an out of touch ruling class, and at times some Hoyas do pretty well to live up to that ideal. Hoyas live a world apart, and Middle America has taken note.

Before heading back, I was curious to see if some of the snobbery I recall encountering as a freshman was impenetrable privilege or merely just the antics of pampered teenagers that one wasn’t apt to find in a Midwestern childhood. Said elitists are a minority, but among at least some, the standoffishness is indeed real. A friend and I theorized that this especially pronounced at Georgetown; for a certain brand of East Coast elite, it’s a second-tier school that comes up short of an Ivy, and the pressure to prove oneself looms large. These strivers don’t necessarily exude active disdain, but such a rigid class consciousness is also not something one finds in a place like Harvard, where simple acceptance is proof enough that one belongs. Whether we’re right or not, that struggle to break down barriers remains the greatest strike against elite schools. Some of it is just a desire to do as well as one’s parents, and to continue in the same orbits or edge into yet higher echelons; it’s hard to blame anyone for that. The trouble comes when those who enjoy Georgetown status fail to recognize it for what it is; when those who were born on second or third base think they’ve hit doubles or triples and make few or facile efforts to understand more. (I’m certainly not saying I started out at home plate, either.)

Even so, it’s a bit strange to now watch my former classmates (and myself, I suppose?) get labeled as the elite establishment, as children of a corrupt breeding ground of power and privilege that reinforces this country’s divides and sneers down at the plebes in Middle America. Above all, it’s just silly to picture most of my old peers that way after I spent four years having sloppy college parties with them, flailing about in certain classes with them, and joining them in a collective effort to figure out what one earth we were doing with our lives. Even though we’re five years older, so little had changed among us Hoyas, either in looks or in temperament: we’re still mostly a group of ambitious but uptight kids in search of the occasional release. Some of them have now maneuvered themselves into positions to make far more money than I ever will, and others of us are reaching out to grasp levers of power. We’ve been groomed for these sorts of lives, and are probably as qualified as anyone to lead them, but that does little to undermine the fragility of human experience, even in a world with so many layers of seeming sophistication. So few of us know exactly what we’re doing, and are often trapped in our own insular little worlds, no matter how outwardly cosmopolitan we may appear.

In spite of these critiques, the pride I have in those four years has only grown as I settle into a life in a land far from Georgetown. I certainly don’t mean to say Georgetown put me on a different level, but it also gave me a perspective that is fairly unique in a place like northern Minnesota, and while the world I now live in is far from Washington, I can still navigate that sea and enjoy it. I now hold a master’s degree from a flagship public university as well, and while that school gifted me with an irreplaceable group of peers and a handful of excellent professors and instructors, Georgetown now shines that much more brightly in contrast to some of the instructional mediocrity and bureaucratic rot I experienced at that institution. (There I go being an elitist again, I suppose.) I came away more convinced than I used to be that Georgetown deserves the status it projects, and that simply being there prepared me more for leadership roles than any sort of management education could have. Its brass runs a tight ship, and the academic and personal support networks are excellent. Georgetown also has a soul: its efforts at moral formation push above and beyond most other elite schools. The Jesuits still linger, even in a world where their level of commitment is increasingly alien.

At its best, Georgetown gives its students a few magical years of self-discovery, and an outlet for the hyper-ambitious among us who wouldn’t feel like we’re testing our potential to the extent that we should if we just stayed close to home. John Thompson Jr. likened Georgetown to heaven, and a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? Any philosophy that tries to suppress that instinct, whether equality-obsessed liberalism or a more conservative ethos that lashes out at people who seem to rise above their stations, is fighting a losing war against the human psyche. I’ve joked that the Georgetowns of the world aren’t part of reality, but they are very real. I lived it, and will continue to live it in certain ways for the rest of my life.

To any northern Minnesotan who wonders how I could defend such a different world, Georgetown fuels my hunger to do what I do, and paradoxically, the intellectual backdrop I lean on to do it wouldn’t exist without these dips back in those swampy waters. To the Hoyas who struggle to understand why someone gifted with all of that privilege would give a measure of it up to head back to some northern Minnesotan woods, remember how fragile Georgetown’s beauty can be, something that I suspect the passing years will underscore more and more. The most powerful determinants of a life well lived lie beyond that narrow world, and its unquestioned perpetuation has consequences far beyond DC. But that beauty is a source of power and wonder, and drives us to heights we’d otherwise never know. Georgetown forever.

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Take Me Back to Georgetown

1 Jun

I am headed to Washington D.C. this weekend, back to the site of my four-year undergraduate whirlwind. It will be my first trip there since graduation five years ago. And while I’ll be tempted to quote a favorite fictional character upon her return to a swampy capital when I first catch a glimpse of it from the airplane window, that would be some fairly shallow cynicism. Those four years at Georgetown were as rich as any I’ve had, and their legacy grows ever more obvious as time goes on.

I’ll save a more thorough reflection on what those years now mean after what is sure to be a blur of a weekend. For now, though, I’ll just gush a little bit about my excitement over revisiting some of those old haunts. (Hopefully these haunts don’t have anything to do with their demonic friends from The Exorcist, that Georgetown-based 70s horror novel and film whose author, Hoya alumnus William Peter Blatty, passed away earlier this year. There was always something symbolic about finishing another grueling D.C. run by bolting up the Exorcist Stairs just off the south end of campus.) I can be critical of my alma mater and the world it so often inhabits, and also of the city its sits in that both lured me in as a starstruck kid and also set me firmly back on a path to northern Minnesota.

 

No more sneak previews of next week’s post, though. I have a brutally early flight to catch. I’m off to revisit the great federal city, home to clean marble and festering political swamps, to stunning wealth and beauty and abject poverty, and to an old Jesuit university on a hill overlooking the Potomac. It is a fascinating, complex place, and lives in its own reality, for good or ill. John Thompson Jr., the storied basketball coach, said it best, as he so often did:

HeavenGeorgetown

Exit JTIII

26 Mar

On Thursday, the axe came down on John Thompson III, the head coach of the Georgetown men’s basketball team for the past 13 seasons. He took the Hoyas to a Final Four in 2007, won three Big East regular season titles, and brought a program a heap of thrillers against top tier competition. It was time for him to go, however, and I was mildly surprised that the university had the guts to lay Thompson’s tenure to rest.

I missed the good years. JTIII’s downfall began with a long string of losses to double-digit seeds that coincided with my first interest in Hoya hoops. (In 2008, as a high school senior with hopes of heading to the Hilltop, I watched them lose in the NCAA Tournament to unheralded Davidson and this Stephen Curry kid who came out of nowhere to have a huge game. I wonder what ever happened to him?) The Davidson loss set off a string of can-you-top-this losses to double-digit Tournament seeds: Ohio (no, not Ohio State, Ohio), Virginia Commonwealth (hello there, Shaka Smart), North Carolina State (at least they’re a power conference program…?), and Florida Gulf Coast (the last and worst). But lately, those years when they gave talented young coaches the breaks they needed to land more prestigious jobs are a happy memory. With just one Tournament appearance in the last four seasons, with transfers out and decommitments and with the same obnoxious shortcomings, it was certainly time to bid JTIII farewell.

JTIII’s dismissal has to be among the most pained firings in sports history, as evidenced by Georgetown President Jack DeGioia’s glowing retrospective in the announcement. (DeGioia, a Georgetown man through and through, named his own kid J.T.) And for good reason: despite the underperformance on the court, JTIII has done nothing but represent the program with dignity and class, and the 2007 Final Four run will forever be a proud moment, and one that restored pride to a program that had been on a downhill slide. JTIII fit the Georgetown ethos well: a blueblooded coach carrying forward a legacy, and doing it with cool composure, high standards off the court, and a somewhat antiquated but largely successful (for a while, anyway) Princeton offense built on pretty cuts.

But, enough beating around the six-foot-ten elephant in the room: the proud old Princeton Tiger’s firing was momentous because of what his name means to this program. His father, John Thompson Jr., built Georgetown up from nothing. He did it in brash and memorable ways, and in ways that went far beyond the court. He made Georgetown Big Man U, with names like Ewing, Mourning, and Mutombo all rolling through, plus a little Allen Iverson, too. He was an early pioneer among black coaches, withstanding abuse to blaze trails. John Thompson was such a larger-than-life figure that he could confront and intimidate the most dangerous of D.C.’s druglords at the height of the city’s crack epidemic. With five years from longtime assistant Craig Esherick wedged between the two Thompsons and a continued presence around everything Georgetown basketball eighteen years after his retirement, his son’s dismissal is a sudden shock to the system.

The Hoyas now head out into the great unknown. The decision to name former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue (an alumnus and Board of Directors member) co-chair of the search committee would seem to suggest the Hoyas are ready to play big league. It’s tough to guess what sort of interest the program will draw, given that it’s basically been in one family for 45 years. The Hoyas are a big name in basketball, with an NBA home arena and a sparkling new practice facility, but the cupboard is also pretty bare at the moment, and Georgetown has some quirks that could drive people away, including its high academic standards, the lack of a big state school’s huge following, and the very long shadow of John Thompson Jr. As with any other major program with an opening in recent years, Shaka Smart’s name is getting tossed around. More realistic, really, is Danny Hurley, who has done a very nice job with Rhode Island and comes from a famous basketball family that will give him some added credibility. Tommy Amaker at Harvard fits the academic pedigree this program would like, but his track record is fairly meh. Tom Crean, freshly dismissed from Indiana, has won at a high level; Notre Dame’s Mike Brey has local ties and a relatively small paycheck from the Golden Domers. Even Minnesota’s Richard Pitino is getting some serious mentions. (Hey, he already knows how to lose to a double-digit seed in the first round.) Whatever course Georgetown takes, it will be a clean break from a long tradition.

Unless, of course, they go with an alumnus who is incredibly loyal to the Thompsons, and has been biding his time as an NBA assistant for the past 14 years. A man by the name of Patrick Ewing. There are reasons to question Ewing as Georgetown coach; the NBA game is different from college, and he will certainly need to find himself some assistants who can give him a quick education in the recruiting game. At 54, he’s at a point where the kids who would play for him have no memory of him as a dominant player. It’s no secret he’s been angling for an NBA job, too; does he really want to go all in on a college program?

But I’m a sucker for tradition and continuity, so if everyone wants it to happen, I’m on the bandwagon. He’s a loyal man who will honor the brand. The program is at the point where it could use the buzz of celebrity, instead of the moderately successful mid-major coach this program is likely to command at this point in time. His return would, presumably, come with the blessing of John Thompson Jr., and spare the program any fallout there. Sure, there are risks, but there is also incredible potential. Bring the big man home.

