No collection of great books, nor even the most wisely designed curriculum, which is but a recipe, can equal or even approach the importance of the faculty, whose members bring the program to life year after year. Eva Brann knows all this, and preaches it eloquently…
Author’s Note: This essay was given as a talk at St. John’s College in Annapolis on 27 April 2018 to celebrate, on behalf of the faculty, Eva Brann’s two-by-thirty years of teaching at SJC. I offer it here, repurposed, in honor of her three-by-thirtieth birthday. But what do such numbers mean in the case of one so young in soul?
When I told Eva that I had been asked by the dean to speak in her honor at this event, the color rose to her cheeks, she laughed and said: “Let ’er rip!” I’m not sure what she meant by that. I think I was to understand that I ought to go forth boldly and say whatever I wanted to. I think she also wanted me to have a good time. That would be like her.
In the course of her sixty years at this college, Eva has received much recognition from many quarters. This is no surprise, given her brilliant and engagingly composed books, essays, and talks, and her general renown. She is always going somewhere or other to give a talk on something or other. Eva is so well known that she has risen to the exalted status of wikipediafication. In 2005, she was invited to the White House to receive a National Humanities Medal—along with Dolly Parton, I might add, who unfortunately could not attend. It was thrilling to see the photo of Eva, beaming and bemedaled, as she stood next to the President of the United States, George W. Bush, who on that occasion remarked to Eva that St. John’s College was, as he put it, a treasure in American education. I only wish Dolly had shown up and appeared in the photo alongside Eva and the President. What a picture that would have made!
Yes, Eva has received honor for her many contributions to education and the Republic of Letters. She well deserves this, and it speaks well of the outside world, which at least sometimes knows a good thing when it sees it. Eva truly is, like our college, a national treasure, and she takes the college with her wherever she goes. It’s the best kind of outreach, and it doesn’t cost a thing.
But today the honor comes not from the outside world but from Eva’s home and kin. Eva has served this college for many years in countless ways. She has been a model teacher—of her fellow tutors, especially newer ones, and of the legions of students who have had the good fortune to know and work with her. My own debt to Eva is beyond telling. It is thanks to her that I first came to believe that I had something important to offer the college, that I really belonged here; and it was thanks to her that I became a translator of Platonic dialogues and an author. She has never failed to give me, as she has to so many others, her enthusiastic encouragement and support.
We have all learned from Eva as thinker, writer, and lecturer. Her writings and talks are a vast repository of perspicacious noting, imagination, thoroughness, well-turned formulations, and an engagement with texts and ideas that combines clear insight with down-home wisdom and Eva’s sparkling personality. I want to focus, however, on Eva’s years as dean, for no service to the college is more important and demands more from a tutor. I was privileged to serve on the instruction committee in those days and to work with Eva on a regular basis. Eva’s leadership was energetic, vigilant, straight-talking to the point of blunt, and upbeat. I want to single out one thing in particular for which, in my opinion, we owe Eva our thanks. Under Eva’s guidance, it was clear beyond a doubt that the heart and soul of this college lay in its program of instruction and its faculty. Eva was fond of saying that the Board’s business was the existence of the college (that the college was and continued to be), whereas the essence of the college (what it was and was constantly striving to be) resided entirely and exclusively with the faculty. We forget or minimize this teaching at our peril.
Another Evism during those years was that the primary purpose of the faculty was not to teach but to learn, that is, to seek wisdom through unstinting intellectual activity. The college indeed exists for the sake of its students. But it is important that we understand the concrete way in which this is true. As students come and go, and classes graduate, the faculty abides. Eva’s emphasis on the primacy of faculty learning revealed why the faculty of St. John’s College constitutes the ousia, the non-transferrable wealth, of the college. No collection of great books, nor even the most wisely designed curriculum, which is but a recipe, can equal or even approach the importance of the faculty, whose members bring the program to life year after year, work tirelessly at great personal and financial sacrifice, and sustain intellectual being-at-work when there are no classes or when a tutor is on sabbatical. Eva knew all this, and preached it eloquently.
I will mention one more thing about Eva’s deanship and, more broadly, her humane understanding of the college. It has to do with music. Although Eva never taught the music tutorial, she had a deep understanding of how important music, especially singing, was on the Annapolis campus. As dean, she once remarked that we were not only a talking but also a singing college. Eva “got it.” Her clear-sighted appreciation captured the essential musicality of our endeavor as a college devoted to liberal learning—our effort, in the words of the Phaedo, to make music and work at it through our shared love of wisdom and our learning in concert.
During Eva’s deanship, though there were, as there always are, difficult problems to be confronted, including financial ones, the life of learning seemed to me to have been unleashed, allowed to be as joyously prominent as it ought to be. I was so grateful for the ebullient, youthful tone and emphasis on thinking and learning that Eva brought to the office that I composed a limerick for her on her birthday. I do not think she will mind if, by way of conclusion, I recite it to you now. I assure you, it is clean:
There once was an Eva whose deaning
Was noted for method with meaning.
When she got down to business,
The college’s Is-ness
Could caper like kids halloweening.
We, your kin and company, honor you, Eva, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your sixty years of teaching, your leadership and counsel, your generous outpouring of intellect and imagination, and, above all, your friendship with us and your devotion to this college. We rejoice in your sexagesimal jubilee, and admire the scintillation of your thinking and being. We are proud to call you one of us.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a picture of McDowell Hall, a building on the campus of St. John’s College; the image above is a picture of Eva Brann, amongst others, having received the National Humanities Medal in 2005. Both images are licensed under Creative Commons 4.0.