Don't tell my college alumni director, but I've long thought that had I a chance to do my college-admissions process over, I would pay a lot more attention to St. John's College in Annapolis, and might well end up going there. "Racing Odysseus" says a lot about why this interesting, almost unique, college is so distinctive and -- for a certain, probably pretty rare, type of student -- so attractive.
But St. John's, distinctive as it is, is but one element of author Roger Martin's post-cancer re-evaluation of his life, lifestyle, and goals (considering his doctor had told him he'd likely be dead several years before this book was written, it seems uncharitable to call this a "mid-life crisis"). It's also a meditation on the value of a liberal-arts education in an era of career-focused students and parents; an argument for the continuing relevance of dead-white-male classics like the ancient Greek writers Johnnies read in the first semester of freshman year; plus the story of a competitive ex-jock proving he's still able to compete (at some level) against callow youth, despite being about three times older than them and missing part of a lung. It's a lot to fit into one relatively slim book, but I found it an interesting and fast-paced read.
Perhaps Mr. Martin (as they'd call him at St. John's) might consider it disrespectful of his young friends and ersatz classmates, but I finished this book wishing he had written more about his general impressions of this generation of college students, their preparation for higher education, and their general approach to academic and professional success. I was thinking particularly here of Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30) and his argument that the marketplace of ideas no longer attracts America's young people. Certainly this is one more area where the largely self-selected St. John's student body is well outside the norm. Martin does talk about this to some degree -- particularly in his discussion of collegiate sports -- but I would have enjoyed reading his thoughts on this topic in greater depth.
Still, I can't complain too much about what Roger Martin did write. A book that could have been merely self-indulgent is in fact not only a worthwhile memoir, but also an interesting look at an unusual and important approach to education, and the value of such an education even to people well beyond their "college years."
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Andrew S. Rogers (Cascadian)
Mostly, I'm a moderately prolific Amazon.com reviewer who's giving Lunch a try as another venue for my reviews.
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*Starred Review* Informed that a deadly cancer will soon end his career as a college president, Martin defies the medical prognosis and then embarks upon an unlikely sabbatical adventure: enrolling in a small liberal-arts college as a 61-year-old freshman. The account of this adventure illuminates the renewing power of education even for a man well past his prime. By watching Martin wrest fresh meaning from Plato and Aeschylus, Herodotus and Thucydides, readers gain a deeper appreciation for the perennial challenge posed by these classical authors. But it is Homer who schools this unusual freshman most profoundly, the bard’s Odysseus furnishing him with an illuminating metaphor for his own circumstances as an aging warrior pursuing an uncertain journey home after a hard-fought victory. Waylaid not by cyclopes and sirens, Martin must vanquish his own anxieties as he struggles to keep up with classmates one-third his age, comparing his intellectual insights with theirs in the classroom and coordinating his physical exertions with theirs on a college rowing team. But beyond Martin’s private insecurities, larger questions emerge about the contemporary significance of the liberal arts in a careerist society. Alternately amusing and poignant, Martin’s personal epic offers a much-needed perspective on cultural dilemmas both ancient and modern. --Bryce Christensen