I hope everyone finds themselves safe during these crazy times. For the last spotlight of the semester, I reached out to Mr. Bybee, who was my sophomore math tutor. I want to thank our whole community at St. John’s and the support we lend to each other. Especially during these times, I feel appreciative of the education and the change it has brought for me. Working on these interviews has helped me stay connected, and allows me to take something new from shared stories.
Hi Mr. Bybee! Tell us about where you grew up?
Well, I grew up in Southeastern Idaho.
What was it like there?
There’s a lot of fresh sage brush—it looks a lot like Santa Fe! It’s a high desert plain area and has a river that runs down through it like the Rio Grande through New Mexico.
Did you spend most of your childhood in SE Idaho?
I stayed there until I was thirteen, and then I moved to a city in Northern Idaho, which is on the same river as it turns out! About 500 miles away, everything is uphill/downhill, there are all sorts of trees and forests.
Which part of Idaho did you like best?
Geez, they both had different treats. I liked them both. I lived there until I graduated college.
Where did you move for college?
Well now it gets difficult. I went to Michigan State University first, then Idaho State University. After that, I did a summer school program at Brigham Young University, which was a desert survival training, theoretically, and finally I graduated from Idaho State.
Could you tell me more about the summer school program?
Yes, it was similar to Outward Bound or National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)—except we ate a lot less and had less equipment. We spent twenty-eight days in the southern Utah desert, and I lost a lot of weight. That’s what I remember the most about it!
Why did you choose to go through this program?
Hmm… I don’t know. Probably I just wanted to see if I could do it. I thought the experience would be good for me.
What is something you took from this experience?
I think the major thing is that I had no clue that I could do the things I did when I came out of it. After that, I was pretty confident that I could undertake anything in the world and if I just stuck with it, I could see it through. Who knew I had that within me!
How did it impact your life post-graduation? I’m thinking about how for a lot of students who are about to graduate college it can be difficult to find their new place in the world. Since, right now at St. John’s, we have something we’re involved in and have been a part of for four years. How did you find that for yourself?
Well, my undergraduate college career was pretty checkered. I started off being a chemistry major and the more chemistry I did, the more that was physics, and so I transferred to the physics department. Then the more I did physics, the more it was math and I changed my major to applied mathematics and physics. The college I went to wasn’t a place like St. John’s. It was a place where you had to have majors or you couldn’t exist. Anyway, I wanted to learn more about the foundations of applied math, and the “Foundations of Mathematics” course was taught in a different department every other year. One year the math department would teach it, and other year the philosophy department. When I could take the course, the philosophy department was teaching as an advanced logic course. I remember that when I went to sign up, I had an empty spot in my schedule, and I asked the philosophy department professor what else he was teaching that I might like, and he mentioned he was offering a “Philosophy of Mysticism” course, which is probably as weird as it can get. Anyway, I signed up for that and holy Moses! The next thing I knew, I was doing philosophy, history, and literature instead of math, physics and chemistry.
Were you ever interested in literature before taking those classes or were you always more inclined to do the sciences?
I’m confident I read literature but I never understood literature as a thing you can do, if that makes sense. I read books, but studying literature is something I never considered. The same with philosophy. I remember someone once asked me what I did for a living, and I said “I’m a philosopher.” And he said “What!? They pay you just to think?!” I’m pretty sure that’s how I would have thought about it beforehand. When I finally graduated, I had taken all sorts of classes. I had two separate degrees, a major in each degree, and around eight minors.
I found a job working in a community mental health center based on my work in one of my minors, psychology. It was by default, to tell you the truth. I just ended up in that situation. It was a happy accident. It wasn’t necessarily that I had this big design in my mind at all, if I had known, I probably would have majored in psychology from the start—but I didn’t.
What was your experience in psychology and more specifically working in a mental health center?
I learned a lot. You see, I had taken lots of courses through my undergraduate career, and I can’t say they were useless, but I never understood what they meant until I saw it in action. I could pass a test. For example, I could tell you the symptoms for paranoid schizophrenia or for manic depression but I remember my first month working in the community mental health center, seeing people, thinking “Oh, that’s what that means”.
