n a beautiful day in fall 2004, I walked up a mountain on Terceira Island in the Azores with six students. They were 15-year-olds, all enrolled in public high schools in the Azorean city of Angra do Heroísmo. I was 42. We talked about the Republic of Letters, a voluntary weekend program of readings and conversations that I was designing to prepare high school students for life in a university. At least, that was how I originally conceived of it. I was thinking conventionally: for most parents, academics, and politicians in Portugal, education is about skills, and jobs are the ultimate prize of a good education. As early as tenth grade, students must specialize in a particular field; grades and jobs are paramount.
But soon, I realized that I was wrong about what the Republic of Letters should be—especially as I reflected on a seminar that I had recently attended on Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon. The seminar, conducted by Anthony O’Hear at the Institute for Political Studies at the Catholic University of Portugal in Lisbon, had a huge impact on me, and I became convinced that my new program should not be about preparing students for university but preparing them for the challenges of living. Souls were more important than grades, skills, and academic degrees. Such a project, I felt, should intimately involve the ancient Greeks and classical notions of a liberal education.