Meet the Johnnies: Geoffrey Young (AGI19)

January 9, 2019

Geoffrey Young (AGI19) believes strongly in the examined life.

The following interview between first-year Graduate Institute student Jenifer Trovato (AGI) and Geoffrey Young (AGI19) first appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of The Colloquy.

Jenifer Trovato: What brought you to the Graduate Institute in the first place? Was it a longtime dream of yours to come here?
Geoffrey Young: It wasn’t a longtime dream. When I graduated [from] high school in 1996, I had a friend who, I think she came to St. John’s as an undergraduate—and I remember her telling me about it over Christmas break that year and I thought, “this place sounds ridiculous.” She was telling me she was thinking about writing an essay for her own pleasure, and telling me about the things that she’s reading, and I said I don’t know what kind of crazy place you’ve ended up in. Then I forgot about it and lost touch with her.

I had been living in New York for a long time. I met my wife there, and then we moved here because this is where she’s from. Then one day she just threw it out there: “Do you know about St. John’s?” And I said, “I know about St. John’s—it’s that ridiculous place my friend went to!” In the interim, I’ve become a struggling novelist, a person who loves to write, and a person who loves to read. And I thought, with that in mind, I thought that acquiring a broader knowledge base and a systematic way of approaching reading was what I was missing in my writing life.

And that’s panned out well. A lot of the things in the curriculum I’ve read before, but it’s totally transformed in the context of how we approach it as a group, the different ideas from fellow students. Just the fact of getting into a class and a discussion-based environment, the pressure of that really alters the way you approach the text. Instead of just one day you decide you’re going to read a little Old Testament, then decide it doesn’t matter that you don’t get that part—but St. John’s very beautifully asks you to keep trying to get that part you don’t really get.

You used the word “pressure.” I was wondering if you’d talk about what you mean by that?
The environment is very laid back, so I’ve never felt any pressure to perform in terms of what the styles of the seminars are, but I just feel the pressure from being in a room of people and it comes from wanting to do well for my peers, from wanting to share ideas. Throughout my time here I've been so impressed by the other students, and impressed by the depth of their thought and how well they so often master the readings. When I started here I was a little behind in that. Yes, I read the reading but during or after [I] thought “did I really read it?” I’ve gotten much better at that in my two years here. I read more closely, and more openly, and with a far greater discipline than when I started.

What do you think about the variety of people here? Do you think it’s wide and broad, or do you think there’s a similarity between types? That’s a tough question. I do think there’s a concentration of people who have interest in philosophy. I think that philosophy definitely seems to be a draw for a lot of people—I think people want to talk about Aristotle and Plato. And they want to think about Descartes and Kant, and certain others. My experience has been, in talking to fellow students, that literature can be a challenge for them—and that’s where I feel most comfortable. Of course, everyone’s nervous about math and science, and most people say that’s the best [segment]. We let go of that type of thinking, especially if we have a long gap. Who just thinks about Euclid during normal life? Whereas you might keep yourself engaged with Shakespeare. If you’ve been away for a while from formal schooling, [Euclid] comes as a great surprise, a pleasure.

In what ways are you a different person than you were when you entered the Graduate Institute two years ago? Who are you now?
I suppose I alluded to this earlier, but I am a more disciplined reader—that’s true, that’s definitely true. I think I’m a more open reader too. If you’ll allow me to turn a phrase, I think I’m a better listener when I’m reading. I think that I was always approaching a book of any kind to confirm for me what I thought was going on, or confirm for me what I thought the book was going to be—and now I’m much better at taking a piece for what it is, in terms of what the words mean. I think I have a rounder and more encompassing approach to reading something now than I did when I started, now I might bring different pieces of myself. And not to get corny about it or anything, but that has served me well in life too. 

You know, I’m in a new city after being in New York for 16 years. This has been a big change, living in Annapolis now for two and a half years. I think this has helped me really look at things that are around me, really listen to the people around me, and not to force myself on them—not to force my ideas on them or on anything I encounter in life. I feel more mature in that way. The process [of the Graduate Institute] has helped me get there.

Which class, book, or experience had a profound effect on your thinking and your life?
I’m doing my Master’s Essay on Yeats, and last spring I did a preceptorial on Yeats with Mr. Townsend and that was really meaningful. I had a little bit of experience of Yeats, but I hadn’t looked at him as closely as we did and I’d never written about him. It’s very helpful to write in order to get to know an author. My first preceptorial was on Milton’s Paradise Lost, and that was wonderful because I just love Milton. But I think the most surprising and changing class was the tutorial on Euclid and Lobachevsky, and our particular class really lingered on Euclid. We got to Lobachevsky at the end and didn’t do as much as other classes did. We really wanted to take Euclid from every possible point of view, and the conversations got very philosophical.

To get to a point in your mind, to encompass a proof with your mind in a way that isn’t “well I see what the steps are: you do this and do that”— that’s important. But to have the feeling that you can understand that this succession of steps as a whole—in the sense that the sum is greater than its parts—is part of what the experience of approaching Euclid is. Even though his method is very analytical and very rational, there is still a different type of knowledge or a different faculty in yourself that comes to play. And it’s very magical and it starts right in the beginning: a point that has no parts. It starts with something your reasoning self can’t process.

