Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again, by Roger H. Martin, University of California Press, $24.95
As midlife crises go, Roger Martin’s is unconventional and intriguing. Having beaten cancer several times, Martin, who was then president of Randolph-Macon College, in Ashland, Virginia, did not buy a BMW convertible, leave his wife, or build up massive gambling debts. Rather, at the age of 61, he took a leave of absence and enrolled in the fall of 2004 as a freshman at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.
St. John’s is the ultimate liberal arts college, where the curriculum is focused entirely around the Great Books and all classes are seminars taught by tutors who cross and defy traditional disciplinary boundaries. Martin’s memoir of his semester there is based on the charming conceit that one—or at least he—could start all over again as a college student and learn at least as much as he had the first time around 43 years earlier.
The premise is, of course, at once delightful and absurd. Although he did eventually win the friendship and respect of many of his classmates—and ultimately became a confidant and adviser to a few—Martin was inevitably treated as an oddball interloper by most.
By his own measure, Martin’s attempt to fit in is sometimes pathetic. Certainly, if he is quoting himself accurately, some of his approaches to fellow students are awkward at best. “So, what’s up?” he habitually asks, as he runs into a young friend, pulls his chair up to a group in the coffee shop, or invites passing students to join him. At first he is ignored by the Johnnies and the faculty alike, and he is haunted by childhood insecurities that are revived by any perceived slight. Cruel nostalgia drives him to remember and relive the worst moments of his original undergraduate experience at Denison University in Ohio (which he attended, he feels obliged to tell us, when he could not get into his father’s alma mater, Yale).
Ultimately, Martin finds himself. He gains acceptance and salvation primarily through his improbable membership on the St. John’s crew team. Rowing, it turns out, is not a bad metaphor for life, and Martin seems to learn as much from Leo Pickens, the classics-quoting crew coach, as from any teacher or associate he has ever had. As he struggles to achieve both technical skills and emotional balance on College Creek and the Severn River, everything comes together in a way that many of us could envy.
Running through this simple tale, not surprisingly, are some profound insights. Drawing on the seminar material that sheds light on the brutality, the dysfunctional families, and the intellectual quandaries of classical times, Martin indulges in occasional didactic interludes on some of the unofficial problems plaguing American higher education today—
the absurd pressure and stress associated with the choice of a college for some students and their families; the phenomenon of helicopter parents who insist upon hovering over their children’s every move; and the intense pressure on 18-year-olds to begin thinking about their careers and to chart their every move to keep them on the path.
Indeed, some of Martin’s most relevant and poignant observations are on the fundamental, ages-old, and yet easily neglected issue of homesickness among young people who are away from a secure, familiar environment for the first time and its implications for their emotional well-being. Just possibly, a simple concept like homesickness could also help explain the aberrant behavior by some of the young people in the American military who, suddenly assigned to a war zone, feel disconnected and disoriented in a circumstance for which they are probably ill-prepared.
Martin also stirs up the dust on the value, and the values, of a liberal arts education. Sadly, in this era of economic insecurity and political uncertainty, old questions are being raised once again about this uniquely American phenomenon: Wouldn’t students be better off learning skills that will channel them directly into the work force, rather than being trained as precious dilettantes? Is a traditional, broad education in the arts and sciences just a luxury designed for and preserved by a narrow elite?
Perhaps it is tedious to assert the old-fashioned notion that doctors must appreciate music, lawyers understand the sciences, accountants attend the theater, scientists know literature, and architects have a feel for history—or to say that psychological and sociological factors color everyone’s life and work. But how else to guard against the utter compartmentalization of knowledge and the formulation of decisions that affect us all by people who cannot understand and communicate with each other?
It is fair enough for the liberal arts community to be pressed to reexamine how it offers up an education, and Martin—from the perspective of his immersion in the St. John’s seminar culture—has a few choice words on the potential weaknesses of typical discipline-based general education requirements.
Nonetheless, he foresees a world in which college graduates will have not just a single career, but perhaps “seven or eight completely different ones before they retire.” In Martin’s view, “We are not doing our youth a favor by preparing them for their first job, as many parents want us to do. We should be preparing them for a lifetime of many different jobs. Indeed, we should really be preparing them for their last job.”