Confronting Baltimore: David Simon at Georgetown, 2012

1 May

Baltimore is in the news this week, and any mention of Baltimore seems to make anyone in my very narrow circle make excited references to The Wire, that pinnacle of twenty-first century television. The Wire, in turn, makes me think of David Simon, the producer and brains behind the whole operation. Three years ago, on a sunny morning in Washington D.C., he gave the Georgetown College Class of 2012 commencement address. It will surprise no one who knows his work that it was a thoroughly depressing speech. Here is the text, coming from his blog named (you can’t make this stuff up) “The Audacity of Despair”:

http://davidsimon.com/commencement-address-georgetown-university/

Alright, that’s misreading Simon’s words. He’s making a deeply existentialist appeal, one that calls on people to continue the good fight in spite of the impossibility. He builds a case for national unity in the face of apparent divergence, and the events in Baltimore only underscore that concern. His diagnosis of Baltimore’s miseries in The Wire proved all too prescient, and it may indeed take a dose of Camus for anyone who has confronted this disorder to believe in any chance of improvement.

Unfortunately, Simon isn’t reading Camus quite right. Camus doesn’t confront the question of suicide because he thinks political change is impossible; he confronts it because he knows that all knowledge is impossible, and because there is always another way to look at things, no single political platform will do. There is no answer, and the world is incoherent. This, and not the possibility or impossibility of progress, is what leads Camus to call life absurd, and to suggest we soldier ahead along the one path that offers dignity, imagining Sisyphus as happy.

Very well; onward we go. Simon certainly offers a worldview; a plan of attack of sorts. He offers one lens that purports to make sense of it all. It uses nihilism, the cheapest of philosophical absolutes, as an attempt to come off as a world-wise sage. Who knows where we’re supposed to reconcile that nihilism with the genuine care for humanity that comes out of his lens. It’s a Western liberal lens concerned primarily with the rights of one’s countrymen. It sees humans in isolation, unequal, struggling for these abstractions we call rights. The policy prescription is liberal boilerplate. Halting steps might be realistic, though the end goal, as Simon readily admits, is impossible.

Yes, impossibility can inspire; I begrudge no one for chasing it. We talk a good game, say we can achieve it, and some people out there really do. But it sets an absurdly high bar, and it’s no wonder the platform faces such long odds. Many people spend most of their lives without daring to contemplate that shadow of doubt, focused relentlessly on what is before them, for good or ill. Many who do recognize it fold before it, unwilling to make Simon’s “absurd” leap. A belief of impossibility, after all, is what drives a teenager in Baltimore to throw a rock through a window. If the call to service requires either naïveté or this high a level of philosophical belief, perhaps the lens shouldn’t be our primary entry to the situation.

This doesn’t mean one who wants to “fix” Baltimore can’t have many of the same end goals or employ some of the same analytical tools as Simon; it’s just that one has to understand their place. They are means to approximate reality, not reality itself. No one lens, nor even any number of lenses deployed at once, can see that. Modern liberalism likes to think it can, and while it may come closer than many others, it still fails. Take it away, Octavio Paz:

Today a universal relativism reigns triumphant. The term is contradictory: no relativism can be universal without losing its relativity. We live in a logical and moral contradiction. Relativism has given us many good things, and the best of these is tolerance, the recognition of the other. Although I have no nostalgia for the old religious and philosophical absolutes, I’m aware that relativism–apart from its intrinsic philosophical weakness–is an attenuated form and in certain ways hypocritical of nihilism. Our nihilism is surreptitious and is coated in a false universal benevolence. It’s a nihilism that doesn’t dare say what it is. I prefer cynics, I prefer Diogenes in his barrel. A relativist society doesn’t admit what it is: a society poisoned by the lie, a slow but certain venom. The remedy, perhaps, requires a return to classical thinkers.

There is an alternative. An alternative that avoids the knee-jerk turn to the failed dreams of a narrow worldview. One that dispenses with the grand sociological theory and anger at systems, and turns attention to the immediate. One that sees history not as a blind arc from darkness to light, but caught up in a tumult of connections and feedback loops. Full understanding is impossible, but we can approximate it, and that calls for the full arsenal of perspectives we can imagine, and the humility to never claim complete knowledge. When we admit our own limitations, wonder at the void we do not know can return, and suddenly everything is a bit less bleak, a bit less doomed to failure. It is a happier, healthier place to reside.

It was at Georgetown that I came to see that different lens for what it was, and, haltingly, embrace it, though I have some fear the latest curriculum decision there will only push Georgetown further toward the vogue lens. The rush to see everything through the lens of “diversity,” I fear, will neglect any attention to a moral language that underlies the most basic human relationships, the ones that go deeper than identity-driven labels and thought constructs and settle on reality. People will settle on the established battle lines and war away, without stopping to take a closer look. Camus, for one, never lost sight of this: when while the rest of the French intelligentsia embraced the anti-colonial revolt in Algeria, Camus, an Algerian of French origin, saw more nuance. “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” He was able to strip away all the rhetoric of the age and see the human drama beneath, entranced by the little details that no one has time for.

To his credit, I think David Simon realizes this on some level. His analysis of the state of the Baltimore Police Department, right or wrong, shows keen insight. Beneath all the sociological sharpness of this and The Wire, though, are a lot of paper-thin characters. Simon’s attempt to study deeper human workings just aren’t there. But that, I suppose, would require an audacity far greater than cheap despair.

Standing on the Rim

7 Oct

No picture of the Grand Canyon can do it justice. It can be a fantastic shot, capturing all the color and the vastness and perhaps even the entire panorama. But the power of the Canyon lies in what we can’t see: it stretches for miles beyond sight even from the best of the vistas, and there are only occasional glimpses of the bottom. The more the mind ponders its reach, the greater the awe. It’s not an uncommon sense in Arizona, where so many things are big beyond belief. The canyons, mountains, and heat trigger such opposed emotions: a sense of power and triumph, as we stand at the rim of the Canyon or the peak of a mountain and proclaim this dominion as our own; a sense of smallness and frailty, as we teeter on the edge of the abyss and realize just how small we really are. A paradox? No; they are inseparable, twin sides of the peak of ambition.

