Eric Poppele is a Tutor on the St. John’s Santa Fe campus, and a former Johnnie (class of 1989). Before becoming a tutor, he started in environmental engineering, earning his MSE from the University of Michigan, and a PhD in Civil Engineering while on the faculty (2003 – present). Currently, he is in Santa Fe.
While all that is very interesting, that is only part of why we had our conversation. Mr. Poppele was, interestingly enough, my Junior Language tutor, and an excellent one, of course. As well, he is a charming and funny person, well worth talking to. He was also recently involved in a change to the program, an aspect that people outside the faculty do not get much insight into. Finally, he very much prefers the analog life, and considering the great plague of 2020 made us do things like have our Junior year at one of the least technological school at a dining room table. So, on May 11th, we had a far reaching chat, and the best parts are below.
This last year and more has been a significant upheaval in how the St. John’s curriculum is usually taught, since it has necessitated moving to a virtual model. Do you feel this has left a lasting impact on the program?
With respect to the classroom activities and undergraduate program, no. With respect to other things, as students are now more used to connecting with each other thought the internet, and more things may come of that – there may be more summer study groups and other things in the future, which I don’t think is something students would have thought of before, as well as extracurricular activities.
For me, and I think I have said this before, the classroom is a midpoint in the process of what we do here, and before and after class there are solitary and collegial aspects to what we do, I think there has to be both: we do our preparatory work to get ready for class, and we also bump into people and talk about “What’s Descartes doing? What’s going on?” or “I couldn’t figure this out” or “I had this great idea!”, “Is that a verb?” – whatever those conversations are, and then we come to class and we make the most of what we have. We bring in all that preparation and all those different ideas and we try to reach something, but then, when we leave class, there’s more, whether it’s formal like taking notes or writing a paper, or it’s the informal: “I can’t get this part of the Princess de Cleves off my mind” comes up when you talk to a friend. So, to me, there’s something that goes on before and after class that is mostly grounded in a residential community; it’s based on location and spontaneous meetings and conversations and we don’t know what’s going to come up. That part – there might be other ways that can happen, but I think that’s an irreplaceable part of St. John’s: the bumping elbows with others and that core challenge of what we do, which is getting out of our own thoughts.
My pat definition of learning is coming to see or understand what we could not see or understand before. Getting information is not learning in that sense, as you can add information without changing how you see the world, but to understand the world in a new way means I have to think differently. It’s like the Meno paradox: how can I think something new if I am bound by my own thoughts? Part of the answer is occasionally we are inspired and the other part is that when we talk with others, we realize there’s another way of seeing things, sometimes we can go far enough to understand it. We’re getting out of our own thoughts and I think that’s just as important before and after class, mostly after, when we realize something after the fact and pursue the on our own or with others.
Treating the program as though it was the format of our classes is missing that it’s so much more, and I think that is one of things that has made this year challenging is that all the ideas, all the energy, all the otherness slips away when we are separated in our rooms.
I really like that answer and I feel that’s true of me, though I was never the ‘chat after class’ type, but it’s so hard to connect with other people and a lot of my favorite parts about St. John’s physically, outside of the academics, was getting to do your thing around other people. I have gotten so many ideas because I overheard something in the coffee shop while. I was musing into my mocha. Being there, having that general context, feels really important.
Yes, and I think there are a few things that make St. John’s unique in terms of those opportunities, and one is the curriculum is required for everyone. Someone in the coffee shop is talking about Newton, and you’ve read Newton; someone in the coffee shop is talking about Kierkegaard, you’ll read that next year. If meaning is determined by context, we have so much context in common that we can go much deeper – and so many are wrestling with the same questions and can thus push their thinking even further.
Some things can’t be changed at St. John’s and that’s one of them. It’s depth and not breadth – you can open up your browser and access anything you want to know, and bring in any model of thinking and any topic, but instead we keep pushing on one question. For example, what is virtue? Truth, beauty, justice, the meaning of life, what it means to be a good citizen – these are all fundamentally important questions, and we can delve into them in a way we can’t with a wider range of study.
