Learning to learn

In my previous post, I decried some lame-ass attempts at infusing “literaryness” into an article that chronicled the decline of the New York Knicks. My complaint was that the writer’s story is compelling enough that it doesn’t require the trappings of middlebrowness-trying-to-prove-its-smartypantsness in order to please hip urban crowd.

But just because I lambasted the editor involved in those decisions, I wouldn’t want you to think I’m dropping my own high-brow snobbishness. In fact, Amy & I receive a whole spectrum of viewpoints, on line and in print. It ranges from. . . well —

Hegel and Heigl

— Hegel to Heigl!

The mag on the left is the official magazine of St. John’s College in Annapolis & Santa Fe. I attended graduate school for 2 years in Annapolis and, as I’ve written on numerous occasions (most recently/ramblingly here), it was the most important period of my life. What I learned there — including how to learn — informs every day of my life.

So I was overjoyed (I’m an easy mark, I know) to open the current issue and see an article from Laurence Berns, the first tutor I had in my first semester in the program, chronicling the process of putting together the graduate curriculum 40 years ago. The best part of “Why Didn’t We Know About These Books?” (a question from one of the early grad students), is Mr. Berns’ discussion of choosing which books to include in the program and when to get to them. There’s a funny passage about one tutor’s enthusiasm for the Theaetetus and the necessity of putting it after Hume and Kant, but I think this section sums up the program’s geeky, graceful passion and the love of life and learning that I found during my time in Annapolis:

Michael Ossorgin, tutor, ordained Russian Orthodox priest, Dostoyevsky expert, and musician, was perhaps the most sweetly intelligent man I have ever known. Some days after I had shown him my Literature selections, he called to invite me to lunch. He had developed a better idea for that sequence, but he would never say that.

As soon as we were seated for lunch he turned to me and said, “Larry, I think all of human life can be understood in terms of the Iliad and the Odyssey.” And then for about two hours he led me in a wonderful discussion about how the Iliad and the Odyssey clarified the foundations of human life, at the end of which I asked him if he would redraw the literature sequence to extend the time for the Iliad and the Odyssey.

He did. Of course, that’s the first section that I studied under Mr. Berns when I arrived in Annapolis.

(You can download a PDF of the Winter 2008 magazine over at the St. John’s publications page or directly from my site. It’s about 1.3mb, and Mr. Berns’ piece starts on page 26 of the PDF. There’s also a neat piece on Hegel (of course) by Peter Kalkavage, another tutor who had a profound influence on me. I’ll write more about that topic later, since it involves re-typing a 15-page essay of his. You should go buy his new book, The Logic of Desire: An Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. And let me know if any of you are interested in starting an online reading group/discussion of that Phenomenology, since I never did read it while I was at St. John’s.)

One Reply to “Learning to learn”

  1. What’s all this about learning how to learn?? I thought the best part of your St. John’s experience was becoming friends with ME (and a couple of other folks…)

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