After a part of his lung was removed to save him from an invasive melanoma, Roger H. Martin, president of Randolph-Macon College, decided to take a sabbatical and return to college as a student. His memoir, Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again, recounts his semester at St. John’s College, a private institution committed to liberal arts education based on a great books curriculum.
Martin, a self-admitted control freak, engages in this great experiment to understand to understand college students, to learn about the classics, and to gain insight into his own history and intellectual development. Well into the narrative Martin reveals that he did poorly in an undergraduate course at Dennison on Greek philosophy. Is this another bite at the apple? Or a way to connect classical thinkers with contemporary issues? It turns out to be an interesting journey in unexpected ways.
Martin took a vow of silence in his classes. As a St. John’s education is distinguished by great books symposia – students debating texts under the guidance of tutors – Martin is never able to engage fully. He observes, writes, and details what he sees and hears. His analysis and close readings of classic texts are shared on the page but not with his fellow students. In fact, defining his relationship with other members of the St. John’s community is a recurring thread in the memoir.
Martin is acutely aware of his outsider status. He wrestles with how to interact with others and simply how to “be.” Should he talk to this student or not? Awkward moments abound. When free exchanges with undergraduates take place, Martin gives them weight and meaning. Awareness of what others might be thinking of him or about him pervades the text. Martin’s text is almost ethnographic, but the memoir is not an ethnography. The focus and perspective are personal.
A feature of St. John’s education is the development of a sound body to house a sound mind. Martin, an active runner who used to play rugby, decides to try out for crew. Surprisingly, Martin discovers his inner student through rowing. He rouses himself early in the morning to make six a.m. practices. He contacts his niece, who used to row, for advice. He aches, struggles, and finds rowing a lesson in humility. Martin admits to sulking when demoted to a lesser boat. Nevertheless, he perseveres and finds community and deep comradeship in a boat and among other rowers. Martin’s greatest moment as a returning freshman very well was his row in novice eights at the Head of the Occuquan. He titles Chapter Eight “Victory.”
In reflecting on why he took the journey back to school, Martin finds answers in Plato. When Socrates faced death, his famous last words were about settling a debt – he owed a cock to Asclepius. Martin, who also faced death from cancer, felt a similar obligation. His return to college was a way to acknowledge that debt. Martin affirms life and growth in his return to college.
What Martin does not explore in his examination of his journey – and what both a strong liberal arts education and rowing teach us – is that our greatest learning often comes when we take part in something greater than us. A great education is always humbling. It can empower, but only after we learn that we’re not that all important after all. Sometimes we learn this when thinking about Plato, for cleverer minds have been there before. Sometimes the lesson is learned when rowing in a boat. Pulling too hard can upset the balance. More effective rowing comes from following the rower in front of you exactly. In both situations, the message is the same – it is not about you, the individual, it is about something larger. Good education knows this.