When you say to understand it from seeing, what do you mean?
Actually seeing peoples’ behaviors made the words come alive in a way in which the words were dead before. Not just in the mental health center, but also having to go to court to testify—it suddenly made me realize that the larger world was no longer an academic exercise. Taking an oath to testify in a coroner’s inquest, wow, it was the real thing. It was serious and no longer abstract. It was a shock in many ways. I suddenly went from school, in which everything is once or twice removed, to actually having to do it. In school, if I made a mistake, I got a C instead of a B, or my students got a C instead of a B in their next class. But if someone messed up in the community mental health situation, whole families could get messed up in serious ways—not just financially, but at least financially. The issues really mattered. The work really mattered, whether it ended up being done really well or really poorly. Suddenly, a lot was riding on how I performed. It’s like weight lifting. You can go to the gym with a note tablet and take notes on how other people lift weights, but that doesn’t make you a damned bit stronger. That’s a lot different from going to the gym yourself and lifting weights and getting stronger, day after day.
After working in a community mental health center, then what did you do?
Ah. Well, I went back to graduate school. I got a master’s degree in English literature. I wrote a thesis on Thomas More’s Utopia Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. Then I went to the University of Hawaii and got a master’s degree in Buddhist philosophy. I did well enough to get accepted into the doctorate program, and eventually I got a PhD in American philosophy. I wrote my dissertation on Charles S. Peirce and William James.
And how did at that lead to St. John’s?
I was teaching at the University of Oregon at one point. They had done research on student retention and realized it took half as much money to retain a student as to recruit a new student. The number one reason students dropped out was the quality of education they received. The number two reason was when they ran out of money (but the University couldn’t do much about that). The number three reason they failed to retain students had to do with the relationship between students and faculty.
So, the University funded a program to address reasons 1 and 3. They hired teachers that they identified as really effective to teach first year students and I was one of those teachers. I taught “Crucial Human Issues” and “The Philosophy of Wisdom” in alternate years. So, one year I started one of those classes, and I had a rule to identify every student there by name. As I went down the roster, I could see all the students were freshmen except one junior. So, I told the student he was in the wrong class, that it was a “freshman seminar.” He said, no, it was a class for anyone who was at the university for the first time. I said, well, you’re a junior so this is not your first year, and he looked at me as though I was particularly stupid and said he was a transfer student, that he had transferred from a place in New Mexico called St. John’s College. That was the first time I’d ever heard of it. Anyway, he was absolutely brilliant. We talked a lot outside of class and at the end of the year, he said, “You ought to go to St. John’s College.” I asked him about it and he explained it and he emphasized that it ended up not being the right place for him, but that I would love it, and that they’d love to have me. I didn’t do anything about it at the time.
It so happened that there was a graduate student in my department, and we were taking classical Greek together. The class started with 24 students and ended with just the two of us. She was doing really well and I wasn’t, so I asked her why could do all his and I couldn’t. She said that she had gone to St. John’s College and that Greek courses there. I said “Well, if you did Greek there why do you have to take Greek again?” She said that it was not learning the language precisely but how to decode it. But at the end of the class, she said, “You ought to go to St. John’s College.”
At that time my mentor’s daughter went to St John’s. She took me to lunch one day, and said, “You ought to go to St. John’s. You’d love it there and they’d love you.” At that point I sent a letter to the dean’s secretary, and told them I wanted to find what St. John’s was all about. I got a phone call that Friday. (I was in the shower and ran to the phone dripping wet!) It was [St. John’s tutor] Linda Weiner. She introduced herself and talked about St. John’s for over an hour. (I was dry. The floor was sopping wet.) She offered to fly me to Santa Fe but I had already signed a contract as a visiting professor at San Diego State, so she said to keep them in mind. Halfway through the next year, I formerly applied to St. John’s. They flew me over in January for an interview, and that is the story of how I found St. John’s…