“If virtue can be taught, it’s only by learning to ask the types of questions that make you a thoughtful person.”
My two-year term at St. John’s College’s Graduate Institute was the most important part of my life. During my recent trip back to Annapolis, I sat down with outgoing president Christopher Nelson to talk about lessons learned during his 26-year tenure, the books that guided him to the college, the ones he returns to, and the ones that gave him the most trouble as an undergrad, what he’ll miss and what he hopes to do next, his key advice for his successor, and more! Give it a listen!
“Running an institution and reading a budget were second nature to me. . . . Being able to participate in the life of the college so I could make good and deep judgements about what’s important around here; that was going to come from spending time in the classroom and with the faculty.”
We also talk about the unique situation of being the only president in the college’s 300+ years who is also an alumnus, why math and philosophy are for the young, while big novels are for middle age, how he grew into The Aeneid, the use of literature in understanding Japanese morality, why he returns to Middlemarch every few years, what he’d add to the St. John’s curriculum (even if he can’t bring himself to drop something to make room for it), and a lot more! Give it a listen! (and become a supporter via Patreon or Paypal so you can check out the big list of all the books we talked about this episode!)
“The commodification of higher education — like the monetization of every good in life — is deeply disturbing. It’s certainly something that’s always been in America. You read de Tocqueville and you see that it’s part of the American spirit to do that.”
About our Guest
Christopher B. Nelson has been president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, since June 1991. He is an alumnus of St. John’s (B.A. 1970) and a graduate of the University of Utah College of Law (J.D. 1973), where he founded and directed the university’s student legal services program. He practiced law in Chicago for 18 years and was chairman of his law firm when he left the practice to take his current position at St. John’s College. Christopher Nelson is a national spokesperson for the liberal arts, participating actively in the national conversation about higher education. Frequently a panelist and speaker on state, regional, and national programs, he has addressed issues of institutional autonomy in the face of government regulatory intrusion and changes proposed in the accrediting system. His current focus is making clear the value of liberal education – in providing excellent grounding for career and professional development and, most importantly, for an open-minded pursuit of lifelong learning.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at the office of Christopher Nelson at the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue enCORE 200 Microphone feeding into a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. B/w photo of President Nelson by me. Photo of Annapolis campus by me.
“No one can be deeply affected by this course of study and not want to go beyond it. It gets you excited about ideas, questions and authors. To read one author is to lead you to another.”
How does a man go from being a ne’er-do-well in a Pennsylvania mining town to a tutor at St. John’s College? Peter Kalkavage joins the show to talk about his path to that Great Books institution, what he’s learned going into his 38th year as a tutor, how he fell in love with the college’s music program, what his study of Hegel taught him, what he’d add to the St. John’s curriculum, and more! (Also: Iliad or Odyssey, which offsets the question of “Luther or Calvin?”)
“In my time here, the one change that has irked me the most has been the shift from Luther to Calvin in the sophomore seminar. There were understandable problems with Luther . . . on the other hand, he deals in a blunt and powerful way with questions of freedom, secular authority, and faith-vs.-works. Calvin seems too relentlessly negative and too obsessed with the question of predestination.”
We also discuss his upbringing, The Big Lebowski, the teacher who got him to turn himself around, his favorite area to teach, how Dante taught him the possibilities of poetry, the question of whether we’re ever mature enough to read the curriculum, and the recent move to rebrand St. John’s College.
“We have to be very careful not to present ourselves in what we think might be an attractive way which misrepresents what we most have to offer our students, the country and the world: our curriculum. That’s the most important thing. Not our location, not our extracurricular activities, but the program. ‘The following teachers are returning to St. John’s next year. . . .'”
About our Guest
Peter Kalkavage has been a tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., since 1977. He is director of the St. John’s Chorus. Dr. Kalkavage is the author of The Logic of Desire: An Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and has produced translations of Plato’s Timaeus and Statesman for Focus Philosophical Library. He is also author of two texts that have been used in the St. John’s music program, On the Measurement of Tones and Elements: A Workbook for Freshman Music.
