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Learning Life?s Lessons

From lengthy reading to reaching out to students, a college president reflects on going back to school and what it taught him.
University Business, Nov 2008

As a college president for almost two decades, Roger H. Martin always wanted to learn what his students really had to say about college life.

His good intentions haven’t come easily. On his first night as president at Moravian College (Pa.) in 1986, he stood behind a tree to watch students at a freshman mixer, and was soon asked by a campus security officer for his ID while trying to explain who he was.

Martin continued on at Moravian and then went on to lead Randolph-Macon College (Va.). Then he faced a life-threatening challenge. In 2000, Martin was diagnosed with terminal melanoma, found in his left lung, after hoping he had beaten a milder case two years earlier. Receiving care at John Hopkins, Martin successfully responded to treatment that tends to help about 10 percent of patients.

Partly a lesson in self-discovery, Martin took a sabbatical leave from Randolph-Macon four years later and decided to enroll at St. John’s College (Md.), known as the “Great Books” school in Maryland, for one semester as a 61-year-old freshman. (For those of you wondering, he didn’t stay in the dorms -- he lived in an apartment with his wife, Susan.) No longer an acting president, Martin is the author of Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again (University of California Press, 2008), a book about his student experience at St. John’s. He recently shared his insights?from reading Greek philosophy and literature, to befriending students, to even landing a spot on the college crew team -- with University Business.

Martin: It was my last sabbatical leave in my career as a college president. I had become very interested in the so-called Millennial generation--the kids coming to college since 2002?and I thought it would be nice to do an article on the generation, from the students’ perspective. Plus, I was not a very good student my own freshman year at Denison [University] (Ohio). I did not do well in a Western Culture Literature course there, so I thought it would be fun to read stuff that I didn’t do well in the first time around. And I think that probably, subliminally going back to college, being a freshman again, was kind of trying to figure out my own life, to prove to myself that I was still alive. There is really no one answer to why I did it.

Martin: Well, first of all, I needed to find a president willing, or crazy enough, to accept me. Chris Nelson and his dean [Harvey Flaumenhaft], after questioning me for a while, were willing to do that. The other neat thing about St. John’s is the topic I’m very interested in is the relevance of liberal arts and sciences in the 21st century because, as I write in the book, so much thinking is sort of directed really to careers. I thought it would be fun to go to St. John’s because it’s arguably the most radical liberal arts college in the United States and I’m glad I did because it really got me thinking about the relevance of the liberal arts and sciences and about the place of the Great Books of Western literature and philosophy. For the most part, my views were very positive.

Martin: I really believe that no matter what you are going to become in life -- whether you’re going to go into business, or you’re going to be an engineer, or you’re going to a physician or whatever -- I really think you are going to need in the beginning that kind of broad-based educational experience. This generation has going to have many different careers and I think what a liberal arts education does, at least, is to give students that kind of intellectual flexibility, to be able to adapt and change. Also, because of the technology we’ve experienced over the past 20, 30 years, I think that’s another factor, that things are moving quickly and society is changing, you can’t just assume that the skills you’ve developed are going to last you forever. My first teaching job was at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (N.Y.). I think they realized that early on, they could produce very good engineers, but those engineers also had to have a broadband education in the beginning so that they become leaders in their profession. There are also more comprehensive colleges or vocationally directed colleges where I also think that at least for the first two years this kind of broad-based liberal arts education is very important.

Martin: I’m arguably the beginning of the baby boomer generation. The baby boomer generation, and evenly more important for me, the so-called X-Generation -- which were going to college during the 20 years I have been a college president--were students, (these are generalizations) who were rebelling from their parents, were into partying, were not directed altogether academically. This Millennial generation, which I was able to spend time with at St. John’s, are non-rebellion. In fact, they are quite the opposite. They are very close to their parents. These kids were going to church and synagogue. They were very much more focused. One problem is, though, they are close to their parents and their parents close to them. We have today the helicopter parent syndrome, which I write about in my book. For the most part, they are a very different group of kids than my children or even people from my generation.

Martin: To go St. John’s, you’ve got to really love reading. The comments from the kids I’ve gotten to know in the coffee shop and rowing, a lot of them were put off by their secondary education, the sort of No Child Left Behind culture in which everybody is teaching to the test. And that really shocked me, some of their comments. These are coming from a relatively small number of students. They felt that they didn’t know what their high school education was about and they really want to be able to get in the debate and discussion and be in a position to question things and not just be taught to a test. That was one of the things that really struck me, was how negative that some of these students were to the preparation they got in secondary school.

Martin: It was because I was a slow reader to begin with. That was one of my problems in my real freshman year; I wasn’t a very quick reader. At St. John’s, you have not only the freshman seminar, where you are reading in the beginning, like for every seminar, 200 pages of Homer's Iliad and The Odyssey, and [it’s] even more difficult to read Plato. Not only you have to be a pretty good reader to do that, but you also have to be willing enough and outgoing enough to be able to participate in the seminar and contribute to the seminar discussion, because everything at St. John’s revolves around a seminar setting. It’s not students listening to professors lecturing and taking notes. For me, at age 61 with a PhD from Oxford, I found the reading really difficult and challenging, and I must say also that I found it very intimidating sitting around a seminar table, being involved with these very bright students. But the reading was a real challenge for me, and I think that if I’d gone to St. John’s forty-three years ago I would have found it very difficult.

Martin: I don’t advocate everybody doing this, but I think it’s just sort of thinking about the business angle to running a college. I didn’t go in thinking this in the beginning, but students are one of your major clientele, if you use the business model at a college or university. For me, being able to go to another campus where you are not the president and to just be able to talk to students at their level, hear their concerns, I think gives a leader a whole lot more appreciation for the young people, and the not so young people in some cases, that their college or university is serving. So that was a real plus for me. I probably should have, if anything, done it earlier, not at the end of my career, because I think it would have helped me become a better president. I don’t know exactly how to play that out with college and university presidents, but I think that somehow being able to get a different perspective on that clientele?the students and maybe the faculty as well?helps you be a better leader.

Martin: Everyone reads the same books. I think for premeds it’s difficult. If you are going to go to medical school from St. John’s, you’ve got take some summer courses at another university. Although I must say St. John’s probably produces more healthcare professionals and doctors and dentists, and so forth, than most colleges do. St. John’s really forces students to think analytically and critically to be able to read analytically and critically and communicate. Those are such important skills in our society and I think it’s a great preparation for going off to one of the professional schools or to graduate school.

For me, the proof of the pudding is in the alumni. If you look at the St. John’s alumni, they are on Wall Street, in prominent positions. They are physicians and scientists. A lot of them go into education, which shouldn’t be surprising. Science is taught from the Great Books, and I had some question about whether that was the best way to teach science. These students really understand the basic principles of science, whereas a lot of students if they even take a science course don’t. I think generally students who go to St. John’s have a much better understanding of science than most college students do. I’m saying this as an outsider.

Martin: This is happening all over the country. Demographically, you have students who are maybe going to community colleges and wanting to come into four-year colleges. I think even maybe with people my age; it’s amazing all these retirement communities that are being built up and around colleges and universities. One of the key messages in the book is that education goes on forever. It’s not something that you just do when you are a teenager, but if you have been given the preparation, you should be curious, and want to continue learning all the time. I think that there’s a vast, untapped market still for people who never have had the advantage of higher education or people who have had but would really like to go back either in retirement or if they are changing careers to take advantage. Don’t just think because you are older you can’t do the same thing that these young people do.

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