The Magazine

Great Books Redux

An educator strives to rediscover knowledge.

Dec 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 14 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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Racing Odysseus

A College President Becomes a Freshman Again

by Roger H. Martin

California, 280 pp., $24.95

Perhaps we could write off Roger H. Martin's bizarre decision to the onset of a "midlife crisis" and make our facile diagnosis stick, had he not safely passed the moment for that milestone over a decade before. Or the move might have been inspired by a costly and elaborate bit of field research designed to astound the trustees. Or maybe it arose from a gnawing need to take a whack at reality and go slumming for a spell.

Whatever the explanation may be--and it's never made exceptionally clear in this book--here before us stands the fantastical fact: Four years ago, Roger H. Martin, 61 years old and a respected historian, snatched a sabbatical from his eminent post as president of Randolph-Macon, a fine liberal arts college in Ashland, Virginia, and betook himself to wind back his intellectual and emotional clock over 40 years and
reenter college for one term as a freshman, as though the trial of his first experience as a college freshman hadn't been, as we discover it was, horrid enough.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, we have here, it would seem, either a nut case of a loon--or a man, noble and true, who has achieved both a wisdom and humility of Socratic proportions. However that may be, what we know we have here is a tale worth reading.

Martin's little adventure did not come ex nihilo. He had been fighting a desperate battle with a nasty form of melanoma a few years before embarking on this experiment, enduring the excruciating treatments and deflations of spirit attending a lingering death sentence. But as he rallied and as the metastasizing cancer lapsed into a blessed remission, he found himself, a tired and grateful survivor, prompted to take an almost spiritual accounting of his life, his accomplishments, failures, and still-smoldering hopes alike.

Perhaps he wished to be young one last time before easing finally and irrevocably into his decrepitude; it's an ancient yearning. The gods not allowing that, though, he thought he could at least try to see the world as the young see it today and emerge somehow richer for having done so.

A gamble, we should think, at best. Yet we come to enjoy his tumble of the dice. After negotiations that must have been amusing to witness, Martin gets himself admitted to the freshman class of 2004 at a place prominently mentioned in the previous review: St. John's College in Annapolis, the agreeably archaic institution still hoisting high the banner of the Great Books movement, installed securely at St. John's since 1937. Martin, as it turns out, chose well if not typically.

St. John's does not pretend to serve slackers. Students there declare no majors; practically the whole of the four-year curriculum of original reading in the humanities and sciences comes rigidly set, from Homer to Euclid to Virgil to St. Thomas Aquinas to Descartes to Hegel to Tolstoy to Melville, a daunting course of perennial philosophical and literary works. Classes as such don't exist; no one lectures to legions of the drowsily inert. Instruction, such as it is, happens in seminars and tutorials where students learn dialectically, by engaging in guided give-and-take with tutors--the diminutive title for faculty--and, most of all, fellow students.

Textbooks are pitched: Students read only what authors of the distant past wrote, not what their later interpreters have claimed they wrote. Even mathematics (through close reading of Euclid, for instance) gets tackled this way. The reading list, while formidable, is admittedly narrow and, according to critics of Great Books teaching, impractically so. Yet the very narrowness of the curriculum sharpens the point of the place, the idea being not to read many works cursorily but to read a few of them exhaustively and emerge with a trained mind that can grapple with anything else on its own.

This method does not aim at dogma. Students are "told what to study but not what to think," as one "Johnnie" puts it. At St. John's the passion for learning is taken in dead earnest, smoothing manners and elevating tone. Decorum dictates that all members of the community, both faculty and students, be addressed as Mr. or Ms. with surname appended, a courteous practice: Students are credited for the adults they are or should aspire to be, and faculty, no matter how accomplished in the realm of scholarship, are treated simply as veteran fellow laborers in the vineyards of learning, not as experts demanding, or even especially deserving, deference.