Tutor Eva Brann (H89) on the Enduring Power of St. John’s College
Interview by Kimberly Uslin | January 21, 2019
To commemorate her 90th birthday, longtime tutor Eva Brann (H89) reflects on the past, present, and future of St. John’s College.
You’ve been at St. John’s since 1957. What has kept you here?
I’ll begin by saying I’ve had invitations to go other places, so I can say with some pride that it’s not because I have no other place to go. There are some other places in America where I could imagine myself being and teaching quite happily, but none in which I feel that the institution is so perfectly geared to good teaching and where I’m so certain of having colleagues to talk to.
I used to go to conferences and people would complain, saying “I think about these things, but I have no one to talk to.” I’ve never said that. The institution is really a community of learning. There are things that could be much better than they are. I don’t really want them to be different, I just want them to be better as they already are—which is another way of saying I can’t think of a better place to be.
Looking back on your tenure with the college, is there a particular class or group of students that stand out to you?
I think you’re asking how the classes differ from each other. They don’t. This is important to me: We have what I think of as a mythic propensity. We make up stories. So stories arise about ‘this class was like that, that class was like that.’ It never fits. It’s usually some dominant people and others follow them a little bit. This college is intended to bring out what is individual about people, and oddly enough, that individuality is common. We have our common readings and our way of conversing with each other, and so we find out that, at some fundamental level, we’re very much the same. This doesn’t mean we bore each other; on the contrary. We’re more interesting to each other.
Is there a particular sect of the Program you most enjoy guiding in the classroom?
I always did like the junior seminar. I love the freshman seminar because of the newness of the students, but I like the junior seminar for its intellectual content because it’s so pivotal. It’s concerned with readings that bridge the difference between the ancients and the moderns, particularly with the two great dominating notions: that of technology based on science and democracy and representation. The Ancients didn’t have a notion of representation.
On occasion, I’ve taught seniors and it’s wonderful because you’re now together with fellow adults. It makes a difference.
Tell me more about the freshman seminar.
I’ve taught more freshmen than any other class. Incidentally, you understand, that’s not my doing. That’s the dean. We’re assigned our classes. We’re allowed our hand in choices, but the dean has to assign us as he needs us. My having taught more freshmen than any other class is partly because I like it, but mostly because the dean assigns it. And I’m perfectly happy with it, but I’ll tell you a little anecdote: The dean Pamela Kraus—I forget how many deans back she was—would assign me freshmen all the time. And I remember meeting her before lecture in Mellon, and she looked at me, and I looked at her, and she said “Never again.”
And the next year, what did I get? Freshmen. But I do love teaching freshmen. The reason I love it is because the difference between September and May is huge. For those who have read their readings, attended regularly, spoken in seminar … the difference in articulateness is tremendous. [There's a] difference in thoughtfulness, or even in knowing that you’re supposed to think about things in a certain way and not just say the words, and the ability to do something with the reading. You know, freshmen don’t usually know how you get a lot out of a page that is really thick with meaning, and that’s what they learn—that reading doesn’t always apply to books, it applies to human beings and to the whole world. The freshmen that come in are of course somewhat influenced by what the world is talking about, but before long, they lose that. They talk about the Program.
Is there a particular text you’ve enjoyed reading and discussing the most over the years?
There are some that I simply love and there are actually some texts on the Program—I won’t mention them—that I just don’t like. But I’m a great lover of the Odyssey and there are certain Platonic texts that are absolutely central. You know, we read one at the very end of the freshman year and again at the end of the senior year.
Some of our students who fall hardest [for Plato] think Socrates is a terrible bully—and he does appear that way with some readers. But it’s so interesting to watch how it begins with resistance, and then they begin to see what the point of these questionings is. Then, there’s a kind of conversion and they become great admirers, but sometimes they never like him. But that’s true of all of our books. Someone loves it, and someone hates it.
Why do you think Plato’s “Meno” is such a resonant text? I’ve interviewed many students and alumni, and it always seems to come back to the “Meno.”
It is the one in which the question is posed which really dominates the program: How do we know things that are not simply facts? Where does it come from? What does it mean—which is the same thing as ‘What does it mean to think?’
For instance, they all study geometry in the freshman year and they all have a geometry book—Euclid is a textbook. But if they’re really doing what they ought to do, they’re not learning the textbook, they’re figuring it out. What does it mean to figure something out? The “Meno” is a great text on that question. That’s why it’s the central text.
I’m glad to hear they talk about it. You made my day.
Does it ever become repetitive to study the same books time and again?
It’s new every time. I think that’s almost the definition of a great book. It’s partly that we basically forget what we knew, but partly it’s that you really can’t get it all the first, second, third, fourth time. I think all of us re-read our seminar [readings] no matter how often we’ve done it. I have to say—this is virtue incarnate—I didn’t plan to go to seminar [when I was ill last week], but I read my seminar [reading].
Do you feel like an expert on the books at this point?
Couldn’t be farther. I’ll put it this way—it’s a little overstated, but not entirely false—the longer you’re at it, the less you think you get it. Certainly with the great novels we read, it’s new every time. And with philosophy, it’s always only partly understood. Here’s what it does: The fact that we read great books together means that we know what the students are going through, and they often have my sympathy.
Still, you obviously know more than the 18-year-olds that come into the classroom.
There’s no question about that, but there’s a but to it—they sometimes have experiences that I never came near. So in many ways, the young members of this community are more experienced than the older members.
