Scholars Compare Their Opportunity to that of Churchill

December 24, 2020

This is part 3 in the series Formation of the Ashbrook Scholar.

Any reputable college schedules a freshman orientation period for incoming students. Like other schools, Ashland University offers new students campus tours, dorm meetings, “team-building” exercises, and a barrage of information about extracurricular opportunities. Ashbrook Scholars, however, enjoy their own orientation, one that puts the focus on the real point of college: learning to think independently and collegially.

The renovation of the top floor of Andrews Hall as a special residence for freshman Ashbrook Scholars has given the program freedom to schedule Scholar orientations ahead of the freshman orientation all Ashland University students go through. Scholars move into Mishler House two days before other freshmen arrive, enjoying a quieter campus and shorter lines as they finalize any university business with their parents. Students and their families are then served a casual lunch in the Ashbrook Center. At this low-key kickoff event, Peter Schramm talks about the program the students are entering and takes last-minute questions from parents.

"I now began for the first time to envy those young cubs at the university who had fine scholars to tell them what was what; professors who had devoted their lives to mastering and focusing ideas in every branch of learning; who were eager to distribute the treasures they had gathered before they were overtaken by the night. But now I pity undergraduates, when I see what frivolous lives many of them lead in the midst of precious fleeting opportunity. After all, a man’s Life must be nailed to a cross either of Thought or Action. Without work there is no play. When I am in the Socratic mood and planning my Republic, I make drastic changes in the education of the sons of well-to-do citizens. When they are sixteen or seventeen they begin to learn a craft and to do healthy manual labour, with plenty of poetry, songs, dancing, drill and gymnastics in their spare time. They can thus let off their steam on something useful. It is only when they are really thirsty for knowledge, longing to hear about things, that I would let them go to the university. It would be a favour, a coveted privilege, only to be given to those who had either proved their worth in factory or field or whose qualities and zeal were pre-eminent." Winston Churchill

After an hour for final goodbyes, students are convened in their first seminar, a discussion of a book students have been sent in June: Winston Churchill’s My Early Life. The discussion lasts about three hours. Perhaps for the first time, Scholars discuss a book carefully and seriously, basing claims about the author’s message on closely read passages. “In that very first class I try to get them to think through the point of a liberal education,” Schramm confides.  Churchill’s memoir is an ideal text for this discussion.

Churchill admits that he did not display much brilliance as a young student. He did not progress well in the study of Latin—a prerequisite in the late Victorian age for any serious academic work—and he did not win a place at Eton, the premier college preparatory school. He went to Harrow instead, where he plodded at the back of the class, and afterwards had to study hard to be accepted into army officer training.

It was only during his early twenties, when he found himself stationed with a cavalry regiment in India, that he realized his own hunger for education. He used the long afternoon siesta time to read widely in history, economics, and philosophy, plowing through books he had asked his mother to send him from England. In one passage that inevitably focuses discussion during the first Ashbrook Scholar seminar, Churchill talks about the difficulties he faced as he strove to educate himself, without the advice of thoughtful tutors. Churchill’s story usually prompts beginning Ashbrook Scholars to realize they have been given a rare opportunity.