From time to time, there is the need for sentinels of classical learning, individuals who, if one is fortunate to be around them, beckon the meandering intellect back to the pursuit of the truth, the discovery of the good, and the conservation of the beautiful. In the end, the student is invited to the quest of becoming more fully human. There are few such sentinels of classical learning as Eva Brann…
“O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?”
“There is an intimate connection between our moral life and our intellectual life. Sometimes I think the history of our times can be described as an argument about whether or not this connection is true.”
Classical learning via the Great Books model is not an easy thing, nor is it something quickly understood by the layman, or longtime student. It is not simply reading as many good books as one desires, only to later attempt to impress others with one’s accumulation of pithy quotes and erudite citations. Even the possibility of being “well-read,” or “educated,” and hence possessed of knowledge does not equate to being wise.
From time to time, there is the need for sentinels of classical learning, individuals who, if one is fortunate to be around them, beckon the meandering intellect back to the pursuit of the truth, the discovery of the good, and the conservation of the beautiful. In the end, the student is invited to the quest of becoming more fully human. There are few such sentinels of classical learning as Eva Brann.
As a child, the former Dean of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, was taken by her father to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin; a museum renowned for its collections of artifacts from both the Greco-Roman world and the Near East. It was there that her love for studying the ancient world began. She later escaped the horrors that would soon blanket Germany and the rest of Europe, and earned degrees in Classics and Archaeology from Yale University. Shortly thereafter, Eva began her storied career at St. John’s, and has been a sentinel of the College’s unique paradigm of classical learning for over sixty years. In all those years, it was not only the Great Books, and their dormant lessons that she safeguarded, but the direction and trajectory of the College’s students as well.
My first meeting with Eva Brann occurred one afternoon of my senior year after being summoned to the Dean’s office. There, I was told that after viewing my law school applications, and my then average grades, my chances, and I paraphrase, were not all too good at being admitted to any of them. I thought this an odd visit. The law ran in my veins, with siblings in the profession, and a grandfather who was a Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice. Law school seemed the expected and convenient avenue for another in the family to venture on. Surely, Dean Brann was being overly pessimistic, and even if she was not, where was the expected encouragement to try something else out? It was an interesting exposure to Eva’s directness of speech, speech meant neither to flatter nor castigate, but to free someone else to seek for what was the better choice for one’s self. It would also seem that I would now have to find another direction for my career, and do this on my own, with my young family as inspiration.
As it turned out, law school was not in the cards, and after a foray into journalism, I found myself hired to teach philosophy at the collegiate level, a calling that has rewardingly spanned over two decades. In this capacity, St. John’s Colleges’s own distinct Socratic method of classical learning, with its attendant concern for fostering independent thought among students, has found a home many miles away from Annapolis. Reconnecting many years after that senior year meeting, Eva chuckled as I mentioned to her the irony of someone who disliked reading Plato (I once told my freshman year faculty I would have given Socrates the hemlock myself), now being the Gadfly’s biggest proponent on the West Coast. She then turned briefly skeptical as I mentioned considering myself a prodigal son of St. John’s. “You are not a prodigal son. You are living the ideals of the college.”
Patience, it would seem, is one of a great teacher’s chief virtues. By keenly pointing out a career path that would not have suited a student, Eva Brann allowed for a student’s own independent appraisal of his life and career. A new direction would be chosen, and after many years, came affirmation not from teacher to student, but from peer to fellow peer. The pride felt in the latter scenario was considerable.
To this day, Eva Brann safeguards the St. John’s curriculum, and the ordering, as Plato would put it, of her students’ inner constitutions, or souls. She remarked to me recently that she had heard many a student say he wanted to change the world. She answered without hesitation, “I hope for the better.” Again, she was not providing an easy answer. She was allowing students to first think about what was better, and then act accordingly. In a sense, thinking about what was better, bettered students, who would then change the world, if they so wished, for the better. If anything, having students simply living better, more full and human lives, was just the change the world needed.
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1 Plato. “Apology.”
2 Schall, James V. A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning.