“Racing Odysseus”

Racing Odysseus: A college president becomes a freshman again is the story of one semester Roger H. Martin spends at my alma mater, St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD.(Class of ’69).  I have conflicting feelings about both about what he did and how he did it, but I’m happy for his conclusion about the value of a St. John’s education.

Mr. Martin was 61 when he began his adventure.  The same age I am now.  Last summer Bob and I returned to read the Iliad with 5 seminars over 4 days.  It was exhilarating and exhausting. So I have some sympathy for him and understand maybe why he limited himself, but I was disappointed that Mr. Martin seems to have only attended one lab session and no Greek or math tutorials.  At least, that is all he wrote about. He basically went to Seminar, maybe  lecture (he wrote about only one on Homecoming Weekend) and rowed.  So as a book about a peer surviving cancer and looking for new challenges both intellectually and physically, it is a good and interesting book.  Mr. Martin did not, however, become a freshman and did not really experience the St. John’s program.  He experienced one semester of seminar and some extra-curricular activities.

St. John’s College (Annapolis and Santa Fe) is the Great Books school.  Everyone reads pretty much the same books (the list does change and evolve – more women  and non-dead white male writers have been added since my time which is good) and studies the same Greek and French, math, science, and music.  It is a very small school with small classes – there is nowhere to hide if you aren’t prepared.  It is difficult to keep up and absorb everything and looking back, much of my time seems wasted.  One wonderful thing about St. John’s is that when one goes back as Bob and I did last summer and is in a seminar with alumni from many different classes rereading something we had all read before, there is an automatic common bond.

I’d be interested to talk to Chris Nelson (President of St. John’s) about what the deal was.  Mr. Martin did not talk in seminar and I gather that was part of the deal.  But he didn’t seem to know about the Freshman Chorus requirement until the very end.  Did Mr. Martin go to lecture every Friday night?   While he mentions a fellow student talking about Euclid in seminar, it is not clear he ever went to class.  Mr. Martin does capture the seminar experience pretty well including the fact that some night, seminar is horrible.

Mr. Martin mentions several times the analytical and leadership skills that students develop there.  I got one of my first professional jobs because the person interviewing me was fascinated by the school and the idea that there was actually a place where student have to learn to think for themselves.  As I tell people who are thinking about St. John’s:  for the right person, St. John’s is the right place – not the perfect place, but the right place. 

I hope Mr. Martin’s book serves as an introduction to some student who enrolls or more likely serves the purpose that the once famous Saturday Review article served for me.  My father read the article and told me and my sister that if we could get in, he would send us.  I took the challenge and have never regretted not going to a more conventional college.