Credits: This episode’s music is the opening credits to Miller’s Crossing by Carter Burwell. The conversation was recorded in Peter Kalkavage’s office during the St. John’s College 2014 Piraeus seminar on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Peter Kalkavage by me.
Your humble(ish) host just made his annual Piraeus pilgrimage to St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, this time to participate in a four-day seminar about Moby Dick . . . and score a great interview! I managed to get legendary tutor Eva Brann (above) to take a break from her crazy schedule and sit down for a 45-minute conversation about the college’s Great Books program and how she’s seen it change (and stay the same) in her FIFTY-SEVEN YEARS at the school. We also talk about the value of a liberal arts education, the one novel she’d add to the St. John’s curriculum, the need professors have to profess (and why St. John’s has tutors instead of professors), her swoon for Odysseus, her desert island book, her one criterion for a great novel, where she sees the school going in the next fifty-seven years, the Dostoevsky-or-Tolstoy debate, and more, including a boatload of questions I solicited from alumni! It’s a fascinating conversation with one of the most learned people in the world.
And then Ian Kelley, a St. John’s student from 1993, talks about his experience at the college, what brought him there, what he learned about himself and the Great Books, and how his Annapolis experience influenced his decision to join the U.S. Navy. Ian’s a longtime pal and is the first guest to appear in the non-famous Virtual Memories Library (pictured, with dog, who occasionally sighs and grunts during the podcast).
About our Guests
Eva Brann has been a tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD since 1957 and served as dean there from 1990 to 1997. Ms. Brann is the author of Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad, The Music of the Republic: Essays on Socrates’ Conversations and Plato’s Writings, Open Secrets / Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul, Feeling Our Feelings: What Philosophers Think and People Know, Homage to Americans: Mile-High Meditations, Close Readings, and Time-Spanning Speculations, and The Logos of Heraclitus, all of which are available from Paul Dry Books.
Ian Kelley is a proud 1997 graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, and an avid motorcyclist, traveler and reader. He trusts Gil Roth to keep him smart and honest. Ian and his wife, Jessica, live in Fallon, NV.
We previously interviewed St. John’s College tutors David Townsend and Tom May, so you should check those out! For more information about St. John’s College and the Great Books program, visit its site.
Credits: This episode’s music is Wonderful World by Sam Cooke. The conversation was recorded at the home of Eva Brann on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The conversation with Ian Kelley was recorded at my home on a pair AT2020 mics feeding into the Zoom H4n. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue enCORE 200 into the Zoom H4n. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo of Eva Brann by me, photo of Ian Kelley and me by Amy Roth.
Back-to-back episodes of The Virtual Memories Show! Who’d a’ thunk it?
Around Memorial Day, I took a little vacation to my alma mater, St. John’s College, for a seminar on Flannery O’Connor, and got to interview two of my favorite tutors: David Townsend and Tom May. Because they both had so much to talk about, I decided to split this month’s show into two parts.
This episode contains my conversation with Tom May, the first St. John’s tutor I ever met (that’s him, conducting the freshmen chorus, above). I find Mr. May — sorry, but I can’t get over those Johnnie traditions — fascinating and intensely thoughtful, and I was glad to learn some of his history, how he’s seen the college change during his three decades-plus as a tutor, how we should never read a book for the first time, and and he had to get a note from his priest to read books from the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum.
It all makes sense here:
If you’re interested in seeing some of Annapolis, check out my photoset from that trip:
Credits: This episode’s music is Steely Dan’s Here at the Western World. I recorded the intro on a Blue Yeti mic, and the conversation with was recorded on a pair of Blue Encore 100 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4N recorder. (Also, there’s a Flannery O’Connor pun that I won’t bother to explain.)
I was working on my From the Editor column for the Jan/Feb issue of my magazine, and I realized that you guys might dig the one I wrote for the Nov/Dec issue:
In October, I received a couple of press releases about a new outfit called Kadmon Pharmaceuticals. The name was familiar, so I broke out my copy of Gershom Scholemâ€™s Kabbalah, a book detailing Judaismâ€™s mystic tradition. I re-learned that Kadmon â€” to be precise, Adam Kadmon â€” means â€œprimordial man,â€ or â€œoriginal manâ€; itâ€™s not just the first person created by God in the book of Genesis, but the primal being, the first emanation of the divine before the universe shatters and becomes the world we know. (As per their interpretation of the Torah and its commentaries. Iâ€™m a scholar, not an adherent.)