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My trip to Arizona this past weekend was, by some absurdity, the first trip of any great distance that this travel-lover has taken in a couple of years. It was officially a business trip, a mission as part of my life as a secret operative who manipulates Arizona politics from somewhere up in the woods of northern Minnesota. For the most part, though, it was a chance to explore freely, to reunite with the kid who taught me the meaning of charisma, and to finally meet my partners on a campaign that successfully launched an exciting young woman into a position on the Phoenix Union High School District Board.

It began with a road trip up to the Grand Canyon, a drive that surprised with the sheer variety of the Arizona landscape. Yes, the area around Phoenix is a desert, and there are the expected mountains. But a short drive up I-17 leaves one suddenly out on an open mesa, and the region around Flagstaff has pine forests and stretches of prairie that look like they belong in Wyoming or thereabouts. On the way north we swung through Sedona, a beauty of a town nestled in between red rock cliffs, though the booming tourist trade has likely taken some toll on the New Agey vibe. Beyond Sedona was one of the most delightful drives I’ve ever done, one that whips through a narrow river valley filled with pines and plunges down a winding road that eventually switches its way back up to a view over the stunning (though not quite Grand) canyon below.

After a long day on the Arizona Autobahn, we came to the Canyon, which lived up to its billing. The trail along the South Rim gives a tour of the Canyon’s history over the past two billion years, showing the geological history and pointing out the little peaks and buttes, all named for pagan gods. Even that panoply of deities couldn’t quite fill the chasm, and in only two places could we see the muddy waters of the Colorado down at the bottom. Someday I hope to return and seek out that path that leads down to it; the allure of those slopes is too hard to pass up.

My enjoyment was sullied by one little observation that left me feeling a bit of shame on behalf of my country.  Somehow, four out of every five tourists on the path were not Americans. They were almost all Europeans, with French and Germans being the most obvious, along with some Portuguese and Spaniards and some Poles who struggled to take our picture. The Americans were nowhere to be seen beyond the overlook at the parking lot. Are we really that incapable of walking down a flat, paved path? Has the genuine experience of drinking in the landscape and feeling something deeper really been replaced by the dull routine of snapping a picture and checking off a box that says ‘I’ve been here’? There is so much more to see, and it takes embarrassingly little effort to see it.

Phoenix itself is unlike any city I’ve ever seen, a sprawling grid of near-endless suburbia. There is so much space; to borrow my travel partner’s simile, it’s as if someone poured the development across the flat plane, and it has spread like water as far as it could. The downtown is similarly spread out, and it’s hard to find any sort of node or center of action. A Friday night street festival, however, did bring out a stunningly diverse crowd, and there were certainly pockets of wealth and poverty, from the mind-boggling array of tennis courts and private pools below Camelback Mountain to the parts on the west side that might as well have been lifted out of Mexico.

Whatever one thinks of its development patterns, Phoneix still seems like a city on the leading edge of American culture. When I call the U.S. an adolescent nation, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. (Well, not entirely.) It has its downsides, clearly, but there’s a life to it, too. There is a sense in which Arizona is still the frontier. There is so much space that it still has that feeling, even if most people go home to their perfect little subdivisions. There’s a love for guns and a boom in nondenominational Evangelical churches, tapping into a strain of religious belief that again looks to cut off the past and build something new. A majority of residents are transplants. History doesn’t mean a whole lot here, but there’s an awful lot of belief in the future. Phoenicians, one senses, are not a resigned folk, as us northern Minnesotans can be; their schools may be much worse off on the whole, but at least in some circles there is an energy dedicated to attacking problems that I haven’t always seen in the north. Phoenix’s dreams for the future will rest on its ability to take this energy and harness it and build things that last in place of the investment in the immediate that now predominates. That will take time, and a recognition of limits that are hard to see, but it will come, sooner or later.

Saturday brought a delicious authentic Mexican meal, a campaign victory party in the most eclectic club I’ve ever seen, and a hike up a mountain for good measure. What began as a leisurely hike escalated quickly, with sharp inclines difficult (but possible!) to scale without the railing, and constant reminders that mountains are always taller than one thinks. It was 95 degrees and cloudless, yet I couldn’t help myself from setting a brisk pace, barreling up and down the mountain to see it in all its glory. Flat Phoenix unfolded like a carpet below, and I was back on the edge as I’d been at the Canyon, once again in awe of the expanse of it all.

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One might think that all of this vastness lends itself to broad thinking, but in reality, the deep thought needed no such catalyst. Instead, it came from a reunion of three Georgetown friends, back together to wrestle with questions great and small, keeping our little salon going until 4 AM, tearing into each other without a hint of malice as we probe at the foundations of our thought. Unsettling to those not a part of it, perhaps, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We need to know.

There’s a common experience to Georgetown grads—especially for those of us who have taken somewhat less traveled paths after graduation—that we struggle to share with anyone else. We’re floating between two worlds, too aware and proud of our roots to cut them off, but too consumed by that chase and the things we’ve learned along the way to ever go entirely home. Call it the burden of ambition: how do we harness that restlessness, that frenetic energy that feeds on itself and makes us who we are? Even the numerous Hoyas who have gone straight for the halls of power—consulting, banking, law school—are often self-aware enough that they are fighting similar wars, trying to stay grounded while immersing themselves in worlds that will let them reach those dreams.

