Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again

Posted by nliakos on April 15, 2012

by Roger H. Martin (2008, Univ. of California Press)

As readers of this blog may be aware, I have two rather long lists of books I would like to read, yet the books I actually do read are, more often than not, not on those lists; instead, they are books lent to me by friends who tell me I must read them or books I simply grabbed off the shelf at the library because they looked interesting. This was such a book. I was cruising the shelves in the biography section, thinking, “I usually like  biographies! I should read some,” when I came upon Things I’ve Been Silent About, which I had read about and already decided I wanted to read, and Racing Odysseus, the title of which simply caught my eye, so I took it out.

I thought at first that Roger Martin, President of Randolph-Macon College, had gone back to college to get a second Bachelor’s degree.  This turned out not to be the case. A few years after a brush with mortality (metastatic melanoma), Martin uses a semester’s sabbatical to “enroll” at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland as a first-semester freshman. But he is not really a freshman in that he is not taking courses for credit; in fact, he is not actually taking the course at all, more observing it (he does not allow himself to participate in the all-important discussions). He also seems to be taking only one seminar, whereas the actual freshmen seem to take more than one; but these are mere details.

The book has three main foci: first, the weekly seminar in which Martin and his young classmates read and discuss Homer, Aeschylus, Herodotus, and  Plato; second, Martin’s participation in the sport of crew; and third, his memories of his own difficult year as a freshman student at Denison University.  These three threads, which run through the book, are intertwined with each other and with other themes, such as the value of a liberal education.

My guess is that the book is basically Martin’s journal kept during the semester at St. John’s. The chapters seem so immediate, the reader feels that Martin is logging his experiences as he has them. perhaps he went back and smoothed it out later, but I could picture him writing down what he would have said in those seminar meetings about the readings he is doing if only he permitted himself to participate. (It is unclear whether his status as an observer in the class was his own decision or whether he had been asked by St. John’s faculty to observe for fear of intimidating his classmates; yet even as I wrote that I thought that St. John’s students are not easily intimidated! College faculty do not lecture but are there to ask provocative questions and keep the discussion moving on track. Supposedly, they are partners in learning (however, having served as a tutor for the same book more than once, I imagine they accumulate a certain wisdom about it that the 18-year-old freshmen do not have.) He constantly draws connections between the readings and his experiences at St. John’s.

Never having rowed before, Martin selects crew as the sport he would like to participate in. (Every St. John’s freshman is encouraged to participate in a sport he/she has never done before, and everyone plays “on the team”–not just the more gifted athletes.) He navigates the tricky relationships between himself and the coaches and also with his fellow students. He obsesses about not disgracing his teammates due to age or health status. Crew becomes kind of a metaphor for life, and especially for this unusual sabbatical. (Happily, it ends well.)

Martin frequently reminisces about his painful introduction to college life at Denison University, forty years prior to the time he writes about in Racing Odysseus. He describes himself as a social and academic failure, remembers his horrible homesickness and his awkward attempts to make friends and “fit in” (some of which he relives at St. John’s, with somewhat more success).  He calls himself a slow reader. These reminiscences serve to remind me that some people hit their stride later in life than others. The fact that Roger Martin was unsuccessful as a freshman at Denison did not prevent him from transferring to a different school, getting his Bachelor’s degree, becoming a historian, earning his Ph.D. and eventually becoming President of a college. The moral is: don’t give up!

But for me, the most interesting aspect of the book was its description of St. John’s and its quirky curriculum.  I first heard about the St. John’s Great Books experiment many years ago and have often wondered about it (and fantasized about doing it–although had I known about St. John’s when I was in high school, I would surely have rejected it on the grounds that it did not offer a major in languages (it doesn’t offer a major in anything; everyone studies exactly the same thing for four years). Had I applied and been admitted, I doubt I would have appreciated the incredible education I would have gotten there. I enjoyed reading about the history of how St. John’s turned itself from a traditional liberal arts college into something unique in the United States; about the faculty, who teach across the curriculum, no matter where their own expertise lies; about the students, who often come to St. John’s after struggling in high school as book-loving geeks and who bloom in the liberal, nonconformist ambiance of the school; and about the famous Great Books curriculum and how it actually operates on a day-to-day, semester-to-semester basis. It’s a fascinating subject.

Contrary to what one might expect, I found it hard to put this book down! It was a great read and raised a lot of interesting questions in my mind about the nature of education, what constitutes academic success, and the importance of sports and teamwork.

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