â€œGood for them,â€ I thought. â€œI suppose the pharma industry could do with a few more Kabbalists.â€
Then I noticed the name of the chief executive officer of privately financed Kadmon: Samuel P. Waksal, Ph.D. You may remember him as the former chief exec at ImClone. You may also remember the insider-trading scandal that put him in federal prison for five years and led to Martha Stewartâ€™s imprisonment. And you may remember that I once called him â€œa great example of manâ€™s capacity for delusion.â€
That last bit was my April 2009 response to a New York Magazine article about Mr. WaksalÂ intended to pave the way for his return to NYC society. The article mentioned that, much like Mike Tyson, Dr. Waksal read a lot of books when he was in prison:
He also read. â€œI reread all the Greeks,â€ he says, smiling. â€œAll. I read everything. Euripides, and Sophocles, and every other Greek that had ever written. You just have to read Aristotleâ€™s Poetics, and you read what tragedy is â€” and you look at yourself and think, â€˜[. . .], man, this is tragic.â€™
Back in my brief 2009 editorial postscript, I noted, â€œNo matter how â€˜brilliantâ€™ a mind you have, you really need to look inside sometimes.â€ Right after calling him delusional.
Now that Dr. Waksalâ€™s back in biopharma, I probably need to expand on that statement. See, one of the major points of Aristotleâ€™s Poetics is that character is revealed by action. That means, what we do is who we are.
In 2001, when Dr. Waksal became aware that ImCloneâ€™s stock was about to tank because the FDA had rejected the Biologics License Application (BLA) for Erbitux, what action did he undertake and what did it reveal about his character?
He contacted family and friends and told them to dump their shares in the company, before the news got out and wrecked their value. In other words, when faced with a crisis, he chose to defraud those investors who werenâ€™t lucky enough to be family (or the mother of his ex-girlfriend).
In prison a few years later, Dr. W. looked at himself in light of Aristotle and the tragedians, and judged himself a tragic figure. An outside observer might look at those same actions and say, â€œWhat a petty and craven human being!â€
Apparently, the Securities and Exchange Commission agreed with that outsiderâ€™s take, barring Dr. W. from serving as an officer at a publicly held company. Ever.
On the other hand, some investors now feel that heâ€™d be trustworthy with $50 million (or more) in financing. Itâ€™s a good thing the last few years have taught us that the smart money isnâ€™t really very smart.
* * *
All of which brings us back to that name: Kadmon. Is Dr. W. implying that his new private equity-backed biotech is somehow going to partake in the macrocosmic vision of that primordial man? That itâ€™s going to play a role in restoring the universe to its perfect state (as per Kabbalahâ€™s goal of Tikkun olam)? Did he embrace this religion in order to deal with life in prison, a la George Bluthâ€™s religious conversion on the (brilliant but canceled) TV show Arrested Development? Is he somehow framing himself as the primordial man, reborn after his stint in the joint? Is he just copying neat-sounding words from Mr. Scholemâ€™s book? (Iâ€™d have gone with Zimzum Pharma.)
At press time, Kadmon doesnâ€™t have a website up, so all we have to go on is Dr. Waksalâ€™s quote from a news release:
Kadmon is building a new paradigm for bringing pioneering medicines to market more rapidly and cost effectively. This includes the simultaneous execution of a dual strategy, combining an operating commercial business with novel compounds at various stages of clinical development.
Aha! Apparently, the world can be restored by making sure you have some cash flow while working on drug development. I hope heâ€™s successful in developing some new drugs, but not so successful that he tries to take the company public.
Sure, you can take my sniping as sour grapes. Am I jealous of the high-flying lifestyle, literary salons and SoHo loft that Dr. W once enjoyed and the tens of millions of dollars â€” if not more â€” that he banked after Lilly bought ImClone? Heck, yeah!
On the other hand, my only run-ins with the law have involved speeding tickets, and I never put my parents in a position where the feds could threaten to put them in prison if I didnâ€™t cop a plea.