It was Homer who drew Eva Brann into the classics for the first time, and now, even after more than 60 years of studying the poet every year, Brann is still brimming with enthusiasm.
“‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ are the first things our students read, and we’ve just finished ‘The Odyssey,'” Brann said, latching onto the topic immediately with highlights from one seminar class discussion. “I asked, ‘At what moment does Penelope recognize Odysseus?’ People have various opinions and it became a very interesting conversation. I have my own opinion about it—I think that she recognizes him even before he enters the palace. You may remember that the old dog recognizes him, there’s an old dog called Argus who recognizes Odysseus is there in the getup of a beggar and behaving as if he was a cripple.”
“Well he speaks, she can hear things, she’s upstairs. I think the moment she hears his voice, she knows. First of all because in a happy marriage wives and husbands don’t lose sight of each other just because they haven’t seen each other for two decades. And because she’s said many indications that something’s about to happen,” Brann said.
Others pointed to various other parts of the text as the moment of recognition, including fairly late in the story in which Odysseus gets angry when Penelope tells him she’s cut loose the marriage bed.
“I think that’s a sign to her that he’s her husband—which is a different kind of thing,” Brann said.
I asked when she made up her mind about this point, and if the discussions ever change her mind.
“Oh, often I change my opinion,” Brann said.
St. John’s College is perhaps an unusual place of higher learning among universities today. “Radical,” Brann calls it. Among the many things it may boast, it is, she says, “never boring.” Brann, having taught there for more than 60 years, is certainly never bored. Rarely does she see a student disengaged. How many places of learning can claim that?
Founded in Annapolis in 1696, it is the third-oldest college in America. It has since opened a second campus in Santa Fe, New Mexico. With no departments, no majors, and no professors (they are instead “tutors,” guardians of knowledge, rather than instructors professing knowledge), St. John’s instead relies on the Great Books program as its curriculum, and embraces liberal arts education in the traditional sense.
Brann came to St. John’s herself by a happy twist of fate, and from her first moment on campus, she never wanted to leave.
“I was drunk with expectation and joy,” Brann said. “It was absolutely wonderful. I knew I’d found my home.”
Brann’s introduction to Enlightenment philosophy was early, starting around age 6 or 7, during Sunday walks in the park with her father. Brann’s father, a physician, was interested in philosophy and would explain, in simple terms to Brann, what he’d been studying. Kant became an early friend.
Brann says, as such, she has likely always thought of herself as a teacher, passing on what she’d learned to her younger brother.
“I’d lecture him about things,” she said.
Brann was born in 1929 to a Jewish family in Berlin, and early on went to a Jewish private school. “The Nazi kids would throw rocks” on the way to school, she remembered. Then came the British bombs, a few years later. By 1941 the family had moved to Brooklyn.
Brann went to the public Brooklyn College, and initially had no interest in classics, which was a required course. But then she finally picked up Homer, and she was smitten. She pursued a classics major, instead of becoming a physician like her father as she originally planned. Her love for ancient Greece led to an archaeology doctorate at Yale, but after authoring one book and various writings on her excavations in Athens, she realized this was not where she wanted to be.
She was asking questions that were perhaps broader, perhaps deeper, than what fit neatly into the archaeology department.
Luckily, she had a friend who was teaching at St. John’s, who was leaving because teaching was not an ideal fit, and he introduced Brann to the dean.
“That was 1957, and I’ve been here ever since,” Brann said.
Taking Learning Seriously
There is a moment in every class when students’ eyes light up, or go wide, and they have a moment where it clicks and makes sense, where you can see they are learning something that they will never forget—these are the very highlights for Brann.
Perhaps teachers everywhere grapple with the mystery of how to keep students engaged, she mused. Well, great books do that. Brann points out that their students are never assigned secondary works, which can make up the bulk of the reading list elsewhere. The Great Books program is blessedly free of “junk.”
Liberal arts in universities today sometimes mean the humanities, which isn’t quite what they really are. The idea of liberal arts education goes back to Aristotle, who divided disciplines into seven arts: first rhetoric, grammar, and logic; then math, music, astronomy, and geometry. At St. John’s, all students take four years of mathematics, three years of laboratory, two years of music, and four years of reading.