You start with a contradiction and it’s sort of like your mind is jumping in from another realm, and you say “ok, this is where we’re operating”—and I’ve taken that thought with me into all the classes I’ve had since. I’m stepping into this room with this writer, and the writer has built the four walls and the floor and the ceiling of this room, and I’m happy to live here. I’m also happy to know [that] there is a world outside these four walls, outside this room, and Euclid helped me be more satisfied in the way I approach these ideas. I’m in the room that they built and I’m taking a look at it.

How would you describe the St. John’s community, particularly the GI experience? In what ways do you think it is unique and fosters growth, and in which areas do you feel it needs improvement?

I think the community, I would say, is intimate but reserved. I think that there are so many wonderful dynamics that can come of different people from different backgrounds engaging in this program together. Especially after a year, or year and a half, where you’ve read what most of the others are working on—you really start to appreciate the way all those modes of thought are interweaving with each other.

I do feel sometimes that it is hard to get to know people on a personal level because it’s graduate school, because everyone has busy other lives—unlike being an undergraduate. It is a little difficult to get to know other people. There are so many classmates I have genuine affection for, but I still don’t even know their first names because I just know them in this very specific environment. I don’t even know if that’s a criticism. It’s partly how I am. I’m a very reserved guy, and I don’t even know if that’s a good or a bad thing. To address fellow students in a very formal way makes it feel like the conversation that we were having in class can continue, because I’m Mr. Young and you’re Ms. Trovato and there’s something about that formality that lets the conversation spread out into normal life. Sometimes I do wonder if I’m being too reserved, if I’m not accepting a more casual social relationship that could be interesting. More than anything, I think it’s very fertile, this community. It’s just [that] everyone is always very well-watered and ready to grow together, and interact and find new ways of thinking. To do that with other people is very special.

Please talk about what you see as the art of the opening question.
Well, different tutors do it [in] different ways. Some of my tutors have had that approach that just says, “alright, here’s a general idea that I think we need to figure out. Why did the writer say such and such? What is their angle? We need to clarify this.” And the conversation will start from that point. Let’s say in simple terms, in ways we can all understand, what the writer is getting at. Then there are other tutors who just pose a question, and it can be incredibly specific sometimes. It can be funny. I think sometimes I like opening questions that will require a stance or a position—like if you’re talking about Antigone, you might say: “Is Creon a villain?” And someone will surely just say, “yes, Creon is the worst,” and someone else will say, “I think he’s kind of an anti-hero”—and that will spur a great conversation. I think that’s useful.

The texts are so dense and so laden with meaning, many meanings, and often confusing—and it can be really hard to get started and no one wants to say that first thing. No one wants to volley their loosely thought out idea. That's very scary. So I think a good opening question does break the ice—the kind that breaks the ice is a good thing, but also serves [as] a launching pad for a few different perspectives, because those perspectives will come back together. You actually feel the pieces clarified for you, even though it went in many different ways than you thought [it would].

Have you ever thought about becoming a tutor yourself? What do you think is important to bring to that role, what attitude would you bring to that task?
I would certainly strive to be the most expert and economical question asker and, surely, I would fail at it every day, but I would [also] get better at it. I’m just so impressed with so many of the tutors here and how good they are at asking the opening question. I think that asking the opening question, that’s great, that’s a good skill. But the tutor who has held in their mind the direction of the conversation and its varied sources, and can ask a question that takes all those ideas together and sends them in a new direction—[that’s] a really great skill to have and [that] I would like to have, and I think about it at length in class.

When tutors do that so well, they make you feel like you and your classmates have come to a new idea on [your] own—which, really, [you] have—but [you] might not know [that you] have that new idea. So the tutor will ask a question that maybe verbalizes or condenses for [you] what no one’s quite said yet, and I imagine the tutor might anxiously be on the edge of their seat: “Are they going to get there? I think I know what they’re going for.” How are you going to ask a question that doesn’t give an answer but helps a class or a student arrive at a fuller concept—or a fuller understanding based on their own line of questioning, their organically produced line of questions—that is the goal. And sometimes tutors do that brilliantly and, being human beings, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes the class itself makes it hard for them. That’s where I would have my mind. How can I help a class arrive at their understanding of the text based on the path that they’ve cleared for themselves up to that point, to find it on their terms?

It seems that the ultimate goal of pursuing this type of education is to live an examined life, to really learn how to do that. I’m wondering how a St. John’s education contributes to the whole of life, and how it alters your moral and ethical perspective going forward.
That idea of a moral and ethical element to our studies here—and I may be even speaking more broadly of exploring the ways in which we know things, the ways we know [anything], each other, or the ways we know concepts or nature or our sense of the divine—it’s a very beautiful thing about this program. Especially in this time we’re living in, when it seems that higher education is so strongly about specialization, is a very narrow pursuit. I think to join the idea of education back to humanity, back to who you are in the world, what you give to your community, how you interact with the people you see every day—I think that’s incredibly important. And I’ve been worried for a number of years about the humane element in higher education. I think that St. John’s, in being old-fashioned, now maybe finds itself on the forefront because it’s creating richer, deeper, more empathetic, more open human beings who are going to take that finely honed skill out into the world. And that’s why I'm very proud to have been here, I love it so much.

Ms. Trovato is a first-semester graduate student. She is a writer, reader, and artist.