When you write something, it becomes formulated in your mind and becomes a kind of package. It can be harmful. To be a good St. John’s tutor, you have to control this knowledge, forget it even. Really good tutors don’t say very much. And I have to say, I’m not so good about that. I have a tendency to ask questions—sometimes I do it well, sometimes I could kick myself.
What is something people may not know about the experience of being a tutor?
What’s an interesting question is the relation between the co-leaders in the seminar. People think there’s a senior and a junior, but it’s not intended that way and, in fact, doesn’t work that way. I think I’m probably 45, 50 years older than my co-leader, but I’m not his senior. When it works well—and it usually works—it’s a nice cooperation. We play to each other’s questions; we enforce each other’s questions.
Have you seen a change in the type of person that comes to teach at St. John’s, or is there also a universality in that?
The younger tutors come partly because they want to be here, so they’re already somewhat in our mode. But as the years go by, they learn the Program and we just grow closer to each other as we grow older.
Do you have any goals for the duration of your St. John’s career?
It’s a funny question, because who knows how long that’s going to be? I’ll keep on teaching seminar as long as I feel I can do it usefully. In the meanwhile, I scribble—that’s my term for writing things.
Do you view your writing as part of your work as a tutor or as a separate entity?
It’s not so prolific by standards of actual writers. To me, it’s really a kind of accumulation of things that are useful often in teaching, but also often a hindrance. I’m full of things I know, and if that happens to you, you’d rather do the talking yourself than let other people do it. So there’s a danger in it and there’s a profit in it. In other words, you have to be careful.
Would you ever write a book about your experience at St. John’s?
No. The reason it wouldn’t make sense for me to write either my autobiography or a book about the college—people keep asking me to do that—is because everything I’ve written, the 14 or 16 books, translations, and many articles, is all about the college and about me. There are some things I wouldn’t tell the public, in any case, and those are the things the public wants to know. So I don’t think I would do that.
Of all the interviews you’ve had, of all the people you’ve met and talked to, do you feel that there’s something about you that people don’t know that perhaps they should know?
There are lots of things about me that people don’t know—and they shouldn’t know them, and they never will. I’m very serious about that. I don’t think one should be totally open to the public. I think that, generally, I’m pretty straightforward. If people ask me a question, I answer it—not in class, but outside of class. Here’s something that happens to me from time to time: Students will ask if we can have coffee. I’ll say “Sure, we can have coffee.” So we’ll sit down in the coffee shop and I’ll ask if there’s something in particular they want to talk about, and they’ll say “No, I just wanted to make you talk!”
If it’s outside of class, and someone wants to know my opinion on something we’re reading or talking about, I’ll give it—except in politics. I stay away from politics.
You’ve seen so many students go from freshman to senior to adult. What is it like, watching that transition?
It’s wonderful. I’m in touch with a lot of alumni, but not oodles of them. You can’t be in touch with a lot of people. It doesn’t make sense. But there are some alumni I hear from all the time and then, especially this year, I’ve met with a lot of my freshmen. I’m amazed at how various their interests are and how many interesting things they’ve done. Here’s what I don’t know: I don’t know how different our students are from other students before they even begin [the Program], but I suspect that they’re simply on the whole more intellectually active. Many of them have traveled, and they’ve usually gone to very good schools and very often have had many opportunities, real opportunities, which they’ve taken. They’ve done wonderful things, been in amazing places. And I think that characteristic of being really interested in something and knowing how to pursue it—that’s characteristic of many of the students.
Do you think things have stayed fundamentally the same at the college?
Let me put it this way—if the [New Program] founders, Barr and Buchanan, came back, here’s what I imagine they would say: “You’re doing much more, and the students learn much more than they did in our day, but the spirit hasn’t changed much.”
We have a lot more science and do a lot more real language learning.
And do you envision the St. John’s experience staying the same in the future?
It will come and go. There will be fights about it. But I’m hoping and praying. I’ve told this to other people, but I have a daydream in which I’m dead and I’m walking through the Great Hall. It’s maybe 100 years later, and I’m coming back from the other world, and I’m listening to the students and every word they say is familiar to me. It’s a wish-dream. It’s possible, but unlikely. And yet, in some way, it may be [possible]. I can’t imagine us changing so much that we lose what makes us different. There are two opinions about what will make us survive: One is that we should accommodate the rest of the world and the other is that we should resist. I’m on the resistance side.
Do you think that as we progress forward in the future, there will be the need to bring in current texts as the texts of the past?
One of the difficulties of bringing the Program into the 21st century or even the 20th century is that there’s so much more. Here’s a kind of blessing which we don’t have in modern times: I think that Sophocles wrote 70 or 80 plays, of which only seven survive. It makes life easy. In the 20th century, everything survived. There’s just too much to make choice easy, but we will have to choose. And I think before long, we’ll eventually have to introduce late-20th century and eventually 21st-century texts. It’s just good sense. But it’s not going to be easy. And it means, among other things, that tutors not only have to do their seminar reading, but that they have to do a lot of general reading.
Offhand, are there contemporary thinkers that you think belong in the Program of the future?
I think more in terms of studies. The ones I’ve read, they’re not great, they’re good. One that interests me particularly—cognitive science—we’ll have to find a place for that eventually. It will be part psychology, part laboratory science, part philosophy. I have this notion that the Graduate Institute will become very central because the habit of going to a four-year college may fade. But people come to be in their mid-years, their 30s or 40s, and they feel that they don’t know enough, and they’ll want to come study. And we should be a center for the study of things that really matter.