IMAGINE A PARTY. Attending are the greatest writers in history. It is a strange bunch indeed. They are perhaps amused to be transported over time and space for this intimate gathering. But they might not be surprised. For they surely knew that in the act of writing down what they knew, they had bequeathed some of the most sublime wisdom the world has ever known.
Shakespeare’s Prospero hints at the power of this genius: I have bedimm’d the noontime sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds… have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak with his own bolt.
The party, a long one, continues throughout the year. The guests speak, revelers listen, question, argue. The answers, they are told are always in the text.
Such visitations occur as a matter of course at St. John’s College. The campus on the hill adjacent to the Monastery, off an arroyo and Sun Mountain, is perfectly isolated and connected. The curriculum is distinct from most colleges and universities in the country – it’s a study of the best of what has been written and thought through the Eastern and Western classics.
Sarah Davis is a professor/tutor here. She teaches, among other things, Euclidian geometry, ancient Greek philosophy, literature and music.
If you study the masters through the books they have left, if you respect the courtesy and generosity of their gifts, if you engage with them, study them, work with them, if you go to their offerings over and over, you develop a relationship – and sometimes an intimate friendship – that will guide you and comfort you throughout your life. Then authors become more than eminent guests at the party. They become someone to turn to, to provide some hints as to how to lead your life. They are the best teachers the world has ever known.
In preparation for this interview, I went to St. John’s graduation and serendipitously met three of her former students. I asked about her as a teacher. One blurted out, I loved her because she never lost her sense of wonder.
She’s a student, professor, and curious traveler. And now she is also the Dean.
As Dean of St. John’s College, what are you trying to do?
In other institutes of higher education, typically you have a professor who stands up in front of you and tells you what the book means or the condition of the world, or how to do something. What we’re aiming to do is to empower students to think for themselves. The idea is that what education really requires is more than a bag of knowledge.
That kind of empowerment means you’re a human being, and you have the capacity to think, to wonder, to inquire. The idea is to cultivate that as the grounds from which you come to know things. So you would show up in the classroom, and you don’t get to sit passively. You have to do the work.
Today, some education has been processed – made neat and tidy for easy consumption, versus food that comes out of the earth. Earth food doesn’t look quite as pretty, but it’s incredibly nourishing. So we want more of a non-processed education. Doing the processing is what learning is about.
You also give them a process of relating classic books to themselves.
I think there’s a claim that with a great book you can never just bake it. It has so much. You could spend a lifetime with it, and it would get baked in different ways because it’s just so rich the way our lives are.
You’re not going to take home a tidy picture of what, say, Homer meant.
I’m always driving to understand the text, what it’s really about. And that’s not open-ended. We are looking to understand, and there’s something that can’t quite be finalized about that. We’re fooling ourselves if we think, Oh, we got it! We can close up the Odyssey. We’re done with it. If we do, we’ve misunderstood the piece of work. You don’t give up trying to understand just because the puzzle is endlessly complex and interesting. It has a rigor to it, not an end goal.
There’s something about the way the world is put together where we like clean packages. We like the world to be ordered, manageable, understandable.
But there’s also this idea of these books as old friends. Life friends. There’s a conversation about what a great book is, a book that is somehow so in touch with what it means to be a human being. That, of course, has no end.
For example, I’m thinking about The Brothers Karamazov, which is near and dear. There’s a profound, awful moment in that book, a moment of terror and tragedy. The first time I read it, I really wept. The next time I read it, I also cried. But I had this moment of like, He knows he is doing this. He knows he’ll get me and he got me, but he got me in a little different way this time. I asked myself, What is he doing? What is he playing on in me? I think it’s right that I react that way, but I was a little more self-conscious of something more going on.
This is the adventure of What does it mean? Take Odysseus. I think he’s a brilliant human being. He has, in some ways, exemplary human intellect, and yet he’s insensitive enough to let his men die. And he doesn’t seem to notice. That’s a puzzle. That’s not just like, Oh, what a jerk. It’s actually a puzzle. In what way is an exemplary human intellect connected to a kind of, not just insensitivity, but violence? Are we being asked to ask that question?
These books are our friends. They’re friends in the darkest periods of life.
In War and Peace, I admire these characters so much. They are driven, they’re seekers. They want to find the truth. They can’t help it. They’re born that way. I love those characters. At times when I feel like, God, why do I do this thing? It’s hard. It’s hard to ask the questions. It’s hard to care about this stuff. But I see those characters, and I’m proud to be part of this fraternity. I’m proud!
Do you tell your students, ‘I’m your teacher, but I still struggle with this and it still helps me.’
I do. I’m willing to bumble through a thought, something I haven’t quite figured out. The example I set for them is to do that publicly, which is not easy. I’m vulnerable. But they start to trust me because I do it. I love doing that, and there’s something so beautiful about watching their minds work in that way that is willing and not inhibited.
Do you think that teaching should be valued as much as anything one can do?
Yes. And if I’m honest, it’s about my life experience. As a student, I had teachers who really listened and helped me. This kind of learning is a struggle. You feel tension. Things don’t fit, you don’t know how to get through this. And it can be a philosophical puzzle or a mathematical one. It’s hard, but to have another human being meet you where you are to help you through that is truly a gift.
See more at SJC.edu