By Robert George
When Alexandria Hinds, the St. John’s Summer Academy coordinator and event planning mastermind, offered me the position of Summer Academy intern (basically her administrative assistant and senior resident assistant), I was excited to have the opportunity to share the St. John’s education with young adults, but I was also uncertain what to expect from the students. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Summer Academy program, it consists of two week-long camps where rising junior and senior high school students live on campus in Campbell and Humphreys Hall, eat our famous dining hall fare in Randall, and attend tutorials and seminars built around weekly themes (this year’s themes were “Sight and Insight” and “Justice and Law”). The Summer Academy is designed to give teenagers a taste of a student’s life at St. John’s and a chance to participate in the continuing conversations upon which the education is based.
As for my uncertainty: I didn’t know what to expect the students to be interested in and captured by. Are some questions too abstract or too “philosophic” (whatever that means) to be addressed in one week? Would we spend the week batting opinions back and forth only to leave the students with the hasty (and easy) conclusion that it’s all relative and that these questions, if not merely a waste of time, are moreover impossible?
No, the students didn’t explore the meaning of the word “is” in the question, “What is being?”. They didn’t come to describe God as the thinking thinking of thinking (see Aristotle’s Metaphysics). Rather, they were earnestly attempting to make a beginning. They were asking the first questions that must be asked about the inadequate nature of our current understanding. They began to pull from their own experience, slowly abandoning their inherited and untested perspectives and biases. In the writing workshops I had the pleasure to put together, they drew on their own history to inform a conversation about the nature of their sight. In the Coffee Shop before lights out, they wrestled with the question of God’s existence and what the word “soul” indicates. They established that not all opinions are knowledge and then worked out that not every opinion is equally valid. They entertained the subjective character of an individual’s demand for justice, while beginning to glimpse what all such demands have in common.
This led me to ask, at what age does philosophic wonder become possible? Aristotle claims that children are only potentially human, since the faculty of reason that distinguishes us from animals is only developed after childhood. But to me, the state of suspended ignorance that characterizes wonder feels most analogous to being a child. It is when we are children that our ignorance is the most self-evident and undeniable. Somewhere along the way, sometime after learning our multiplication tables and after we stop doing sums with our fingers and toes, we begin to fancy that we’ve resolved all the mysteries. When do we get another chance to wonder? When do we begin to ask questions again, this time with the internal resources necessary to go about finding our own answers?
Is it a stretch to imagine that juniors and seniors in high school are capable of grappling with the questions that follow wonder? It shouldn’t be. I think if we can honestly recollect what it was like to be a teenager, we might remember that it was at that age, if not even younger, that philosophic questions became interesting and, maybe more importantly, began to appear answerable. We forget, like we forgot how to be ignorant, that it is at this age that philosophic earnestness first strikes us.
My surprise and delight at the quality of the conversation most likely indicates my own forgetfulness. I had forgotten my own conversations with high school friends and how frustrating it was to sit through four years of an education that spent most of its time talking down to me. If I had remembered this, then I might not have been surprised when the students, being treated with the respect that comes along with being included in the conversation, responded with mostly thoughtful and earnest discourse. There was sarcasm and cynicism, too, of course, those familiar enemies of honest conversation. They are teenagers, after all.
I suppose some may be tempted to roll their eyes at all of this, since none of the “real” philosophic questions were being addressed. “Did these students really understand Plato’s Republic?”, one might ask. In response, I’d say that when we entertain these prejudices against beginners, we have forgotten that, despite our increasingly technical philosophic vocabulary and our expanding and imposing library full of Great Books read, we essentially remain beginners in life and in the world of philosophy that comes out of life. If at some point we have forgotten the thoroughness of our ignorance, then our years spent at St. John’s have left us worse off than when we started.
One last thought: if you’ve ever considered applying to be a resident assistant at the Summer Academy, stop considering and do it. The hours are long, which is good, since you’ll love every minute of it.