The St. John’s program is a bit of a paradox: we study what are considered the liberal arts and the great books, which makes is sound like it’s set in stone. It isn’t and in fact it seems the program changes slightly regularly. Since you were recently involved in replacing a text in the language curriculum, what do you the best reason is to shift the program?
That’s a great question, and everyone will give you different answers. The Dean would give a big picture answer than some others, for instance. For me, and for every other tutor, every student, everyone at the college, there’s a recognition that there are more worthy text than time to study them. That’s just a fact. So, how do we choose? Sometimes, it’s practical considerations like “We have faculty familiar with this text and so we have confidence that they will work well in class”. Sometimes – it was over a decade ago now, but W. E. B. De Bois wasn’t always part of the senior seminar list, and there was a realization that it’s been more than 75 years since the new program was established. The new program was established in 1939, and it borrowed from experiences of Bucanon and Columbia – there’s a long history behind why those particular books were chosen. So there’s a natural conservatism in a program like this, and I think De Bois is an example where we realized: “No, there are works closer to us that are worthy of our time.”
When some proposes a work for our seminar reading – say they come in stating “We ought to read De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, or Sartre”, the answer always is: “You’ve make a compelling case for that work, but what do we drop to make room for it?”. That’s where it gets difficult. Every change of the program is not only an addition of something worthy, but also a rejection of something just as worthy, and then we have a difficult time judging between equally valuable things.
There are two schools of thought on post WW2 works. One school is that it isn’t clear yet that there are recognized great works, in the same way there are from the previous century – there hasn’t been enough time for them to be considered part of the cannon. The other is that there are so many great works – there are more people communicating, there’s more education, more access, more people writing than any time before in human history, and so there are too many great works from that period. If we choose one, we will be choosing a thematic answer to the question of what is worth studying. We could read Arendt’s The Banality of Evil, or De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Do we want to look at questions of politics and war, or gender and cultural shifts, or the environment? I’m pointing out that real difficulty in addressing questions of modernity is that for texts further back in the past, we trust the solid grounding of religious, political, philosophical and literary thought. It gives us a better place to stand when we read those great works.
In part, our hope is that we would never give up the program’s historical origins to be able to take on all of the modern era. Taking it seriously, we could spend a full year on work since 1950. That’s just a slice of the complexities and why we still have confidence in a mostly ancient program even with the fact that it is indeed mostly written by wealthy white men. But that in itself is an important fact of our past, and we should not accept that as the whole story – that’s partially why we have so many authors to argue with each other, and we hope that background gives us the tools to read contemporary works carefully.
That’s fascinating, and the reason I asked that question was that it’s common to go on about the importance of the program, but there’s factors in putting together a curriculum that are of their time. What is canonical? What is worth studying? The process of choosing is not really talked about very much. As well, I feel anyone can pick a good book, but knowing a great book is a whole other matter.
There’s a great list by Eva Brann of what makes a great book. One is that the book sustains repeated reading. Next, that it can support multiple interpretations – there’s no one way to read it. Another – and I do recommend looking this up – is that it is a book that speaks to those who have come before and it is read by those who come afterwards, it doesn’t stand on its own but exists as part of a tradition of scholarship and critique. Solidity – the book has to have a definite core. Finally, there’s “the perfect fit of word and matter”. The writing and substance must both be worthy. [The article can be viewed here].
You are a former Johnnie, and returned as a faculty member. What do you know now that you wish you had known as a student?
I see my roles and responsibilities here as pretty different. I was fortunate in a backwards way to be an older student, and then a dropout. I worked bad jobs for five years. So, in one way, I had a real advantage over a lot of people who were right out of high school or who had just taken a year off. I was doing it because I wanted to, not because it was the next thing to do, and because of that, I was enjoying the experience for what it was. I remember in my freshman year, someone in my dorm said to me: “I can’t believe how much work I have to do!”. I didn’t mean to be rude, but I laughed and said: “What are you calling work? We have incredible books to read, wonderful people to talk to, the dining hall prepares food and they wash dishes. There’s no part of this called work!” The great joke is that when freshman discover the meaning of the word scolae. “What do you mean it means leisure? This is hard!”
