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.

It's a scheme to conjure with. One can well imagine that academic life in America would become a good deal more spirited and urbane if all institutions took this cue and dispensed likewise with the pompous titles of Doctor and Professor, honorific designations that ought, let's face it, to be limited to perhaps 200 hoary and august people in the country at any one time.

Here is an academic regimen, in short, for neither the loftily smug nor the terminally lazy. Knowledge is to be discovered hot, not spoon-fed cold; it's to be acquired as an earned possession, not purchased as a bankable commodity. Everyone who is not or does not quickly become an inquisitive self-starter is quietly or ceremoniously shamed off the premises. As a prescription for seriousness and a cure for the listlessness of what passes for college work at most degree factories these days, this isn't bad.

And so President Martin goes back to school. But not quite. He follows the full first-term freshman curriculum, but the deal is that he may observe only; he may not participate in seminar discussions, a sensible stipulation. (Nor, we should add, must he write punishingly unreadable essays.) But aside from this bar, he's a class member in full standing, one encouraged as much as his young colleagues to delve deeply into campus life--though not too deeply, as he's married and has two daughters older than his classmates.

Still, he attends a waltz group and makes a proper ass of himself as he declines to dance out of shyness, much as he did 43 years before as a real freshman. He flirts with the idea of joining a chorus. Finally, this former runner settles on crew: He'll row, showing up dutifully for practice on chilly mornings at six along with his bleary, blood-shot classmates. And upon his rowing efforts he hangs many--maybe too many--of the broader lessons he learns during his months at Annapolis, lessons of patience, perseverance, and humility.

But the lessons emerging from the seminar room are the ones we've paid for. The St. John's treatment of the Great Books might stand as the intellectual equivalent of chemotherapy in an era of chronic academic lassitude. For no matter our ages, we are all students in the presence of Plato and Aristotle, and as we might define a classic of anything as something ineffably inexhaustible, we can also say that the classic book keeps giving and giving, even to multiple-degreed college presidents with thinning hairlines.

Martin's lively depictions of his seminars reveal more than he may realize, conveying the efficacy of the method as well as the intelligence and consistent goodwill of most of the participants. A couple of tutors sit at a large table alongside the students and with nothing more than the book of the day before all of them--they're apparently discouraged from taking notes--one of the tutors opens each session with a question ("So where does Socrates come down in this dialogue on whether virtue can be taught?") and the room goes aflame with claim and counter-claim, assertion and qualification, probing query and statement of faith until we can sense, in the reading, that this vibrant scene fleshes out what Plato had in mind.

No hectoring professor lording it over a roomful of bored, incurious wastrels or neophytes, but a group of fundamentally differing minds reaching, gingerly but inexorably, toward some sort of common understanding.

Yet, perhaps unwittingly, Martin points up some of the inevitable weaknesses of this rigorous approach. A serious discussion may require more than a serious subject; it also needs serious discussants. While practically every one of the students he describes (always charitably) acquits himself and herself with an impressive maturity, a few strike us as ill-equipped for an exercise calling for so much steady, self-effacing honesty. One young woman offhandedly dubs Odysseus and his companions nothing more than "a bunch of macho slobs." (Ah, the joys of Youth! Never again will the pleasures of reductive thinking be so keen, dear.) A young man proclaims the Oresteia of Aeschylus to be devoid of value and questions the prudence of burning two hours discussing a work that a few minds superior to his own have deemed worthy of reverence for 2,500 years.

These two may be among those students who, Martin says, "speak with more frequency than insight." At least one drops out. Alas, this kind of learning isn't for everybody.

It may be true, as some critics of the Great Books method claim, that its pedagogy implicitly licenses the quarter-thought and fosters a confidence that blooms too early and bids fair to hamper plodding patience in the face of complexity, to say nothing of humility in the face of mysteries resistant to exact formulation and easy sloganeering. Conversing formally about a Great Book cannot ensure that any of its profound, finer elements will lift anybody in the room out of the torpor of trivia, still less that a few weeks of discussion over translations of Homer can make a sharp, perceptive thinker of anybody.

Surely not, but keeping intensive company with Homer, even if only briefly, can begin to make us feel our own smallness before the cosmos, and that is no small benefit. The beginning of wisdom may be the discovery that the sun does not revolve about us.

But nonsense isn't an exclusive prerogative of the younger generation alone. Martin commits a few solecisms of his own, especially ones seeded with therapeutic presuppositions and blossoming into the soft-focused lingo of the talk show and self-help section. So eager is he to dip down into the false sophistications of our popular argot that he sometimes seems to be rehearsing for an appearance with Dr. Phil--point taken about inflated titles?--instead of tracing a sober journey of intellectual rediscovery.

What else are we to make of those oily drops of contemporary thinking of the kind accusing Agamemnon of "severe parental abuse"? Yes, one may choose to put it that way. Then again, one may not.

Wandering back and forth between the seminar room and boathouse, café, and Friday-night lecture, Martin observes in passing the lives of the modern iPod-hooked, cell phone-addicted, texting-mad student, and in doing so discovers, without much surprise, that college students now are pretty much what they always were, questing minds and souls trying, by fits and starts, to make headway toward some solid sense of themselves that will help them find a secure foothold in the world.

As the weeks pass from August to December, some of these young people confide in this father-like figure. But most don't, and we understand why. He is living out of season. We can cheer him on even while cringing from time to time over the ultimate silliness of any enterprise whose object has been to transplant oneself in another stage of life. Let no man in his sixties be advised to "hang out," talk of being "pumped" for a race, or speak of Socrates being a "pain in the butt" who "turns people off."

What remains of this quirky account, once Martin's compelling story fades, is a brighter, more luminous prospect of what the life of the mind can still be for those discerning and disciplined enough to opt for the harder road. But we're still left in the end with the chief paradox of a place like St. John's, that no matter how much the college may sell itself as a grand exercise in democracy, where the greatest books lie open to all comers, this model works best when its devotees, teaching and taught alike, hunger to excel, to stand apart as singular, unique--a handy standard to sustain these days, lest we forget that excellence too holds a modest place in the American tradition.

Tracy Lee Simmons is the author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin.