Several weeks ago, on a hot July morning, I was standing outside Eagle Residence Hall and greeting this year’s Summer Scholars as they arrived on Eastern’s campus. Several of the students were from high schools in the area, but others traveled for as many as thirty hours, coming from as far as Arizona, California, Oregon, and Louisiana. As I learned over the course of the week, they came not just for the college credit offered or to build their resumes. Though they were happy about those aspects of the program, they came largely because they had an itch for learning—a desire to better understand the world around them through the study of great literature. Buried somewhere inside each student’s suitcase was a hefty one volume edition of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the following eight days, this text would be a foundation for great conversations, challenging questions, interesting insights, and beautiful new friendships.
For several hours each day, all 26 students sat in one large circle of tables in Baird library discussing Tolkien’s presentation of goodness and evil in The Lord of the Rings, along with many other aspects of the text. Classes were led by Drs. Cary, Richards, and Putnam, whose genuine kindness and humble brilliance the scholars quickly recognized. Over the course of the week, students engaged with questions such as “How is goodness to be recognized?” “Why does God allow evil to exist?” “What is wisdom and how does one get it?” and “What is hope, and why is it important to Tolkien?” Furthermore, they were asked to think not only about questions related to the course matter, but also to consider the nature of conversation itself: what it is for, why it matters, and how to do it well.
As one of the TA’s for the program, I mostly sat on the sidelines during class discussions simply watching and listening. It is a precious thing to be an observer of someone else’s thinking process, and I was humbled by the depth of students’ insights, questions, and thoughts. Perhaps even more delightful was the opportunity—both in and out of the classroom—to witness their joy, wonder, and fabulous sense of humor, and to be not only a witness to but also a recipient of their kindness. By the end of the week I was (and still am) quite thoroughly convinced that I received infinitely more than I gave.
They were eight short, but incredibly rich days: we talked about Tolkien and goodness and hope; we prayed and worshipped and sang together; we laughed and played games and made puns about Ents; we ate together and drank tea together; we gazed at the stars and wandered through gardens and were wonder-struck by creation. And in doing all this together, a bond was formed that did not go unnoticed. During devotions one night, a student marveled, “We’ve only been together a few days, but it feels like I’ve known you all for years.” As others around the room chirped and nodded in affirmation, I couldn’t have kept from smiling even if I’d wanted to. In only a few days, they discovered what I’ve been experiencing for the last 3 years in Templeton: the uncanny strength, richness, and beauty of friendships built on a common pursuit of what is good, true, and beautiful. I think they also saw that such a pursuit happens best within the context of a certain kind of community; they saw that as they formed that kind of community in those eight short days.
Next year’s Summer Scholars Program will be different: we will be reading C.S. Lewis and Plato rather than Tolkien, and though there will hopefully be a few familiar returning faces there will also be many wonderful new faces. And yet, I have a feeling that a similar pattern will emerge; that the study of great books under the guidance of great teachers will once again spur great friendships and great conversations.
Jordan Kolb ’17, English Literature Major