In a circle with 18 peers, I hear Aly on my left muttering under her breath. I catch her eye and try to give her a smile and an encouraging nod. Around us, a crowd of students and faculty snap pictures. I wonder what they’re thinking and where they’ll post the pictures. Even surrounded by brilliant, supportive friends, it’s hard not to feel vulnerable as I stand by the University of Scranton’s noisy dining hall, barefoot, wearing nothing but a bedsheet and a belt.
Don’t get the wrong idea. We are not pledges; this is not hazing. We are students of philosophy, and this is the Trivium Phaedrus Exam.
Named for the introductory courses given in medieval universities that combined grammar, rhetoric and logic, The Trivium, or “Triv,” is a course designed and instructed by Dr. Stephen Whittaker for students in the second year of the Special Jesuit Liberal Arts honors program. SJLA gives driven students, from any major, the chance to study the humanities thoroughly. After three semesters of Kant, Augustine and Aristotle, my friends and I entered the infamous Triv, terrified.
Although we present as confident and empowered, I’ve learned that SJLA students struggle, just like anyone else, with insecurity. Specifically, we suffer from “imposter syndrome,” something that social media feeds daily. Most of us know that social media accounts inaccurately represent people’s lives, and this knowledge leaves us feeling lost in a sea of lies. When we recognize our roles in this “fake news,” we start to believe that our writing skills, good grades and talents are just parts of fake personas. One day — maybe today — our teachers, friends and family will suddenly see through the photoshopped lies.
In Triv, the masks come off. For three months, the class pushed my friends and me to our limits. We sweated over papers assigned two days before the due dates and watched our professor tear them apart (sometimes literally), as he graded them in front of us. We entered the “pit” and gave speeches about linguistics, logical fallacies and Shakespearean sonnets. We listened as our professor pointed out every filler sound, nervous tick or rhetorical flaw that he could identify, and performed embarrassing drills to kill these habits. Not a word — spoken or written, in or out of the pit — escaped his notice. We were never safe.
Somehow, these daily humiliations gave us back the power we’d lost to insecurity. By the time our second round of speeches began, we could already see changes in one another. Aly, who had presented her first speech with little eye contact and no gestures, moved about the pit with ease as she presented an exquisitely organized speech on the “hasty conclusion” fallacy. Matt, who stood stiff as a board during his first speech, recited his Silly Sonnet while shaking his hips and swinging his arms in an interpretive dance. We didn’t just survive the pressure, we thrived on it. Every obstacle we overcame and every puzzle we solved proved to us that we were more than a fake news story.
I watch our professor, also barefoot and robed in a toga, step into the center of the circle and it begins. For the next hour, we take turns entering the circle and presenting our assigned portions of Plato’s dialogue, Phaedrus, over the noise and distractions of the Student Center. We gesture, make eye contact with members of the circle and try to ignore the fact that we look like “total geeks” in the most crowded place on campus.
I work through my adrenaline rush by focusing on my classmate’s speech. If Aly is nervous, she hides it magnificently as she explains how true rhetoric does not concern itself with mere appearances, but with the good of human souls. Suddenly, she pauses, and the class can see that her mind has gone blank. But she has trained for this, and she maintains steady eye contact with the circle, soon picking up exactly where she left off.
When it’s my turn to enter, my stomach churns and I feel myself forgetting everything I have ever learned. But I take a breath, tell myself that I’ve prepared for this and, without thinking, I speak for Plato and explain to the circle how rhetoric should ignore popular opinion and instead root itself in truth.
After returning to my spot, I catch my breath and watch the rest of my fellow SJLArs bask in their own truth. We aren’t afraid anymore. We survived the daily beatings of Triv and came out capable of critical reading, writing, speaking and thinking that are completely our own. We don’t care what the rest of the world thinks of us. We know we are real.
This story about higher education and the liberal arts was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Catherine Johnson is a rising junior double-majoring in English literature and philosophy at the University of Scranton.