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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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.