Jerry Brown: Latin Scholar and One-Time Almost Priest

California's governor gets reflective on the meaning of education and its future in his state.

Portrait of Jerry Brown from his first term as governor, which hangs in the California Capitol (Wikimedia Commons)

What is a green leaf?

You might expect this question to come up beside Walden Pond, among Shakespeare's sonnets, or maybe in a basement where people have been smoking green leaves. But no, this was the question California Governor Jerry Brown asked the audience—or, asked himself, really—at The Atlantic’s Silicon Valley Summit on Monday while sharing his thoughts on bringing the common core curriculum to California schools.

It is a question Brown first faced on an exam long ago. "There was only one question: 'Write your impression of a green leaf.'" No matter what answers he came up with—green, leafy, green-looking, leaf-like—he couldn’t find an answer that satisfied him. "I thought, This is just a bunch of clichés—this is not my impression of a green leaf. So I started thinking, How do you have an impression? And I would walk by a tree and think, Where’s my impression? I don’t feel anything. Am I dead inside?"

This portrait of the governor as a young man was illuminating, to be sure, but his parable had a point. "This is a very powerful question that has haunted me for 50 years, but you can’t put that on a standardized test," he said. “There are important educational encounters that can’t be captured in tests."

"There are important educational encounters that can't be captured in tests."

Throughout his interview with Atlantic Editor-in-Chief James Bennet, Brown proved that he spins a pretty erudite game. A question about California’s once and future budget woes, for example, transformed into a Latin lesson. The two had been discussing the California government’s decision to raise taxes on the wealthy. "The debate around cuts and taxes nationally in Washington is utterly frozen. What message would you send to those people? Or is California just sui generis?" Bennet asked.

"I’m glad you started using Latin," Brown replied. "Sui generis means 'of its own kind.' As in 'genitive.' Anyway…"

"What’s the 'sui' part?" Bennet challenged.

"'Of its own.' It’s a pronoun," Brown shot back. "It's characterizing 'kind'—but that's a whole other story."

As Bennet may have known, Brown has an undergraduate degree in classics.

Brown went on to discuss various budget battles fought in California, including cuts to university funding, increases in taxes on the wealthy, and investments like the long-suffering high-speed railway that's planned between San Francisco to Los Angeles. His most captivating comments were about the future of education in his state, because he described how his views grew out of his personal experience—in training to become a priest.

His religious schooling seemed to make Brown a big fan of "traditional" educational experiences. "Human contact is very important. I went to Jesuit schools: Santa Clara for a year, St. Ignatius for four years. And I went into the Jesuit order, not because of reading a book, but because of the experience, the relationship with all the different teachers I encountered. Something that I’d always heard about in Jesuit schools is the ratio studiorum, which is the methodology of Jesuit education," he said.

At an event full of conversations about MOOCs and the technical skills gap in STEM fields, it was almost jarring to hear a reference to a humanities-heavy, Catholic educational philosophy forged in 1599—fitting, perhaps, only for a one-time Jesuit novice. But just as Brown eventually left the order and went to Berkeley to finish his degree, so has he shifted his views on what kinds of educational investments California will be making in the coming years.

"There is so much available knowledge on the Internet that it has to play a much larger role in our education," he said. "I think there’s a big, big future for the large classes, the use of the Internet, and it should lower the cost of education, resulting in curbing tuition."