By Anh Do (SF 19)
This year I have one of the most delightful tutors for my senior language class: Mr. Cornell. We spent the first semester learning French and exploring its intricacies with Baudelaire and Flaubert, while starting this semester with Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and now wrapping it up with George Elliot’s Middlemarch. Mr. Cornell has often impressed me with his spontaneous episodes of inspiration, where he would seem to be under the spell of his own thoughtful and provocative reflections, and it would be clear to us how much he loved the books that we were reading. Language class is also one of my favorites this year because the atmosphere is ever so cheerful, with nerdy inside jokes, Mr. Cornell’s witty comments, and sometimes even a little bit of impromptu theatrical performing. I decided to get to know him a bit better outside of class, and to my pleasant surprise, a lot of interesting facts emerged!
When asked how he found out about St. John’s, Mr. Cornell replied: “My advisor in Grad School had taught at SJC Annapolis, had been a much-beloved tutor then, turned medical ethics professor: Leon Kass. He had introduced me to articles (former SJC lectures, actually) by Eva Brann and Joe Sachs, and I knew I wanted to be at a place where such original reading and thinking were prized. I came here then in 1985. My wife had been in the SF GI during a couple of summers before—sort of to scope the place out!—i.e. before I was offered a tutorship and we decided to come to SF.”
Mr. Cornell’s concentrations had been in history and philosophy of biology. He had done post-doc research at Cambridge (UK) in the Charles Darwin Collection there, which includes Darwin’s famous notebooks, all his papers and manuscripts, his entire library (woah, how cool is that!). He has also given a couple of Darwin talks at SJC, but when he came here he became interested in Goethe’s biology —e.g. The Metamorphosis of Plants and zoological essays we read in Freshman Laboratory.
Mr. Cornell’s favorite class to lead changes from year to year, but some of them include Junior Language, Senior Language (which he had taught only once before), first semester of Junior Math, “which is one stunning puzzle about infinity after another, and second semester of Junior Lab with the beautiful sequence of Faraday and Maxwell.” I never could have suspected that this year was only Mr. Cornell’s second time teaching senior language, firstly because his French pronunciation and his knowledge of the language are wonderful, and secondly because our discussions are often very intellectually stimulating!
But what about first semester of Senior Lab, when we read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species? “You would think I would gravitate more to Senior Lab, where we read Darwin—at one time my ‘specialty,'” Mr. Cornell explains. “But the fact is, The Origin of Species is a much trickier book than we can discover in our first-reading of it and discussions. This is partly because we are so deeply influenced by its breathtaking vision of the living world. It makes it harder to get into Darwin’s head—since he, after all, had to make the argument for evolution by natural selection from scratch, for the first time. It took him a solid 20 years to work it out, and a lot of his pre-Origin work concerns how to approach some massive rhetorical problems.”
His favorite place on campus is “the Coffee shop in the summer, when you can meet a lot of colleagues and students who are more at leisure than during the school year. The conversations can be quite free and candid.”
“I also like our Question periods after lectures—if you can call that a ‘place’—for the same reason,” he adds. “If only more students knew what can come out in that venue!”
Some traditions that he likes at St. John’s include “the Santa Fe’s Senior Essay Process, where tutors can express preference of topics (for committees they’re assigned to), making for particularly high-powered Senior Orals,” as well as “Senior Prank and the Sophistry Contest; the seriousness of this college is nicely balanced by its knowing how to laugh at itself.”
Did you know that Mr. Cornell is a huge classical music enthusiast, especially of 20th century composers like Debussy, Britten, Prokofiev, Barber, Villa-Lobos, Poulenc, Stravinsky? Some of his other hobbies are “European travel, languages, art museums, and cafés: the joie de vivre of continental cities big and small.” Very recently, I even spotted one of Mr. Cornell’s beautiful paintings on display in our Peterson Art Gallery, which showcases artworks by students and faculty at St. John’s!
And now, as a senior about to graduate from St. John’s College, I felt truly warm at heart reading what Mr. Cornell said about his favorite thing about our students and community: “I have taught other places and have never been very tempted to teach anywhere else. What I love is that our conversations are all about the Big Ideas, all about what ultimately matters to us, especially as we try to find our way in a super-literate, idea-driven, science-heavy, ideologically overloaded world. SJC keeps the important life-questions before us. Students here are the most philosophically serious I’ve encountered anywhere, including at U. of Chicago and Cambridge University. You meet a lot of super-smart people at other places, but that’s not quite the same thing as developing a sense of what the big questions are. Our culture of conversation—of listening and reflecting, rather than deploying expertise—is unparalleled in my experience.”