“When You Know Better, You Do Better”: A Senior’s Reflections on St. John’s

The following is a slightly modified form of a speech originally delivered on April 18, at the annual meeting of the Caritas Society, an organization that “promote[s] relationships between St. John’s College and the larger Annapolis community while raising financial aids funds for St. John’s undergraduates who cannot meet college expenses.”

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” Plutarch, the Greek historian who catalogued the lives of heroic men from ancient worlds, said this long before St. John’s College was born. But I believe these words paint a clear picture of the purpose of the liberal education I have participated in at the College. My mind has not been filled with factoids and anecdotes. Instead, I have been ignited with a love of the educational process, a process that begins and ends with passion. Within these historic walls, on the Quad, along the dangerously uneven bricks in downtown Annapolis, on the soccer fields, and in our beloved gym—Temple Iglehart—my fire has been kindled.

quadI have always loved to read, even long before I learned how to read—and read well—at St. John’s. Before I came to the College, I read enthusiastically, yet timidly. Now I read with fiercely inquisitive bravery. I have learned that great questions lead to more and more questions, not necessarily to answers, and I have learned that the greatness of the human spirit shows itself in just this realization. As Socrates says in Plato’s Meno: “We shall be better and braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to enquire, than we should have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing and no use in seeking to know what we do not know.” We must have intellectual bravery, that is, the courage to push forward, to continue seeking truth even in the face of doubts about its very existence.

Knowing how much I loved to read, my dad first told me about St. John’s when I was in middle school. It is the school he wishes he had known of and attended when he went to college. He comes every year to Parents’ Weekend, and has already begun asking me: “Just how strange would it be if I kept coming to Parents’ Weekend after you graduate?” He is only partly joking.

When I visited the College before applying, I was hooked. I loved absolutely everything about it: the discussions that spill out onto the Quad after classes, the rectangular tables, the tutors, the brick buildings, the cozy-yet-incredibly-packed bookstore, the all-skill-levels-embracing intramural program—everything. And I was not disappointed when, in August of 2009, I walked into FSK auditorium for Convocation.

I have never worked harder in my life than I have at St. John’s. The Program is by nature personally challenging yet incredibly liberating. Mark Twain characterizes education as “the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.” Indeed, this education is at times miserable. I have struggled through my time at St. John’s, because liberal education has forced me to examine critically my preconceptions and prejudices. That is, of course, painful.

But my experience at the College has not merely been one of suffering. I have experienced a rarity in our modern world of smart phones and iPads: true conversation. My parents would wholeheartedly attest to the fact that I have learned to listen. And, though before coming here I was already far too eager and willing to talk, here I have learned to do that well, too. I find that conversations that I have outside of St. John’s are elevated by the skills I have cultivated here. The education St. John’s gives its students also leads to more meaningful relationships. I have formed friendships here that I will cherish for my entire life. I have St. John’s to thank for the depth of thought and feeling I have achieved as a result of the work we are able to do here, which in turn has allowed me to forge such meaningful friendships.

Not only have I grown intellectually and spiritually at St. John’s, but I have also become a holistically healthy human being. When I was in kindergarten, I first attempted sports. I gave soccer a try, but I was deathly terrified of the ball, and I tried my very best to look invested while steering clear of it. I was intimidated, even at that age, by the prospect of looking foolish, of failing, or of simply not being good enough.

At St. John’s, the intramural program has completely changed my view of athletics and of myself. I have fully embraced the idea that it is not about how skilled one is at a sport, but rather about the effort one puts into it. I love the encouraging atmosphere of the intramural program, and I have in turn become a leader of it: I am a regular participant in the Spartan co-ed team and a captain of Kunai, the women’s intramural league. Within Temple Iglehart, I have begun power lifting regularly, and I can squat more than my body weight and dead lift one and a half times my body weight. I have learned what my body is capable of, I have pushed myself to my limits, and I have discovered my own mental and physical strength. St. John’s has fashioned me into a lifelong athlete.

The fire St. John’s has kindled in my soul has informed the path that I will take after St. John’s. Like many Johnnies, I came to St. John’s not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I hoped that I would be educated at the College and that I might stumble upon what I wanted to do. As Jaime Dunn, our Director of Career Services, knows all too well, there has been plenty of stumbling (or, as she kindly phrases it, “exploring”). I have considered being a Foreign Service Officer for the State Department, a policy adviser in D.C., a surgeon, and even an artist. But, because of my passion for learning, my awareness of how fortunate I have been to receive this education, and my desire to do good in the world, I have found the path I want and need to take after graduation.

Maya Angelou once said: “When you know better, you do better.” A liberal education is one that cultivates a free human being. It frees us from the tyranny of prejudices and preconceptions and gives us the tools to examine ideas critically. For such an education to be worth pursuing, it must not merely lead us to truths that can be theorized about in the classroom; a liberal education necessarily leads us to truth that applies to our daily experience as human beings. A complete liberal education does not merely ask metaphysical questions, but also ethical ones. The pursuit of this education holds little meaning without such applicable truth. Martin Luther King, Jr. would agree. He said: “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of a true education.”

This consideration has proved particularly momentous to me as I embark on a path to help end educational inequity in America. After graduating from St. John’s College in May, I will go on to join the corps of thousands working with Teach For America, an organization devoted to ensuring that every child has access to an excellent education. As I work with children from troubled communities and homes, I will need to hold with me always my belief, forged here, in the importance of education, and my desire that all children have access to it. I will be challenged, and I will have to find within me the ability to love in the face of great ingratitude, despair, and perhaps even hatred.

After my two-year commitment with Teach For America, I hope to continue my work in the field of education. But really, I can do anything. St. John’s has given me the tools: the ability to listen, to think, to speak, to write, and ultimately, to act. I need only to decide where to direct my passion, and the world is mine, thanks to the incredible education I have had the blessing to receive here.

As I reflect on my four years at St. John’s, I am all too aware that my time here must soon come to a close. But I am similarly aware of the meaning of the word for the day that, this year, falls on Sunday, May 12: Commencement. That day will mark only the beginning of my lifelong learning. My mind is not filled. My journey is not over. The fire has only just been sparked.