Tutors Talk Books: Martha Franks (SF78, EC17) on “Books without Borders”

February 15, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin

Martha Franks (SF78, EC17) is the author of Books without Borders.

Martha Franks (SF78, EC17) recently published a book about her experience bringing the St. John’s education model to a high school in Beijing from 2012-14. The book is called Books without Borders: Homer, Aeschylus, Galileo, Melville and Madison Go to China.

How did you come to be teaching in Beijing?

I had been teaching at St John’s for some time, and then Grant [Franks, her husband and a tutor in Santa Fe] got a sabbatical. We weren’t sure what we wanted to do with it, but one of the reasons we went to China is that Grant had never been to Asia. He thought of it as an exotic place, but one of the things that we learned in China was never to use the word ‘exotic.’ Once you’re there and you meet people and talk to people, there’s nothing strange or exotic. It’s just human beings where they are.

How did you introduce the St. John’s discussion-based model of education?

The organizing principle of the class [I taught] was the theme of change, but that’s a very broad theme. Under it, I was able [to] insert many of the great books of Western literature, including the Iliad, the Oresteia, and Ovid’s Metamorphosis. The biggest difference was that Chinese students are not encouraged to speak in class, and the entire notion of conversation as a way of learning was new to them. They had real difficulty with it, so there were a lot of silences at first, but it didn’t take very long for them to learn to love it.

What was the most surprising difference between teaching in the U.S. and teaching in China?

I taught a class in American law, and the students were puzzled by the notion of the rule of law. We talked a lot in class about why this left them cold, and ultimately one of my students suggested the interesting theory that it’s contrary to Confucian ideas. If you’re a Confucian, you think that a good person doesn’t need law, and if you need law, you must not be a very good person. So the rule of law is kind of an embarrassment from a Confucian point of view.

Were there any similarities that surprised you?

In the book [called Books without Borders: Homer, Aeschylus, Galileo, Melville and Madison Go to China], I talk about our experiences in China and the ways in which these texts resonated with the kinds of thoughts we had while we were in China. For example, the theme of empire—which is a big deal in Ovid—is, of course, an important part of Chinese history. I had a lot of experiences that seem to me to suggest that, that the Romans and the Chinese had similar thoughts about what empire meant. That was interesting.

The focus of the book, I think, is on conversation as the best possibility that we have. I love St. John’s, and the thing that I love about it is that it offers the opportunity to learn to converse. And I think the book has an overtone that one of the sort of loci of hope in the world is that we learn to converse with each other.

Were your students reading the texts in English? Did translation have any impact on the discussions?

They were asked to read in English, but I can’t warrant that they always did. My Moby Dick students especially were sometimes so mystified that they went to the Chinese.

In a class that Grant and I taught together, we went through Shakespeare’s Henry plays and Hamlet and had been thinking that the difficult English might be a problem for [the students], but as far as they were concerned, it was all second language stuff. They were just as comfortable with Shakespearean English as they were with ordinary English.

Did any of the Chinese students end up attending St. John’s?

Oh, yes. I think we had five people from the high school in China come to Santa Fe, and I know at least one person came to Annapolis, and since then, there have been one or two more students that came to Santa Fe.

Tell me more about the St. John’s-centric publisher of Books without Borders.

This book is being published by a press founded at St John’s by a St. John’s tutor named Phil LeCuyer. It’s called Respondeo Press, and the idea of it is that it’s not intended for professional authors. “Respondeo” comes out of Thomas Aquinas, after he does the proposition and then the objections. When Thomas Aquinas begins to speak, he uses the Latin word “respondeo,” meaning “I respond.” And the idea of Respondeo is that these are not professional writers, they are people who have found it in themselves to say something to the world. Maybe they hadn’t really expected to be doing this, but their experiences caused them to want to say something, so they respond.

I’m the first book, but [the press] is eager for Johnnie participation. (Interested in getting involved? Email respondeobooks(at)gmail.com.)


Martha Franks is a St. John’s College alumna, practicing lawyer, and visiting tutor on the Santa Fe campus. Books without Borders: Homer, Aeschylus, Galileo, Melville and Madison Go to China is available at respondeobooks.com.