Philosophers contemplate meaning of education

October 02, 2001|By Susan Reimer

There is a corner of historic Annapolis that is home to two college cultures that could not be more different.

Across King George Street from the Naval Academy, where 4,000 young men and women prepare for a war that now seems so certain, about 475 students at ancient St. John's College spend four years discussing the original works of Western thought.

The school's reading list has been just about the same for 300 years and includes Homer, the Bible, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Plato, Milton, Descartes, Hegel, Hobbes, Plutarch, Virgil, Spinoza, Chaucer, Kant, Sophocles, Aristotle, Augustine and Shakespeare, to name a few. Jane Austen, Marx and Freud are veritable newcomers.

The two student bodies, with so little in common, intersect more often than you might think.

Midshipmen take classes at St. John's, and the two schools have met each spring for 20 years for a croquet challenge.

Midshipmen advertise on the St. John's campus for the girls they need to balance the numbers in their cotillions.

And when the midshipmen march through town to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for football games, "Johnnies" often gather behind the hedges of their campus to tease them with mocking versions of their cadences.

Oddly, each campus observes its own peculiar brand of isolation. Midshipmen, especially underclassmen, are only permitted to leave "the Yard" under the most stringent rules.

Likewise, Johnnies do not have phones in their rooms, there are no common rooms with big-screen TVs, and there was an argument about placing a newspaper box on campus.

But, like college students everywhere, midshipmen and Johnnies have computers, and, in the aftermath of the bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Internet has been churning with conversation between them.

The Gadfly, St. John's student newspaper of sorts, reported e-mail conversations with midshipmen who wanted bloody vengeance.

Meanwhile, the newspaper also recorded the painful confessions of Johnnies who felt their education, based on reading and discussing such ancient philosophies, was suddenly and particularly irrelevant.

"We feel guilt that our now seemingly selfish St. John's pursuits have no `real-life' benefits," wrote junior Maya Alapin, who described her school as "perhaps the last vestige of an idyllic ivory tower anywhere in the country."

Sophomore Kelley O'Donnell echoed those thoughts in the same issue. She wrote that she felt "useless" and "selfish" going to class and "waxing lyrical about the Psalms," while learning nothing that could help the people of New York.

"I felt like a student, and a weak one at that," she wrote.

Both women felt a combined sense of urgency and futility that caused them, if only for a moment, to do what students everywhere probably did in the aftermath of the bombings: question the value of their education.

I asked Maya and Kelley and two of their classmates to join me in the St. John's student lounge, notably bereft of rock music or video games, and after greeting each other by using Mr. and Miss in the traditional St. John's show of respect, we talked about the new world to which these young people had suddenly awoken.

One of them was Nathanael Eagle, a junior from Washington state, who plans to enter the Peace Corps and teach in Africa. He said he respects the feelings of confusion among his classmates, but he is not patient with them.

"I didn't understand how it could shake their world," he said from the other side of a well-worn table in the coffee shop. "Why would a student come here at all if they didn't think this was relevant to the world?"

People died en masse, he said. The only difference was that it happened to Americans on American soil. Terrorism existed before any of the students now at St. John's made their application. If a philosophical education was relevant before Sept. 11, how could it be less so now?

Freshman Samantha Levy of Chattanooga, Tenn., plans to enter the diplomatic corps, and she came to St. John's to study the philosophical underpinnings of government, and particularly democracy as practiced in America.

She wants to be able to represent America with intellectual authority, she said, and nothing about her purpose has changed, except, perhaps, her perception of the United States as the invincible protector and defender of the world.

"I know this place is a bubble," she said. "But I want to understand why America works the way it does, and I want to understand the Western thought behind it."

Kelley said she was paralyzed and wretched for a week. She wanted to get on the first bus to New York and do something "useful."

"I was torn between a program that I had been convinced, just a few days before, would allow me to fulfill my potential as a thoughtful human being, and actually doing something to make things better," she said.

In the end, Kelley's father convinced her to finish what she came to St. John's to do: to discover what she values, to challenge those values, and through that process become the kind of person she could admire.

"I want to do something, yes," she said. "But I can't lose sight of the kind of person I want to be."

It is certainly as important now as it as ever been for St. John's students to finish what they came to do, Maya said.

"We are all trying to answer that special question," said Maya. " `What is a good life? What is a virtuous life?' "

There is no better place to do that than in a philosophic community where students quickly realize just how difficult it is to compose and defend "just one good thought," she said.

All St. John's students can do in the wake of this enormous tragedy is help each other learn to frame those worthy ideas, Maya said.

"So that when we are ready, we can give the world the best thoughts we can muster."

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