Eva Brann

National Humanities Medal


Eva Brann calls herself a latecomer to St. John's College and its great books program. "I've been here only forty-eight years," she says, laughing.

When Brann arrived on the Annapolis campus of St. John's in 1957, fresh from Yale with an archaeology PhD in hand, she found herself a student all over again. "I fell in love with it at first sight," she says. "Our tutors learn along with students. It is an all-required program for the students but it is also all-required for the teachers."

"I read my way and discussed my way through four years worth of great books," says Brann. "It's never boring. It's sometimes strenuous, but it's never boring. I can't remember ever being bored."

St. John's is a rarity in American higher education. It is the only nondenominational institution based solely on the study of a great books curriculum. There are no majors and no departments at St. John's. There are no textbooks. Rather, students go straight to the source of Western tradition, read ing and discussing the classics of literature, philosophy, theology, psychology, political science, economics, history, mathematics, laboratory sciences, and music. In addition, faculty members are called tutors rather than professors, and do not give lectures. Every class is discussion-based, with students talking to each other as much as responding to tutors. "By and large, everything is done in common, which means that they can always talk to each other. And they do."

The first year's reading list includes a veritable Who's Who of Greek thought: Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius, to name just a few. Required to take four years of mathematics, students begin by studying Euclid. In astronomy, they read Ptolemy and move onto Copernicus. In four years of language classes, they learn Greek and French. But as Brann points out, students go deeper than merely learning a language. "We don't think of these as Greek and French classes, but as classes enquiring into the nature of language."

Students begin with books originally written in Greek. "We are really convinced that these are things that everyone ought to know something about," says Brann. "The reason is that these are the root foundations of what you might call the two important influences in our common lives--namely, democracy and technology. Our students come out having some set of clear, and not so clear, notions about where they came from, intellectually speaking, what is behind them, how things came to be the way they are, and have some appreciation of the scientific foundations of our lives."

"It's a chancy thing to be doing," says Brann, referring to the fact that St. John's is not a typical university or college, and can be difficult for some students and even some faculty. "We don't have a high rate of appointment. They come to us and they lose contact with the ordinary academic world. In American higher education, there are some firmly established ways. Publication is important. They aren't important for us. Specialization-we don't specialize. So it's a huge step for an individual or for even an institution to take."

Brann has been able to follow her own interests. This is reflected in her list of publications: Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad; The Music of The Republic: Essays on Socrates' Conversations and Plato's Writings; The World of the Imagination; What Then, Is Time?; and The Ways of Naysaying: No, Not, Nothing, and Nonbeing. Her latest book is Open Secrets/Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul in which she has compiled observations and maxims from the past thirty years on subjects as varied as "Domesticity: At Home and at Work," "Ages: Very Young to Pretty Old," and "Intellectuals: Sheep in Wolves' Clothes."

"These books are not scholarly books," says Brann. "They're reflections and thoughts and discoveries. They're intended to be read by people who are generally interested."

St. John's instills in its graduates a fearlessness when confronted with the unknown. About alumni, Brann says, "They have great courage when it comes to learning new things. If they come into a firm and it's necessary to learn statistics, they sit down to learn statistics. They learn to learn."

Further, Brann believes graduates leave with an even more important trait. "They seem to me to have a conscience," says Brann. "They may not always behave like angels, but they know that one ought to do the right thing."

By Caroline Kim-Brown

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.