Roger H. Martin, Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Student Again, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
Roger H. Martin is past president of Randolf-Macon College in Virginia. For many long years of administrative work, as well as for a bout of melanoma that nearly killed him, Martin rewarded himself by taking an unusual, and rather courageous, semester-long, sabbatical in which he enrolled as a freshman at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.
The book is a personal memoir of a past president’s attempt to understand the needs and longings of undergraduate students; a personal reflection upon the nature of lost youth; and a reflection upon the nature of a liberal arts education in a technologically driven society. The book is written for general readers as well as for university and college administrators and teachers who can gain a quasi-insider’s look at the souls of today’s students by reading the author’s reportage, and the manner in which the cultivation of their intellects can be conducted in today’s world. While the reflective aspect of the book is frequently overshadowed by the author’s melodramatic ruminations of his lost youth (that he seeks to recover by joining the rowing team), the book raises the central question facing those of us involved in providing students a liberal education. The book asks whether a liberal arts education, in forming the intellectual and moral parts of the souls of young people, is possible without short-changing the need to educate students to participate in a modern technologically-driven society. It asks the Aristotelian question of whether a liberal arts education, which aims at forming a good human being, can simultaneously educate students to become good citizens (with all the skills necessary for a particular political regime, namely the liberal democratic one that is so closely allied with the goal of technology).
For Martin, St. John’s College is the best laboratory in which to ask this perennial question because its curriculum best reflects the goal of a liberal arts education of forming the souls of its students (both intellectual and moral virtues) and of constituting a genuine community. Unlike perhaps evangelical liberal arts colleges that have students sign codes of behavior which promote various forms of moderation, the two moral virtues St. John’s College appears to promote is courage and playfulness (or what Aristotle called eutrapelia). It promotes courage by encouraging its students to take intellectual risks, but also to risk their reputation and physical well-being by participating in extracurricular sports and activities at which they are not very good. “Johnnies” are encouraged to take waltz lessons, sing in the choir, join the rowing team, or some other activity that takes them out of their comfort zone. Doing so of course promotes the liberal intellectual activity that the college is deservedly known for. Courage is related to eutrapelia because the playfulness of liberal play learned in choir or rowing assists them to participate in the central classroom institution of the college, the seminar. The eutrapelia of the Johnnies is well captured by the image of the bohemian student who is also a decent oarsman.
Johnnies begin freshmen seminar by reading Homer’s Iliad. By the time Johnnies are about to graduate, it is hoped they have reached somewhere in the twentieth-century, perhaps with Heidegger. Martin reports reading Plato’s Republic is the initiation into the college for students. One only becomes a Johnnie after reading the Republic. Indeed, the St. John’s College curriculum is based in large part on the model of the Republic, which assumes, against the assumptions of modern higher education and the model of the Enlightenment encyclopaedists, that knowledge is unitary and its pursuit is a joint venture among students guided by a teacher who claims no specialized knowledge of her own.
The model is daring for being counter-cultural in our age. Higher education demands specialized knowledge, especially in the physical sciences. In this field, Johnnies’ curriculum includes Euclid, Harvey, Newton, and Einstein so they can understand the “great” scientific experiments of human history as well as to learn the process or mode of scientific inquiry as practiced by the “greats.” Critics of this approach argue graduates lack sufficient scientific training to excel in graduate school, which requires students who have gained access to the specialized latest knowledge of the field. Martin notes in defense of the curriculum that whatever gap in Johnnies’ scientific knowledge is more than compensated by their ability to think in all different modes of human endeavor, and that most pursuing graduate work in the physical sciences or medicine generally take a qualifying year before formal entry into a graduate program.
Martin’s most far-reaching claim is that teacher-student bond is “the highest, the most noble, the most perfect form of love there can be” (255). He bases this claim largely on the seminar, where he frequently comments how the topics covered in its readings overlap with the personal sufferings and concerns of the students he gets to know, as well as in the figure of the rowing coach who, for Martin, personifies the Greek educational ideal of synthesizing physical with intellectual and moral excellence. Unlike most other institutions of higher education in the United States, there is no jock culture at St. John’s because the needs of the soul surpass those of the body. There are no “misologists,” to use Plato’s term for those whose gymnastic education has made them too machismo and thereby lacking of the passivity to have their souls formed by the logos. Even so, over half the book consists of a description of the author’s personal quest to make the rowing team and to practice for its big competition. One wishes his reflections upon the readings in the seminar were as extensive as his reflections upon rowing.
In order to make good his claim that teachers and students share the highest form of love, one wishes Martin would have made more present two aspects of St. John’s College: the tutor and the freshman choir. Martin briefly describes encounters with the tutors, including those leading the freshman seminar in which he is enrolled. However, he pays very little attention to their love for their students. He speculates how students from difficult family backgrounds might respond to the supremely dysfunctional family of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, but he recounts no experiences of periagoge, no turning around of the soul among students who have been pulled, Socrates seems to suggest, kicking and screaming out of the cave. This absence of periagoge might be the result of what he observes. He gains only partial trust of some freshman so he cannot do more than speculate on the states of their souls.
Moreover, tutors must only insert themselves into seminar discussion obliquely, guiding discussion with the occasional question initially to focus on major themes of the reading, and then to get discussion back on track. Tutors are largely absent from Martin’s report because, as the advertising of the college states, the books are the real teachers at St. John’s. Tutors are simply better-read students. One wishes Martin would have reflected upon the apparent absence of tutors in this love relationship. What does it mean for teachers and students both to be students? In what sense are tutors still teachers? In what sense do they love their students? Can the books be said to love the students?
In the final pages of the book, Martin laments he missed out on freshman choral. He thought it was just another club, like waltz or chess, at which one could try one’s hand. However, he discovers in fact that all freshmen are required to participate, and he describes in moving detail the beauty of all the freshmen singing Palestrina at the college’s Winter Collegium that marks the end of the fall semester. Like the citizens of the best practical regime in Plato’s Laws, the community expresses its unity and its virtue in sacred singing. Courage, eutrapelia, and knowledge point to piety. Conversely, if the guardians of the Republic get an education in gymnastic and music to learn courage and moderation respectively, then one wishes Martin would re-enroll in St. John’s College so he could focus his energies on music instead of on gymnastic as he does in this book.
Racing Odysseus is most insightful when it interweaves grand questions with the author’s observations of the students. Teachers and administrators especially need to read this book to they may see how the virtues particular to the college and its curriculum are lived out. Liberal education as an endeavor to moral and intellectual virtue, done in community and friendship, has receded from the modern mind and its imperative for the scientific conquest of nature. Given the well-documented pathologies of higher education (most recently by Anthony Kronman in Education’s End), St. John’s College stands out as a lonely and much-needed alternative.
However, readers need to look elsewhere to find more extended reflections upon the nature of what he studies. In the spirit of his subject matter, this reviewer suggests the curriculum of St. John’s College is a good place to start on this longer journey.