As most know, my position at the end of the day is on the side of the roots: it is my way of making sense of the world’s madness, and of resolving those older issues that need resolution. I know that going home saved my sanity, and it has also done wonders for my Arizona friend, whose relentless drive in certain areas threatened to derail his promise. Still, it was hard not to feel that twinge of allure when back in with that Georgetown energy, and, being a Hoya, I’m not going to run and hide from that, or worry that it’ll mess up my little narrative: it’s an important part of me too, and the story is still writing itself. It makes me think, it pushes me, and I live for those moments when we sit there and argue about it all, lurching toward something approaching understanding, at once both earnest yet able to laugh about it all.

As for my friends who are ready to go back to the climb, I have nothing but encouragement: it would be folly to cut off that drive. It’s exhilarating, and the view from the top can’t be matched. But the mountain is always higher than it seems, and that it’s a mistake to run too far ahead of the people carrying the water bottles. A few breaks along the way do wonders (and Minnesota will always welcome those who look to take one). After every climb comes a descent, and it has to be measured, taken carefully; it is all too easy to go plunging to a dramatic death. But it’s worth the risk. Once again: the trouble is not in the climb, but in the refusal to look back along the way we’ve come.

Utraque Unum

28 Aug

To date, I’ve avoided discussing my alma mater, Georgetown University, in much detail on this blog. My thoughts are convoluted, and I wanted to gain a little more distance from those four years before doing so. I think I’m finally there, and a new book provides a great vehicle for writing about my time as a Hoya. This summer, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz penned a book entitled Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. It’s a variation on an old theme, one confronted by Allan Bloom’s closing American mind, David Brooks’s Organization Kid, and any number of cultural critics over the past few decades. The premise is simple: so-called ‘elite’ universities are failing students, turning intellectually sharp kids into corporate drones who ask no great questions who are just obsessed with climbing the ladder of wealth and power.

The vast majority of these essays are incredibly personal in nature; the main piece will describe the author’s time at University X and the troubles he or she has seen, and everyone else associated with any school that is vaguely comparable to University X is then obligated to opine. (Opining is, after all, what academics are good at.) I now present my offering in that noble tradition, though I hope this meta-awareness keeps me from falling into some of the more familiar traps.

I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, of course, but my alma mater isn’t far off. Particularly for the politically inclined, Georgetown is that shining city on a hill above the Potomac, its allure sometimes surpassing that of the Ivies. It has the admissions rate to match, even if the endowment lags; relying on the Catholic Church to fund one’s first few centuries kept the school from seeking donations as aggressively as its Ivy friends, leading Georgetown to expend a lot of effort in recent capital campaigns. It qualifies as an “elite school,” whatever that exactly means.

There was a time when I was rather critical of my alma mater, and I agree with a number of Deresiewicz’s critiques. In my senior year, I actually discouraged a high school friend from applying, and I stand by that call. The most surprising thing to me was what I perceived as a general lack of intellectual curiosity on display. I went in thinking Georgetown students were in some higher class of brilliance than my high school peers; some certainly were, but many were not. They’d just been raised in families with higher expectations, and come out of private high schools and SAT tutoring programs that specialize in funneling kids into elite colleges. They knew the landscape better, but their minds didn’t appear any sharper for it.

Careerism pervaded many aspects of university life. Dating, while possible, was rare: few felt it worthwhile to put in the effort, especially with grad school and travel and a decade of way-finding to follow. It was much easier to just find a good weekend hook-up and then get back to our frantic studies once the hangover had worn off. And while there was a small cadre of radicals, political debate was pretty rare, too. Elite American universities are nothing like the politically charged incubators of protest they might have been in past generations, with a vague social liberalism and fiscal moderation just accepted as the general culture. The primary aim of a Georgetown student is to “be productive;” it doesn’t really matter what they think of the things they produce, so long as they are producers.

At one point, I also became aware that a certain professor generally regarded as the don of campus intellectual life had opined that the decline in student interest in certain fellowships and related pursuits was related the increase in middle-class students from the center of the country. These students, lacking the comfort of the old money elites that had traditionally populated schools like Georgetown, were a bit more careerist and didn’t have as much time for intellectual pursuits. At the time this sentiment pissed me off, and I still think our dear professor ought to have descended from his ivory tower and made a better pitch to those of us who didn’t know what sort of path we’d have to take to pursue such things, but I don’t think he was wrong. It is very difficult to be a detached intellectual without a certain degree of material comfort. Still, I think there was an untapped market there for him, and for a somewhat hotheaded college student, those sorts of words are alienating. It’s a shame, because I usually respond well to hard-asses, and could have used him in my life.

This unexpected careerism caused some culture shock, which was heightened by questions of money and hometown. In high school, I’d never found class to be a serious barrier for communing with other people; in college, I was hyper-aware of my status as the kid on heavy financial aid from a small city somewhere in flyover country. (A conversation repeated numerous times: ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Duluth, Minnesota.’ ‘Is that near the Twin Cities?’ ‘No.’ This elicited shock, as the person tried to fathom life beyond the suburban ring.) I’ve playfully mocked the University of Minnesota for having a course in “Understanding Minnesota Nice,” but I could have used a crash course in DC culture before I got there.

In retrospect, I was a bit uncharitable to many of my classmates and the old guard professors, and my Duluth pride may have understandably come off as rather obstinate, or just quirky. I was just someone from somewhere else; an occasional object of curiosity, but most people were too busy to sit about and ponder these things. I don’t blame them; outside of a fairly close circle of friends, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time pondering them, either. I had all the same concerns, and might have looked just as intellectually disinterested as the rest. Most of us were in the same boat.

