By Isabella Copeland
At St. John’s College we do not have professors, we have tutors. Our tutors do not profess to know; they tutor us in the great books. The more time I spend at St. John’s, the more I realize how fine of a line our tutors walk. They guide us while encountering the great books in our program, while letting us discover their meaning ourselves. They can’t directly tell us what Plato is trying to say, because that would be professing. Instead, they have to lead, challenge, and sometimes push us to find it. Johnnies are the students. The authors are our teachers. What middle ground do our tutors stand on? What does it mean to be a tutor?
As my Seminar tutor, Ms. van Boxel, explains, “What it means to be a tutor is to have your life centered on learning.The reason you’re here is because you have the kind of soul that wants to learn. Your learning is supposed to be a model for your students. If you lose this core commitment to your own learning, then you’ve lost the most important thing you can offer your students.” She feels a responsibility to “make sure everyone’s learning opportunity is maximized and beneficial.” As a tutor, she is able to walk the tightrope with remarkable balance, giving just the conversation just the right amount of guidance. She has a passion for literature and philosophy; yet she maintains a militaristic discipline over her mind and body.
Born and raised Canada, she had diverse interests growing up and in school: “I loved to write. I loved biology. I loved physics.”
As her undergraduate degree came to a close, she began to think about her future career options. She was entertaining entering the field of law. After taking the LSAT’s she realized that law wasn’t what she wanted to do. She continued on to graduate school in political science, with a focus on political philosophy. She also had a maintained an interest in film and fashion. She even spent some time working in the special effects industry.
She heard about St. John’s from friends in the St. John’s faculty. “I wanted to learn, a community of learning…to be a model learner, and I found the students whom I met while I was interviewing to be very impressive. They were able to speak earnestly and with great facility about an impressive range of subjects.” As a tutor, she thinks “there ought to be a tension between the demands of the job and your commitment to the students and their learning on the one hand, and your desire to learn outside the direct needs of the program, on the other.”
During her time at St. John’s she became a co-founder of Combat and Classics, along with Jeffrey Black (tutor) and alumnus Brian Wilson (USMCR). She developed an interest in military outreach when she had an undergraduate student at St. John’s who was a Marine. He had a very “get it done mentality” when it came to studying philosophy. He took it seriously. Ms. van Boxel believes Johnnies need to understand that we’re not simply trying to figure out what each philosopher and author is saying, which is a task in itself, but we are also trying to figure out for ourselves what kind of life we want to lead. What is a just life and how does one live that life? Ms. van Boxel saw how seriously this student was absorbing the program, and she realized how much of a cross-over there was between a serious intellect and a serious soldier. “It’s a character that does well in a life of learning. To learn truly is a kind of moral demand you makes of yourself. You have to be honest with yourself, and you have to hold yourself to account. That takes courage.” The Combat and Classics team offers some online seminars and podcasts to give active duty and retired military people something “for which they have a hunger and something that benefits them in their public and private lives.”We want to reach those who are stationed all over the world, reminding them of what they were fighting for including “ the freedom to read these books.” These seminars and podcasts are online courses. They give people a taste of what we do at St. John’s.
Her latest book is in its final phases. The title is still in the works, but it is about Nietzsche. It explores the implications of the fact the notion of a fixed human nature can’t remain authoritative in the face of evolution. “How are we going to think about current research? How are we going to address these things? On what grounds do we find some things objectionable or not?” “Nietzsche is trying to think of a human being as a type of motion. Question is: what type of motion? What makes us human if we’re not going to define it in that old way [fixed motion]?”
“People want to feel like they’re growing.” We hunger for a life in motion. To feel that one is growing is to feel alive. We are always searching for those activities, those passions that lift us to our higher selves. We want to find this, we “yearn to yearn.”
She also enjoys hiking, camping, cross-country skiing, and singing.