The Value of Lifelong Learning—and Unlearning: Marc Wall (AGI17, EC21)
August 1, 2022 | By Eve Tolpa
For Marc Wall (AGI17, EC21), embarking on a series of degrees at the St. John’s Graduate Institute was not only a process of learning but one of unlearning. “At St. John’s it’s the question that matters, not so much the answer. Rather than just setting out an argument and a point of view, you look at different facets of how you can consider a question,” he says. “I had to unlearn a lot of the habits I had developed in my professional life.”
That professional life he cites was a nearly four-decade career in the U.S. Foreign Service. After earning a bachelor’s in European history from Princeton and a master’s from Columbia University’s School of International Affairs, Wall accepted several assignments in Africa, including an ambassadorship to the Republic of Chad. In addition to spending a number of subsequent years in East Asia, he completed a stint in Iraq, from 2008 to 2009.
Wall’s Foreign Service work also entailed several teaching fellowships: at Georgetown, the City College of New York (the campus of which was his regional base for Foreign Service recruitment), and the National Defense University. He also spent a year at University of Wyoming just after leaving the service.
From those experiences Wall realized that he wasn’t especially interested in teaching. “I didn’t like having to pretend to be an expert, and I could not stand having to grade or be graded,” he says. “Maybe that’s one of the reason I like St. John’s. You’re all there trying to figure out what a text is all about.”
Wall admits that he had some initial trepidation at the prospect of starting the GI Program as a retiree. “I was thinking I’d be the odd man out, since I was coming into it at relatively advanced age,” he says. “I got over that pretty soon, because you’re all coming at a text on an equal footing.”
Now, not surprisingly, there are dozens of texts he read as a GI student that continue to have an impact on his life—both Western and Eastern.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought back about Odysseus’s adventures, or some of Montaigne’s essays, or Kierkegaard imagining himself as Abraham feeling like he’d been ordered to sacrifice his son, or Leopold Bloom meandering through the streets of Dublin. These images and characters and events resonate inside you,” says Wall.
“You can’t have spent as much time as we did with the Mahabharata without that leaving an impression on the mind. The discourses of the Buddha are ones that I still reflect on, and The Tale of Genji was a captivating novel written a thousand years ago that still has a lot to say.”
Just as the material discussed around the seminar table is never far from Wall’s mind, the Program’s approach to the process of discussion itself also carries over into other parts of his life. “I am much more aware of questions and listening,” he says. “Not that I was ever especially outspoken in the way I interacted before—I always tended to be more of a listener—but I find that if I have a disagreement, a much better way of dealing with it is by asking a question that makes the person reconsider their thinking, their position.”
Reflecting on the intellectual project he began at St. John’s, Wall says, “It really can continue through the rest of your life. Just because you’ve done the Program doesn’t mean you’ve finished it. I still feel like I’m part of it.”
He means that both metaphorically and literally. After completing his first GI degree, Wall says, “I went back and did the fifth segment the following year, and I would do a preceptorial pretty much every semester.” He then went on to attend the Eastern Classic Program online.
Wall has also participated in A Year of Classics as well as several Weekend Classics programs. Inspired by the video chronicling a recent on-campus event with Roosevelt Montás at St. John’s Annapolis, he picked up a copy of Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation, the new book by Montás. “He writes very thoughtfully about how these texts are relevant for anyone from any background,” says Wall, “and that rings true to me, too.”
He is scheduled to deliver the Graduate Institute commencement address on August 5, in Santa Fe—his second time taking part in commencement exercises.