Liberal arts education is essentially the opposite of vocational education, learning for a specific practical purpose.
“Put another way, is there anything that can’t be treated as a liberal art? For instance, take accounting. Is it possible to teach accounting as one of the liberal arts? It’s not usually. Most people wouldn’t think of it as being among the liberal arts. I think there are always ways of approaching things, as if it were a liberal art,” Brann said.
“It means that you try to get to the bottom of the thing that you’re trying to see. What is at the root of it? From that point of view accounting can become very interesting; you know, double-entry accounting is fascinating, and accounting is what makes the business world go around,” she said. “Liberal learning is simply taking things seriously.”
“Students should care about their learning and they should learn to recognize when something is worth knowing, and when it’s not worth dwelling on.”
Vocational learning can instead be impractical, she added. Would those who train two or four years for a job that no longer will no longer exist in five or 10 feel their education a waste?
Brann said that instead, her mission is to attend to fundamentals, and perennial questions. These are things that don’t change from year to year, and in some cases millennia to millennia.
The fundamentals really are fundamental, to life, to being. How can students do good in the world, she asks, if they don’t know what good is?
Great books, in fact, “cooperate in saving our souls,” Brann wrote in one essay.
You might think this sort of education, which leans toward the philosophical and timeless, flourishes particularly in times of prosperity—such as today. You would be wrong.
“Here’s an interesting thing,” Brann said. “It’s exactly when things go wrong, as in the Great Depression, for instance, that liberal education flourishes.”
“I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s got something to do with the fact that since the world of moneymaking is not really working, people begin to think of their own nature and what they can do to form themselves, to form more self-knowledge,” Brann said.
“Self-knowledge is a large part of liberal education; you learn who you were meant to be and who you would like to be, and what you actually are,” she said.
At St. John’s, tutors refer to students by their last name and honorific, Brann said. The formality allows relationships to be intellectually intimate, as they grapple with deep topics in theology and ontology and so on, but personally distant. It’s a very satisfying environment for learning, Brann adds, noting it avoids the oddly embarrassed feeling that hangs over student–teacher dynamics she sees on other campuses.
“A couple of weeks ago, I’m teaching freshmen, as it happens. I asked a question and a young woman, sitting up, she looked at me and said, ‘Ms. Brann, are you asking this question because you don’t know? Or do you have the answer?'”
“She’s only been at the college four weeks or so, she had the right idea. She knew that this was the kind of question that would be welcome, would be thought to be funny and interesting, and would get a candid answer,” Brann said.
Serious as the learning is, it is also a time of happiness. Brann says students sometimes say they’ve never been as happy as the four years they spent reading. She sees this as a wonderful compliment.
Small things constantly change at the school; the curriculum is tweaked year to year, books may leave the reading list and later come back. But big changes rarely ever happen.
“We’re already got as radical a program as possible,” said Brann, who this year turned 90. She’s the longest-serving tutor at the school, and formerly served as dean for a period. In 2005, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal. “So things don’t change. On a deep level, we’re always trying to find the finest texts about the deepest matters.”
Brann said the students graduate knowing how to learn, and build communities.
“We would like them to be afraid of nothing,” Brann said. They’ve spent four years learning things they may have previously known nothing about, and they know how to learn. She wants them to leave ready to face any intellectual challenge.
“They know how you go about gathering a group of people who do something together that really holds them together,” Brann said. “They know some very fundamental things which you need to know in order to learn … We’d like them to be natural makers of communities, which is another way of saying they know how to make friends around something interesting.” And, she hopes, by then they will know how to “engage in really satisfying work.”
“Which is to say, how to find something that they can really give their allegiance to, and that is a pleasure for them to be in and to work with,” she said. Brann certainly has, herself.
And often, in the process of learning, teaching, investigating ideas, the thoughts bubble over and it turns into a product, whether it be a design or a novel, as so many former students have come back to show her.
For Brann, it’s books. She’s written more than a dozen on wide-ranging topics, from essays on Greek philosophers to collections of aphorisms.
“Something coagulates in your mind, and you’ll want to make something of it,” she said.