Student Spotlight: Sam Hage

Mr. Hage is a current GI student in Annapolis who will be graduating in the Spring of 2020. I want to thank him for sitting down with me and being a fantastic interviewee.

On his educational background and his path to St. John’s College:

“I studied computer science at Middlebury mostly because I was always good at math and science and understood it was a worthwhile thing to do. I really enjoyed that kind of critical thinking. It wasn’t until I started working as a software engineer that I realized the parts I liked about studying computer science weren’t all that available in the field of software engineering. After about a year and a half or two years, I was just getting crushed by slugging at a computer for nine hours a day, and I realized I wanted to make some kind of change. I had no idea if I was living a good life or not because I had never tried to ask that question ‘what is a good life?’ I never thought about what ‘good’ is or what it means to live a life at all. Luckily I had a little bit of exposure to the great books at Middlebury, and I remembered pretty keenly that Plato and Aristotle had taken up this question of how to have a good life, and I knew I wanted to read more Plato and Aristotle. Luckily I knew two Middlebury grads who had recently finished or were in the process of finishing their masters at St. Johns, and it struck me as something that I needed to do. So, I applied in June and found out in July, quit my job, and came here in August.”

On choosing a liberal arts college while knowing he wanted a career in the maths and sciences:

“I chose my college based on the most prestigious one I could get in to—that’s essentially all there was to my choice. I was deciding between Middlebury and a couple of other fairly comparable liberal arts schools just because that was the tier of school I had gotten into. I did have some vague idea that just in case I’m not sure about engineering or computer science, it would be good to be at a place where I could get some of the liberal arts, but I didn’t know what the liberal arts were. I thought it was about learning a little German, a little Latin, and some computer science, some physics, and some history. What I didn’t understand is that the liberal arts can be contrasted with servile arts that are things that are productive and useful and then there are things that are beautiful and sublime and worthwhile just because they are intrinsically worthwhile, and that’s what a liberal arts education used to be about, and is supposed to be about, so really I was getting a few different pieces of a servile arts education disguised as a liberal arts education.”

On how the liberal arts at St. John’s differ from Middlebury:

“For most departments, and for most students and for most professors they’re not studying the liberal arts, they’re there for the same reasons I was—it’s a great school with a high price tag which means it has to be good. The professors are brilliant, they’re great researchers, and they love teaching, but they’re not doing what we do at St. John’s where every student and every tutor, I think, understands why education is important on a deep level and why this type of education is important, and they’re all doing it for that reason. I feel St. John’s is the only community that I’ve ever been a part of. I thought I knew what a community was; I thought Middlebury was one of those, but it wasn’t until I got to St. John’s that I realized a piece that is missing in most communities which is people living together actually having a shared sense of what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and why it’s important. We didn’t have that at Middlebury; students were there to party and get the prestigious diploma.”

On not needing previous exposure to the Great Books before entering the GI:

“One thing I like about the GI is that it presumes no familiarity, no background with the Great Books. I had a little familiarity with ancient political philosophy just from a couple of classes, but I don’t think that necessarily helped. In some ways I think it’s helpful not to have any background with the Great Books because you can learn to read them and discuss them the way we do at St. John’s from the get-go without having to expel some previous way you might have tried to learn from these authors. I don’t really feel like a software engineer; I don’t feel like my nature is in the sciences or engineering, which means it was very easy to cast off the way that I was used to doing things and embrace the way we do things here. I think that some people who come to the GI really do love engineering; they really do think like a natural scientist or a rationalist or materialist, and for some other reason they want to try this alternative. I think for people like that it is noticeable, and it can be really fun to have them in class. You’ll have certain people thinking one way and other people thinking in a completely different way; they want to ask completely different questions and answer questions in a different way.”

On how his approach to critical thinking and inquiry has changed since starting the GI:

“There are a lot of questions that I didn’t ask before because I didn’t know that they were questions or how to ask them. Spending long enough doing St. John’s work makes you aware of what those questions are. They’re the types of questions that the authors themselves ask in writing these books, and once you read enough of them, you start to have those questions, and those categories as underlying suppositions about everything and it makes you approach just about every problem with a deep well of new ways to work through it. It’s a different way of turning yourself toward the question you’re asking. Plato uses the metaphor of opening the soul towards the source of knowledge. I like that metaphor; I think it’s accurate. That is what we do when we read and discuss these texts. You have to let go of a certain part of your rational understanding and absorb the material and feel the questions a little more.”

On St. John’s extracurriculars:

“I play intramurals, which I think are the second best part of St. John’s. It’s the only way that I have gotten to meet undergrads, and I’m really glad that I have. It’s really fun that there is something available to the faculty, staff, grad students, and undergrads where you can play competitive team sports together. People have said it’s the best athletics department in the country, and they are absolutely right. It’s so fun; It’s like something out of Harry Potter. It’s amazing that a real college would actually do this. I’ve tried to play all the sports, including frisbee, football, soccer, netball, basketball, handball, and volleyball. I’m not much good at most of them, but my team, the Spartans, are very good– we’ve won a few titles.”

On Reasonball:

“Ah. The most important part of the interview. It’s flag football where anyone can make any number of forward passes from anywhere on the field. So, there is no line of scrimmage, no downs. It’s sort of a free-for-all. There are a thousand other rules that are so complicated that not even the players have them memorized, so there is a binder full of rules that is carried around. It’s designed to have opportunities for comebacks; basically, the team that’s down always receives the ball and possession to go on offense for the next drive. In the last part of the last quarter, there are especially strict requirements of the team that’s leading; otherwise, it’s an automatic turnover. It’s really complicated but really fun.”

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