Athena’s Academy

By Chandra Chandhok 2021-02-14

Part 1

Saline meditteranean air rustled olive bunches on their trees, as they darted to-and-fro in giddy anticipation of the upcoming Academy session. It had been a few millennia now, since Plato had tread these fields to conduct this enriching, interactive, enlightening two-hour symposium of sorts. But now it was finally back. 

I squatted amid dew-soaked blades of grass, teetering for a moment, before eventually resigning myself to a sodden seat of my new toga and plopping down, legs criss-crossed. My bleary eyes, tired from awaking for this at θ am, suddenly grew wide as my ethereal sophist emerged from the foliage of two olive trees, as though materializing from thin air, and approached us. 

“Greetings scholars. You have been bestowed with the exclusive honor of gathering in this historic grove in Athens, for our Academy, named after Akademos, a local hero who saved this city from ruin.”

I squirmed with cautious enthusiasm, at once eager and anxious for what our session would entail. I had heard lore of this group, senior and junior members of a small coterie of intellectuals, for whom Athena herself had designed a curriculum employing lectures, activities, even dialogue, to expose her scholars to sophisticated, high-level concepts to which we had not access at the gymnasium. I recalled how I had bristled with pride upon learning I had been accepted into Athena’s Academy, and now my first day had finally come. I was ready!

The hours and weeks flew by, as we rejoiced in the collective study of texts from the past and future, the East and the West, the arts and the sciences. Through countless interactive exercises and activities, I grew versed in concepts of violence, censorship, justice, rhetoric, and more. One day we read passages from the Mahabharata, the next, Homer’s The Iliad. I absorbed cautionary tales of what’s to come in the future United States, analyzing Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb and watching clips of Donald Trump and Barack Obama. Not a session passed during which I wasn’t constantly on my toes, scribbling hasty notes on parchment or completing the creative writing exercises I was posed. My mind opened to new perspectives, discussions of college-level rigor, ones I will surely incorporate in my college applications this fall. 

Beyond this exposure to a diversity of big ideas, Athena equipped us with useful frameworks for how to approach any endeavor in life. For example, she taught us how to strike a balance between idealism and pragmatism, that elusive space where I can strive to fulfill grandiose objectives, while concurrently grounding myself in reality. 

“First principles,” she declared one overcast Saturday morning, “are the first basis from which a thing is known.”

“Don’t assume anything,” she would so often say. Begin with questions like, What are we absolutely sure is true? What has been proven? I learned that this mode of thinking requires us to dig deeper and deeper until we are left with only the foundational truths of a situation. Rene Descartes, the French philosopher and scientist, will embrace this approach with a method called Cartesian Doubt in which he would “systematically doubt everything he could possibly doubt until he was left with what he saw as purely indubitable truths.”

Knowledge of all these frameworks will endow my college essays with what Athena calls “Higher Order Thinking Skills” or “HOTS.” She says colleges admit students who know about and can eloquently write about the foundational axioms of the discipline I aspire to study. Yet, college admissions is not all she teaches; through the cultivation of personal and professional life skills, including design thinking, time management, product innovation, computational thinking, graphic design and aesthetics, I can nearly feel myself growing into a more well-rounded individual, prepared to face all the challenges of adulthood. 

I look forward to even more sessions about specific colleges in different parts of the world, about how knowing myself will help me present my personal brand to admissions officers, and an understanding of American and British higher education systems. Throughout this year, I am confident I will emerge entirely new, wholly equipped with the tools of introspection to be a self-reflective individual in the world.