By Cara Zhang, SF ’19
Mr. Grant Franks graduated from St. John’s College in 1977 and has been a tutor at St. John’s College in Santa Fe since 1988. This year Mr. Franks is teaching freshman seminar, senior lab, and Chinese tutorial for the Eastern Classics program.
Born in 1955, Mr. Franks found himself looking at colleges in the aftermath of the turbulent 1960s. It was a time of cultural and intellectual upheaval in the United States and around the world. American society was torn by dissension over the war in Vietnam. The civil rights movement was changing the country. The development of the birth control pill had ushered in the sexual revolution. The Baby Boom generation felt entitled to question every existing social norm.
While in high school, Mr. Franks had sought some understanding of the world around him in unguided reading that went in various directions, from theology (Christian and Buddhist) to Jungian psychology and studies of ancient mythologies. Although these books differed wildly from one another, they all regularly referred back to a small number of authors whose insights continued to shape modern thought: Plato, Augustine, Dante, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche. One day, a friend who was planning to go to St. John’s College showed him the “stack of books” picture in the college catalogue. There were all the books he had seen referenced over and over. St. John’s College, it seemed, offered exactly what he had been looking for: an entryway to texts that had survived for hundreds and thousands of years. St. John’s College offered a rock of stability from which to begin to understand a mad and confusing world.
A visit to the Annapolis campus confirmed his desire to come to the College. Like many prospective students, he felt the desire to join the conversation.
Now, as a Johnnie-alum tutor, Mr. Franks appreciates the way in which St. John’s approaches its canon of Great Books. For example, we read and encounter Plato’s work directly, rather than merely taking a stance on Plato based on secondary material. The questions that we try to pose for ourselves are the questions that Plato was trying to address. Many other people read these books and try to see where Plato fit into Greek thought. This second way of reading begins with the idea that there is a historical structure of thought. They try to paint a painting of who Plato is and try to place him in the past. But they won’t really engage with his ideas directly. Mr. Franks thinks that our self-understanding is in part driven by the idea that we want to engage these works as real-life questions.
Asked whether he has a favorite among the books of the program, he paused a bit before answering, “The Iliad.” Nothing on the College reading list surpasses it. The moment when Achilles and Priam weep together in Book Twenty-four still brings tears to his eyes though he has read it dozens of times.
Several books that were obscure to him earlier in life have opened up with re-reading. The Aeneid, for instance, seemed like a second-rate knock-off of the Iliad when he read it as a student. But in his first semester as a tutor at the College, the asked him particularly to do a preceptorial on the Aeneid. With weeks of preparation and careful re-reading, Mr. Franks finally began to appreciate Virgil’s artistry, recognizing in it a wealth of detail and resonance that he had overlooked as a student. More recently, James Joyce’s Ulysses has grown to be a favorite text. For four years, he has run a year-long reading group that completes Ulysses between September and May, and plans to do so again next year.
“Ulysses made no sense to me when it tried to read it the first time. Working through it with a preceptorial really helped open it up for me,” Mr. Franks noted. “There are immense pleasures in that book, but it really helps to have a group of people working together to read it.”
Mr. Franks is looking forward to doing Junior seminar again, because he wants to go back to Hobbes. As he thought more, he felt more attracted to Hobbes’ pivotal position in our thinking about what it is to live with other people. He is very grateful to be part of an intellectual community that allows him to explore the fundamental questions of human existence along with a diverse and serious student body.