Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Making a Republic--at St. Johns

Roger Martin's Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again is the real-life story that reads like many an adult dream.  At the age of 61, Martin takes a sabbatical from his academic job to enroll as a freshman at St. John's College in Annapolis.  St. John's is sometimes called "the great books college"--where all students read the classics of Western culture from Homer and Plato in the first year to Tolstoy and Hegel the senior year.  Instead of lectures by professors, there are seminars with tutors.  Instead of majors, everyone studies the same basic curriculum.  Instead of competitive grades, there are discussions with advisors.  If you don't know about this school already, just check out their reading list and see if you don't start dreaming about being 18 with a clean slate ahead of you.

Martin's assumptions about the slate ahead of him at 61 are reduced not only by his age but his experience of a very serious illness (metastatic melanoma) a few years before his time at St. Johns.  Even more than most of us, he needs to see his place in life as part of the long flow of time and also one that allows personal growth.  "I needed to prove to myself that I still had a future," writes Martin.  "That even in my sixties I cold grow into a different person" and "learn new things."  Reading timeless books made him timeless in its own way.  "In short, I discovered that my life wasn't winding down," he says, but rather "in many ways it was just beginning, with a refreshed sense of commitment and confidence in what I could be."

Yes--the entire book is about as upbeat as this final realization of his.  And there are times when Martin's incessantly positive style kind of grates on my way-too-serious personality.  There are moments that Martin seems to avoid giving any criticisms at all of the college, perhaps for fear of offending the school or its students.  At the same time, I found Martin's story of his time at St. Johns charming--and the detailed information about the education at the college absolutely fascinating.

Martin's story chronicles how his personal life intertwines with both his academic studies and his extracurricular activities at the school.  Although he shies away from any significant discussion of the literature he is reading and discussing in the college seminars, he does suggest how their main themes connect to the life he builds outside the classroom.

Perhaps the most direct connection is one he makes when reading Plato's Republic.  Martin decides in his first days on campus to fully embrace the freshman experience and go out for crew.  As he explains, the college encourges all students to go out for any sport--ideally one in which they are have no experience but would like to try, even if they were not athletes in high school.  Even though he calls himself the "old fart" in the boat and worries that he might hurt his team, Martin gives his all and finds that the students with whom he studies and plays have truly turned into a community.  Just as they have seen in their reading of Plato around the seminar table, the students have combined scholarship and physicality to create whole beings.  Plato would argue that they will be neither too savage from only physical training nor too "soft" from only receiving education in the arts.  Instead they will be both courageous and "cultivated." (This post is not the place to analyze how Plato's assumptions might be gendered, but I'm not prohibiting you from thinking about that question.)  And according to Martin, the students also learn through their athletic competition that it is through their work together--the work of each one of them, regardless of his or her position--that they build their little Republic.

I very much enjoyed Martin's book.  It is a quick read--and while it is not one that will make you flex your intellectual muscles, it offers both an inspiring story of an individual's reckoning with mortality, an impassioned defense of a true liberal arts education, and a lens into a fascinating world.


  1. I have to admit that desiring to be like the community in Plato's Republic is a foreign concept to me - it took me a while reading it to accept that the whole thing wasn't a satire: "Oh, I don't know what we'd use THAT kind of music for, so lets throw it away! We need education, so lets not have any fiction!"

  2. Oh, St. John's. So impractical, but so tempting. I remember getting all their mailings after writing the SATs and being awed by the reading lists. I'll certainly be on the lookout for this book!

  3. This sounds like a book I would like. St. Johns has a nice website with videos, and I like to show my students the videos to help explain Socratic seminar. Philosophically, I love the idea of St. Johns (especially the no grades part of it!). Practically, the math probably would have done me in!

  4. Ohhh: I'm very curious about this one! I tried a different book about middle-aged man who goes back to take a great books course last year, but the author was so offensively sexist, chauvinist, etc. (most obviously in his impressions of a Take Back the Night rally) that I had to stop reading.

  5. It's interesting what you write about the relentlessly positive tone of the book--how sometimes one savors a book more if it contains the salt of some criticism. I think you're right, because it is hard to engage deeply without coming up with both the good and not-always-wonderful of our experiences. Being true to our own responses is perhaps an art in itself. I was listening to critic James Wolcott on Fresh Air yesterday http://n.pr/slA8Dj --he said the most important thing he learned from Pauline Kael was that one must try to convey one's honest reactions, even if they are mixed or ambivalent, rather than forcing a particular position about the work being evaluated. I found that especially helpful, since so much of our writing training tells us to adopt a thesis.

    Your reviews get high marks on this point, since you share how you felt while reading and yet make a deep effort to appreciate each book on its own terms. Thanks.

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