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Meet the Johnnies: Joe Coelho (AGI18)

By Andrew Dorchester (AGI19)

St Johns College Graduate Institute Student Joe Coelho
Joe Coelho (AGI18) entered the Graduate Institute shortly after turning 70.

Andrew Dorchester (AGI19): Attending graduate school is not what one usually expects a 72-year-old to undertake. What made you decide to pursue a master’s degree at this stage in your life?

Joe Coelho (AGI18): My mother died when she was 100 and I had turned 70. If I have another 30 years to live, the question is, what am I going to do with those years? So, I was trying to think through physically dealing with getting older. If I become constrained at some point in my physical abilities, but not my mental capacities, how do I want to then live my life? What brought me to St. John’s was a small book by Cicero called How to Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life. In that book, he has some interesting ideas. One is that no matter what age you are, you don’t stop learning and you don’t stop changing unless you choose not to learn [or] you choose not to change. People make that choice all the time and at all ages, and what they’re saying is: “I don’t want to explore myself.” It takes courage to choose to learn and try to change as you grow older.

How did the Graduate Institute program appeal to you?

The world is changing very rapidly around us. How do I want to prepare myself to understand that change? I’ve met a lot of elderly people who withdraw from the world in confusion, withdraw from the world and become bitter. I don’t want to live that kind of life. I want to live an examined life. St. John’s affords me the discipline and structure not to begin tying up parts of my life, but a structure to allow me to examine my life by pulling it apart, [by] thinking differently about myself and others. As I talk to people attending the Graduate Institute, it is clear they are here to learn to understand themselves. St. John’s has been helpful in allowing me to address some of those questions of internal and external change.

How do you see the St. John’s program as differing from other graduate programs?

I have some fancy graduate degrees, and I can tell you those are mostly just training programs. Go to law school, it’s vocational education. Go to medical school, it’s vocational education. The whole push in medical school is to make doctors more humane—well, why is that? Because they’ve reduced specific technical [and] professional knowledge to a mechanical endeavor. Even divinity schools, social work schools, and various schools of education—it’s the same thing. Their focus is on professional qualifications. Now, I want to be treated by a competent medical doctor and represented by a qualified attorney, so programs like this are necessary for our society to function effectively. But is this education in its broadest sense, requiring one to address the deepest and [most] fundamental questions? No.

Where St. John’s steps out from the mass of education institutions is that if you appreciate genuine thought, I think this program can really change your life in some significant ways. It won’t be apparent right away, like most things. It is slow, but it really does change your way of thinking. Prior to coming to St. John’s, my education was very stovepipe, and everything was very linear in terms of a specific academic discipline. What St. John’s has done is forced me to think across the disciplines. I now think differently about relationships between people and issues. St. John’s gives you those tools.

Has the St. John’s program affected your writing?

The program has given me the freedom to write to express my thoughts in a different way. My writing has changed. How I start my papers is that I start with a question. I write it out and let it sit for a day. The next day I either crumple it up and start over again, or that begins the paper. I then write three or four pages and let it sit for a day, come back, three or four more pages, layering on the work that I did from the previous day. It’s a process of reflecting and layering.

What differences do you see between the undergraduate and the graduate students?

One of the key things is that the graduate students are already formed by previous educational and life experiences—in some way maybe malformed, but formed. It is the responsibility of a graduate student to shape his or her own life. An undergraduate student is in a more passive mode, they will be shaped—some take it into their own hands, some don’t. For the graduate student coming here to be successful, he or she first has to ask, why am I here? Second, they need to realize their education is not going to be done for them. There is more freedom to the learning. You get from the program what you put into it.

What process do you follow in preparing for class?

Every time I go into a classroom, I think I’m well-prepared. Every time I come out of a classroom, I realize that I was not prepared at all. Something happens invariably in class that brings to my attention something that I missed in the reading, something that I had not thought about. That is the genius of the educational experience here.

When I first started at St. John’s—it may sound silly, here’s a guy who has spent 30 years in the Navy and taught Midshipmen and merchant mariners—I was the guy with the answers. Thus, I was anxious about how to prepare for these classes. I was scared that I might not be ready. All my adult life I have been the officer in charge. So how do you go into class and not know everything? I started at St. John’s preparing for the class by reading the assignments twice, three times, or more. After four semesters here, I now read the text once, but thoroughly. After I have finished reading, I put the book down and ask myself a single question: Did I understand it? Not ‘Did I understand the meaning of the text,’ but what did I understand? If I cannot answer that question, then I will begin again. I don’t take notes, but I do write down questions and underline passages. I also tie the assigned readings to readings from other classes and segments. The other aspect of my preparation is this: I don’t want to come into class and let my classmates down.

What does it take to succeed at St. John’s?

To be a successful GI, you must set aside whoever you were and approach the program as though you don’t know anything. That unnerves a lot of people. But let the tutors and let the program guide you during your four semesters here. If you can’t do that, you will not be successful. You cannot be curious without courage. To be curious, you have to step outside yourself. You have to let go. You have to ask, “How does that work, or how does something hold together?” If you don’t have that courage to be curious, you’re never going to be able to discover anything new about yourself or about what else is all around you.

Coelho is a fourth-semester Graduate Institute student. He is a retired U.S. Naval officer and a former faculty member at the U.S. Naval Academy. Dorchester is a first-semester Graduate Institute student. He is a 25-year veteran of the economics and litigation profession.

The conversation has been condensed and edited. Previously published in the Fall 2018 issue of Colloquy.