The reasons for that often had little to do with Georgetown. This is life in America’s quasi-meritocracy, and the school is swept up in that; sure, it can and should do some work around the margins to tone that down, but only so much. (What’s it supposed to do, reject applicants with awesome resumes? Paternalistically crack down on students’ love lives? Good luck with that.) In the grand scheme of things, my struggles were pretty minor, and by graduation I’d more or less found my niche. That’s adolescent life, really. In this, I agree with the Robert Nisbet critique, detailed in Nathan Heller’s New Yorker review of Excellent Sheep: expecting a university to be a place where people focus on shaping their souls inflates its role, and also takes a rather solipsistic view of education. It’s not all about us.

Likewise, some of my frustrations with Georgetown had a lot more to do with me than with Georgetown. My rural Ohio roommate, for example, had a much smoother transition. I went in naïve about certain aspects of college life; throw in some family upheaval, and it wasn’t hard for an already introspective person to tip over into hyper-awareness. Add in a temperament generally skeptical of cliques, one that is equally at ease discussing Aristotle over wine one night and watching football over cheap beer the next, and it’s no surprise that I was adrift by sophomore year. Building community is tough when you don’t always share some of those lowest-common-denominator cultural norms, yet aren’t happy drifting off into a narrower counterculture, either.

Reading all this, you’d probably get the sense that I wasn’t very happy at Georgetown. There were definitely some frustrating moments. But if I could go back and do it again, I’d do it in a heartbeat, and I’d push any kids of mine who share my temperament to do the same. Why? It’s a matter of ambition; for some of us, nothing short of this will ever do. Ambition and anxiety are joined at the hip, and I had to get beyond college to learn how to negotiate that interplay. That drive is too much of who I am to imagine a different life, and I expect it’s the same with many of my peers. It might not make sense to someone from the outside, but some of us are just wired this way, and there is no alternative.

On that front, Georgetown really did get a lot right. It prepped me well and got me to think deeply. The vast majority of the time I had real professors (not grad students), most of them brilliant. Sure, the students were career-focused, but the best of the professors knew how to pull them out of that and tap into some well-hidden intellectual energy. Anyone claiming they weren’t getting that out of their students probably wasn’t trying hard enough, or was failing to communicate or command respect. I also saw that my focus on the superficial was often just as bad as that of others, and that I had to dig deeper to find more.

Georgetown’s emphasis on faith, diversity, and social justice did seem like window dressing at times, but in a world hyper-saturated with opportunity, the school probably had to be a bit repetitive to get its point across. The Office of Mission and Ministry might not have quite satisfied the hardline Catholics, but it did leave a door open for exploration and allow for the creation of healthy minority communities. (In this day in age, any religious group on campus is a minority.) The same could be said for racial or sexual minorities, who had their spaces on campus. The Center for Social Justice likewise was pretty robust, and did a decent job of getting Hoyas out of the Georgetown Bubble to realize there was a wider world out there. Maybe there was no ideal spot for me there since I didn’t quite fit in any of the above, but I refuse to be a whiny victim about that. If Georgetown was indeed supposed to help me find my soul, it really did that. I’m probably in the minority there, but the path was open for anyone willing to take it; I wouldn’t even say it was particularly hard to do so. Even though I’m a Minnesotan at heart, I needed to get out and see Rome, and there were things I learned about myself there (and in that sublime semester in Mexico) that I wouldn’t have gained anywhere else.

I’ll throw in one last cynical twist, though: frankly, I went overboard in finding myself, often to the detriment of my relationships with the people around me. Add in some excessive pride over doing things my own way, and it’s no wonder I came out of there without any sort of career path. The debate between career readiness and soul formation is a false dichotomy. A university can’t do either one alone, but there’s no reason it can’t contribute to some of both. Hence the Georgetown motto, ‘Utraque unum’—‘both one.’ The eagle on the Georgetown seal holds the world in one talon and a cross in the other, uniting faith and reason.

The people who best embodied this were the professors. They imparted wisdom both personal and practical, and also taught us in things that were not relevant to our immediate careers. For some Hoyas that meant courses with people with real-world experience, like Madeleine Albright or Chuck Hagel; for me, it meant finding the university’s best minds. My path involved the Classicist icon Fr. James Schall, rising stars like Fr. Matthew Carnes and Desha Girod, the incredible detachment of Eusebio Mujal-Leٚón, the badass Barbara Mujica, and Patrick Deneen, that old guard conservative who was the great defender of liberal education. They’re the enduring images of my undergraduate academic career. The best of their number were all authorities who commanded respect, even as they invited us to fumble about with our own two cents.

It’s also not coincidental that a couple of them were Jesuits; in fact, I think they were all Catholic. As tiresome as some of the university’s canards on faith became, that unending presence made Georgetown unique. I’m not Catholic, but I’ve directed all of my (puny) donations to date to Georgetown mission and ministry. That unique identity is worth cultivating, and is essential in keeping the university from becoming a factory of careerist automatons. When it comes to reining that in, schools rely on what they know best, and keep with a mission that survives the march of time. If you can’t stand being in the presence of Catholics, don’t go to a Catholic school. There should be diverse options among colleges, and that diversity should mean something, instead of it just being a cheap selling point.

