Saturday, January 31, 2009

Racing Odysseus

Have you ever thought of going back to school? Not for a degree necessarily, but just for the fun of it?

I love school. I love to learn. I love to be taught. I love to take a class. So I loved this book.

Roger H. Martin, president (at the time) of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia goes back to school as a freshman at the age of 61. Martin's sabbatical takes him to St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland (Check out the link to St. John's and observe their striking page banner. By clinking on an author's name, a notable quote from him will come up.)
Martin's journey resulted in Racing Odysseus.

One of Martin's intents of this unusual journey was to see how relevant a liberal arts education is to today's students. Besides vicariously sitting in on St. John's freshman seminar of Great Books, I benefited from Martin's realization of how those ancient truths written a millennium ago remain ageless and still applicable.

Along with attending freshman seminar, Martin was part of a crew team. I was not at all familiar with the terms associated with crew and gladly added words like coxswain, crew, and stroke to my vocabulary list. And as often happens (I assure my students that this always happens, to watch for it), that newest vocabulary word just learned will strangely pop up soon in some of the oddest places. Just as I'd learned what coxswain and stroke were, I came across them in a history book and on Jeopardy. I love it when this happens!

Martin mentions several faculty members throughout the book. One name stood out as if quite familiar to me: Eva Brann. I scoured my bookshelves the next morning, confident she authored a book I had. Yes, Eva Brann wrote Homeric Moments that has been in my collection for several years. I remember it as very readable and interesting.

A few flagged quotes:

"My own feeling is that in an era of increasing specialization and vocationalism, we still need the kind of generalists who founded our country more than two hundred years ago, people who have an appreciation for the complexities and interrelatedness of society, the courage to ask difficult and penetrating questions, and the inquisitiveness to seek intelligent and innovative answers. By allowing students to see how the principal areas of human knowledge in the natural and social sciences, in mathematics, and in the arts and humanities are related to one another, and by developing leadership skills in the environment of a residential campus, we prepare students to be our nation's leaders in business, politics and other professions."

"Even though the books we read in seminar are ancient, it is amazing how relevant virtually all of them are to modern society. They deal with universal and fundamental concepts of life, such as rage, death, and love, with which all of us can identify."

"Even though they are studying a classical curriculum featuring books that were written hundreds if not thousands of years ago, St. John's students, whether or not they are willing to admit it, are being given the tools and skills they will use for the rest of their lives. They are learning how to reason logically as well as morally, how to think critically and analytically, how to communicate clearly and effectively, and how to live as good citizens not only in our democracy, but also in an increasingly diverse global society. "

"[A]t St. John's the tutors are not necessarily considered the experts in the fields they teach. The text is the expert. The tutors just guide the conversation. Doing this well, of course, takes great humility. It means that a tutor might, from time to time, not completely understand a passage or a concept being discussed in seminar or lab. When this happens, the students and the tutor become partners in learning. It's not just a one-way street."

"I have always known that the best preparation for careers in our increasingly high-tech society is a liberal arts education. What I didn't fully appreciate until I came to St. John's is that a liberal arts education is with us forever....I discovered that I could read the great works of Homer, Plato, and Herodotus in ways that would give new meaning to my life."

Racing Odysseus gave me further confirmation that teaching and learning classically is both beneficial and downright enjoyable.

1 comment:

desert mom said...


I found this book inspiring as well. My take on it:

And thanks for the mentioning the Eva Braun book. I just finished tutoring my boys through The Iliad and The Odyssey this fall--my second time through and I love the learning! We are reading Plato now (the Phaedo this week)and it is so delightful to see their philosophical selves awaken. Every high school student should read Plato! Anyway thanks--the book is in my cart :)