By Isabella Copeland
These first five weeks as a freshman, here at St. John’s, have been the most challenging and rewarding time of my life. It has been an unexplainable experience, constantly being tucked into the pages of good books and deep conversations. Last week I described St. John’s as a spa for the mind. Concern for the immediate, outside world melts away here, and you’re left with a beautiful little bubble where the mind can be free. I’m living in a round corner of the world where unknown intellects gather to pursue education aggressively.
Mark Roosevelt, our college-wide president, described a St. John’s education as “radical” both at his Inauguration Ceremony and at the Class of 2020’s Convocation. He also promised the Class of 2020 that “…the education you are about to receive will change everything.” This statement is not only profound, but it’s completely true. After only five weeks here I can feel my mind thinking in different patterns. My talk is more to the point. My actions have deeper purpose. The kind of education I’m receiving is all-consuming. The work never ends, in and out of class. You can always reread a text to compare translations, go over the Greek paradigms one more time, and find another level to your Seminar reading. There is no distinction between the student I am in class and the student I am in life.
Experiencing a change this radical is challenging, and sometimes I find it hard to keep myself grounded. Everyday I’m questioning concepts that I thought were stable, and I’m learning that they’re a little wobbly. What I thought I knew no longer has the strong foundation I thought it had. In this way, St. John’s forces us out of our comfort zones.
Last week in Lab, we dissected a sheep pluck (heart and lungs). We used nothing more than the text of William Harvey’s On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals to discern what parts of the heart where which. There were no biology text book diagrams, no instructional videos, there were only our minds and the text. By approaching education this way, learning becomes discovery. As I cut away the falsehoods I realized that the heart is absolutely nothing like I was thought! The neat depictions in text books don’t even begin to illustrate reality: the wall-like septum and paper-thin valves. You don’t really know something until you’ve cut it open.
It is extremely easy to get caught up in this well-wrapped environment. Just this last week I listened to the radio for the first time since I arrived here. It’s hard to remember that there’s a world out there, a world where books come after television or video games. Talking with some fellow classmates, we agreed that our lifestyle here is healthier than how we lived back home. We’re getting more sleep, avoiding social media, and have no desire to binge watch Netflix. We have, however, become incredibly focussed on the work we do here. The first week of classes I felt my view turn to tunnel vision. For this reason, I went on a one night backpacking trip to the summit of Wheeler Peak.
It felt so good to get off campus with the Outdoor Program after that first week. On Sunday morning we woke at 2 am, packed up camp, and made the trek to the highest point in the state of New Mexico. For the majority of our hike the only source of light came from our headlamps, the only view was our feet pounding on the trail. After a while my fingers couldn’t get warm, the sweat froze on my back. At 6:30am we stood at 13,161 feet, the highest point in New Mexico. Up in the sky the clouds flew into our faces at speeds far faster than observed from below. The wind blew through us and made my stiff legs want to keep moving. The view, however, was incredible. “Rosy-fingered dawn” reached down into the valley and lake below. Some of the sophomores remarked on how the view looked like the Garden of Eden, while some freshmen thought that this must be what it’s like to stand on Mount Olympus. No single color stood on its own, each pumped into the next. The winds blended the motions of the clouds into one synchronized beat. There was harmony; there was rhythm.
As I stood up on that peak, I told myself, “That’s why I do it.” That view is the reason I got up at 2 am, kept my cold toes moving, and pounded the trail in the dark. It was all worth it. The highest peaks reveal the most beautiful views. Similarly, there are times at St. John’s when all I can see are the individual Greek characters and separate Euclid Propositions. There are also times when I look up and see something absolutely alive and connected. I study every day with the intention that I will see the view, see that beating heart. As Harvey says, “…betwixt the visible and invisible, betwixt being and not being, as it were, it gave by its pulses a kind of representation of the commencement of life.”
This education I’m receiving might not be comfortable, but it’s radical. In a world where books have the answers, I have to push myself to keep reading. I have to keep turning the pages, because one day I’ll be standing on a mountain top, looking down at a beating heart. “That’s why I do it.”
-Isabella Copeland (SF ’20)