Georgetown and its ilk are not for everyone, nor should they be. We don’t want a world where everyone is a hyper-driven Hoya; we need people with different temperaments. I’m at a big state school now, and while it’s too early for me to say much about it, they certainly have their strengths: size begets diversity and sub-cliques that aren’t possible at smaller schools. Liberal arts colleges have their place as well, for those who really want to go all-in on the soul formation and have the resources to make it work. Vocational training is also essential, and deserves higher repute; perhaps more than anything, higher ed in this country needs to revive traditions such as the apprenticeship, and give kids easier roads from school to career so that they don’t come out panicking about what comes next. Paradoxically, a more direct career focus could free people up to spend more time on those questions of the soul that usually get forgotten when we have to figure out how to put food on the table.

But for those of us who can’t live without that constant pursuit of greatness, whatever that might be, the Ivy League and its ilk are necessary. Somewhere underneath it all, there’s usually a desire for a completed soul, and that too can be the object of our pursuit of excellence—and just like careerism, it can go overboard. There is nowhere better than these schools to find that holistic place where the both become one. Maybe I’m a sellout in my acceptance of all this blind ambition, but if I am, I make no apologies. The trouble is not in the chase; it is in refusing to look back to see where we’ve come from.

My Washington

23 Mar

Spring (or the lack thereof) is by far the most miserable season in Duluth, and by late March, it’s not hard to flash back to those four brilliant springs I enjoyed in Washington, D.C. By now everything is abloom, midterms are underway, and Georgetown basketball has already made its annual embarrassing early exit from the NCAA Tournament. Bouncyball angst aside, Georgetown is such a vibrant campus that one can go all four years without venturing far from M Street and the handful of streets that feed down into it. I can hardly describe it to Duluthians without resorting to a string of bubbly clichés. The neighborhood is a storybook village, the brick and pastel rowhouses lining the cobblestone streets interrupted by old trolley lines, a historical plaque on practically every building. (My personal favorite: one that read “On this site in 1897, nothing happened.”) The Georgetown Bubble is a college student’s pleasure dome, and few are called to venture out into the wider city: classes consume us, special events abound, and on Friday and Saturday nights, a short walk to The Tombs is all we need.

Of course, everyone gets out for at least one Monuments Tour at night, goes and stands before Lincoln and Jefferson in awe, or in the memorials to Vietnam and Korea in reverence. This time of year, the FDR Memorial is the place to be: its lights shine through the waterfalls and illuminate inspired quotes, the whole scene robed in the soft luminescence of the cherry blossoms, a full moon gazing down on the Tidal Basin. And then, of course, there are the Smithsonians and their various friends, usually toured with a group of friends or visitors from back home, though every once in a while on my own, freeing me to stand transfixed in front of Magritte’s “La condition humaine” at the National Gallery for as long as I choose. The sprawling Mall, where everything looks closer than it actually is, the grassy avenue fading away toward the Capitol, down past that spot where I stood as Barack Obama took the oath of office. Across the Key Bridge in the Virginia are more markers of the past, perhaps less visited but no less impressive: Roosevelt Island, Iwo Jima, the Netherlands Carillon with its peerless view of the city, and Arlington Cemetery.

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Today, though, I write not about the DC of monuments and museums and marble at every turn, but instead of the world beyond. It’s a city of both beauty and sorrow, one that encompasses both the best and the worst of the nation ruled from its center. It was never home, but it became a part of me, its little corners tugging me back and inviting a second look.

First, there is Northwest DC, a common haunt for a Hoya with aspirations of calling himself a runner. Quiet, leafy streets, well-tended homes, and the occasional tasteful business district slipped in to make it all walkable. Just behind campus lies the Glover-Archbold Parkway, an avenue of green that heads five miles north through all the bustle, up toward American University. A side trail leads to Battery Kemble Park, an old Civil War artillery outpost atop a hill, where I’d keep watch over the dog-walkers from a picnic table, free to study away from the cloud of stress hanging over the Georgetown library, away from the distractions of campus life. Further along, another site in the ring of forts protecting the District, this one now a reservoir: Fort Reno Park, a windy expanse where I’d flop in the grass and drift off, jolted to life only when the students of Woodrow Wilson High poured out into the sunlight at the end of their day, spray-painting prom invites on a weathered wooden stage and taking me back to afternoons on the lawn out in front of the old Duluth East.

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Shifting west, the city becomes more unique, more authentically DC. There is the Naval Observatory, its daily bugle calls audible from my off-campus house on R Street; the bars of Glover Park, underused by Georgetown students. Beyond that rises the monolithic Russian Embassy, and then the National Cathedral, a Gothic marvel, and one of the few American houses of worship that can rival anything in Europe or Latin America. Its nave could hold the Washington Monument on its side, but its beauty comes out in the details as well: the quiet chambers in the crypt, the contemplative Bishop’s Garden, and the preppy St. Alban’s campus unfolding below. In the midst of the urban jungle, a refuge where no one will ask any questions.

To the east of campus lies a world of great wealth and aesthetic beauty. Down the brick sidewalk past the Argentine gelato place (now sadly shuttered) one comes to Dumbarton Oaks, a walled estate whose very name suggests grandiose affairs. The name does not lie: it was here that, in 1944, the Allies laid the groundwork for the United Nations. It is a wonder to this day, its sprawling gardens offering romantic allure at every turn, tempting the young to hop its walls with a wine bottle after dark and settle along one of its pools or masterfully manicured courts. Behind its grounds are public parks, filled with flowers and woods and babbling streams, with a footpath snaking its way along Rock Creek up toward the giant parkland separating east and west DC. Beyond it is Embassy Row, its stately avenues filled with little monuments: the Khalil Gibran Memorial, Gandhi in stride, a Brazilian aviator, the Bard of Ukraine, the memorial on the spot where Chilean dissidents were killed by a car bomb. The Spanish Steps, plucked out of Rome and shrunk into a shady cul-de-sac with a fountain that never works. Some of the embassies bustle with enthused energy; others hide behind bars and gates, guarding the secrets of statecraft. This is the DC that dreams are made of, its well-heeled families parading about with their perfect children, its shady streets a short walk from the bustle of Dupont Circle.