Because I had done all those jobs, I really enjoyed what I was doing as a student, and I thing that the more students recognize “the work and the play” of learning – you can’t do St. John’s without both. If you just think of it as work, if you’re not being playful, we’re not learning. We’re simply dutiful. But if we only play, we might not learn our verb endings. The work though is always in service of something enjoyable, and I hope students can find that. People come here because they want to study, but it is a lot of hard work, and the more we can find something delightful in the work, the less it feels like work and the more we can remember why we are doing it.
Is there any particular thing that you have desperately missed being a St. John’s tutor during the pandemic?
I think a lot of in-class, meaningful communication occurs out on the fringes. Peripheral vision, eye contact, slightly vocalized thoughts, there’s a whole dimension of nuance to the conversation, and a lot of the cues about what would be interesting and where we might go next, or someone pointing out a missing piece. It feels like there’s a filter over our communication, which only lets the big stuff get through online, and much of what happens is gone. It’s why we sit facing each other, why the black board is right there and accessible to all – the details are before all of us in the same way. The filter has left behind nuance, and I look forward to the richness and the subtlety. There’s spacial relations too; people move towards and way from each other especially in the before and after class, which we’ve already talked about, which are really important to connecting with each other.
What do you feel is the best way to apply the Johnnie way of thinking – the democratic learning, the questions, the greater temporal perspective – to the rest of the world? What important skills and insight does this experience give?
I have two things for this question: one is a caution. I remember hearing a few stories from alumni who started reading clubs over lunch at work, for example, and they had a rough start because they found that Johnnies develop their own vocabulary for speaking about ideas and we have all these texts in common. It took a little time to realize you can still have deep, rich conversations with other smart people without them having the exact same ideas as you. Whether it’s referencing Aristotle, or how we talk about certain ideas, or what we think reading is, what we do here is not the only way to be a thoughtful person. We are all different wonderful people who found a way of reading together, and maybe it just means opening up a bit and recognizing that’s not the only way to engage with other interesting people – it’s just what we’re used to.
Connected to that, it’s common for alumni to find themselves in intermediary positions between two groups, sys people who end up between a marketing team and a design team. “How can you read blueprints and talk to marketing?” “Because I never learned they were disciplines and that you shouldn’t be able to do both.” The work we do in class, when person A says that B doesn’t understand C, but I think I know why, or that one person is thinking of a word in different terms than another – St. John’s students are good at learning how to work within a group, and helping people understand each other, as well as understanding both of them.
The classroom experience is often like being a bridge. A bridge between a text and another person, between two people, learning to understand on someone else’s terms and to communicate in a way that is true to those terms: that’s a great asset in working with the world. On the one hand, you don’t have the expertise of that department, or the other, but I know enough to understand and speak with them. Most people are not trained to think that way, and think that if you have a degree in accounting, that you can’t speak about business management. We encourage everyone here, because of how the program is arranged, and help keep people out of their comfort zone, to be comfortable with thinking, listening, and with conveying difficult ideas.
If you could pick one text that everyone should read, without exception, what would it be?
For everyone – that’s to say there’s a book with which the encounter is the important thing, not necessarily the depth of engagement or understanding. But putting that aside, I can’t truly answer that, because I have close friends who have found ongoing depth in their lives from reading different texts. To say that there’s a text you want everyone to read is to say that there’s some sort of idea or framework I hope people could come to understand. For example, Aristotle’s Ethics, to understand the basis of human relationships and the different kinds of friendships and the foundation of politics; perhaps that would give us a common dialogue, or a common terminology. However, that text isn’t valuable for its synopsis, which is what a person who wasn’t that interested would get from reading it. As for wrestling with questions like what is virtue, what does it mean to be good, what’s the relation between heaven and virtue, those are questions we have to encounter at one point or another. I could say Moby Dick, because it’s such an interesting book, but the first time I read it, I found it boring and though there was too much filler and not enough whale.
A book isn’t just a thing, it’s an encounter. I have a quote on my door that says “Real reading is a strenuous and pleasurable contact sport.” It’s a contact sport because real reading is to come up against something and to be moved by it and trying to move it. I would distinguish a passive encounter with a book from more profound reading, to understand and challenge yourself. Any book someone reads that way is a book worth reading, and I would recommend everyone find that book for them forever.