That is only one of the city’s many faces, though. Much of downtown DC is a drab wasteland of government buildings and everything that comes with them, a sclerotic mix of government and contractors and the echo chambers of K Street. This is the heart of L’Enfant’s city, but his plazas are now mostly a home for the homeless, a reminder that all is not well, even as the capital’s wealth overflows. At night, all is dead. Even vibrant Chinatown further along is a bit manufactured, but there is at least some life here: the bars, the restaurants, the National Gallery, and the Verizon Center, home to Georgetown basketball. (Let’s please not talk about this season.) There is the government center where we endured Zoning Commission meetings on a proposed campus plan, plus the National Building Museum, where I once spent an evening with Ann Coulter. (Ask Uncle Chuck about that one.) And, to the east, Union Station, its great atrium modeled on the Baths of Diocletian, the site of many of my DC comings and goings, plus that final senior ball the night before I walked across the stage.

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For more interesting environs, head north. To Adams-Morgan, with its bar-lined cosmopolitan boulevard, a pleasant break from the pretension of M Street, though the creep of gentrification looms. Indeed, that is a theme all across the north side, from Hispanic Columbia Heights to the historically black corridors of U Street and H Street Northeast, with a vibrant Ethiopian community mixed in. The food is delicious, the diversity is real, the rents aren’t through the roof—but one suspects they will be soon, and with them will go the vibrant city. But for now it is a delight, teeming with life, melting seamlessly into the bourgeois Northwest by the National Zoo before drifting into the part of the city that is still uniformly African-American. Wedged between Adams-Morgan and that Latino nonprofit in Mount Pleasant where I once doused myself in silvery paint while brushing up a balcony lies Meridian Hill Park, among the greatest of DC curiosities. Up top, a stately lawn reminiscent of a European capital; below, a sprawling fountain and a memorial to the not-so-memorable James Buchanan, to say nothing of the statues of great American heroes like Joan of Arc and Dante. It has a little of everything, attracts some of everyone, though that rare mix may prove fleeting.

To the east lies a DC few outsiders visit, though that is changing, as the money flows in and developers snap up the real estate. The District’s black population, no longer its majority, is drifting eastward into Prince George’s County. The southeast riverfront looks nothing like it once did, with Nationals Stadium and its crisp sightlines rising up on the banks of the Anacostia. RFK Stadium, once the main attraction on the east side, is on its way out, with its last tenant—the DC United soccer club—headed for a soccer-specific stadium near Nationals Park in the not-so-distant future. To the north, one monument stands unchanged while DC shifts around it: the National Shrine, the nation’s largest Catholic church, and one unlike any other with its exquisite Byzantine look.

Across the Anacostia’s polluted waters lie a few sites worthy of a visit. The Anacostia Community Museum, exiled far from the rest of its Smithsonian brethren, and the Fredrick Douglass House, sitting stately atop a hill. Parts of Southeast aren’t nearly as blighted as conventional wisdom would have you believe. Yet the troubles persist. The projects and planning schemes have amounted to nothing; even Marion Barry’s patronage machine couldn’t do much to change the fate of his home ward. Just past the corner of Martin Luther King and Malcom X sits Ballou High, where I spent part of a semester in a class that had us trying to instill some civic engagement in a struggling, all-black public school. Through the metal detectors, down chaotic halls, into a classroom where maybe half of the kids would show up—and these were the survivors, the seniors, the thirty percent who’d made it through from freshman year. Midyear we were thrown from the school, ostensibly for lack of communication, but more likely because we were witnesses to the shock therapy imparted by Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

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The status quo was untenable, but the vicious cuts and relentless turnover didn’t make much of a difference. Five years later, not much has changed, save for the changes brought on by the eastward march of urban renewal schemes. A few heroic teachers and community leaders battle on, trying something, anything, that hasn’t been tried before, but one senses that Black DC is slipping away, scattering through suburbs off toward Baltimore. The new District will be beautiful, and offer ideal urban living—for those who can afford it. It will continue to attract the best and the brightest, those who believe they’ve outgrown wherever it is they’ve come from, a transient city for the ambitious of all political stripes. I could have been happy there, in among the interesting neighborhoods and people, perhaps living in a grand old house, raising children amid all that cultural wealth while still being able to show them the other side, and to do what I could to keep the vibrancy alive.

And yet I made no effort to stay in DC after I graduated from Georgetown. I left in part for reasons my old professor and fellow ex-Washingtonian, Patrick Deneen, describes here; in part for more personal reasons. Distance, however, has eased some of my jadedness, and I can now remember all those little details with unburdened fondness. I no longer reject Washington; it left a mark I cannot deny, and in many ways it was a positive one. I’ll happily go back and dip my feet in from time to time. But it was also just one chapter in a much longer book, and the strength of those chapters is measured not in my closeness to power, nor in my rejection of it. It will come instead, I think, in how fully I lived in each of those years, what I learned from them, and how I took those lessons and used them to write the later chapters. In that, Georgetown proved an excellent guide—but it couldn’t have done it without its city, one whose streets my mind will forever wander.