Cornell University, 1996, A.B., Economics, Psychology & International Affairs
University of Oxford, 2000, D. Phil., Zoology
Barnaby Marsh is the oldest of five children. At an early age, he moved with his family from Pennsylvania to Alaska. He spent most of his formative years growing up in the Alaskan wilderness near Denali National Park. His parents home-schooled him and cultivated a problem-solving outlook. He did not receive any formal educational training until he enrolled at Harvard for his freshman year. After a year at Harvard, he transferred to Cornell, where he chose to take double course loads for the challenge and to get the most out of his undergraduate experience. He currently works for the John Templeton Foundation as the Vice President of Strategic Initiatives. He is also the Managing Director of the Templeton Philanthropic Leadership Network, defined as “a group of world leaders in business and philanthropy who aim to find innovative ways to address philanthropic challenges.” [link]
Let’s start with your childhood. It sounded pretty interesting, because you were up in Alaska.
My childhood was somewhat unconventional in that I never went to formal school. I was taught at home by my parents.
When did you move to Alaska or were you born there?
We moved up to Alaska from Pennsylvania when I was six. My parents wanted an experience where we could be creative. My parents wanted to be involved in the process of education. I’ve got four siblings, so parenting was really a full time job for both of them. They were always very supportive of cultivating our interest and letting us explore things. That was very important in the formative years.
Where were you in the birth order?
I’m the oldest.
Before your parents went to Alaska, what did they used to do?
They are retired executives. They retired early.
Why did they pick Alaska?
Alaska is a really beautiful place. Growing up, we spent a lot of time living outdoors in the central part of Alaska. That was really good because there was a lot of physical activity involved. It’s almost like growing up on a farm in that problems come up and you need to solve them. In the “Lower 48”, if one has a problem, it is easy to buy a solution. If you’re in the middle of the woods, you have to figure how you can solve the problem with whatever you have. That’s very important for kids. It gets you thinking to rely on yourself. That’s been pretty influential in my upbringing.
What kind of outdoor experiences did your parents have before they moved?
None. When they went up to Alaska, they first lived in Anchorage and Eagle River, in the winters. Those places were a base for the activities in the wilderness in the summers.
And then you moved outside of Talkeetna?
That’s right. Talkeetna is totally developed now. Back in those days it wasn’t. It was just a little village where you could get supplies. We lived up the Susitna River, in the woods. My parents worked with Native Americans to help with the clearing of the land. I was about seven or eight at the time. It’s actually hard to talk about this time, because there are no particular milestones. You just live there. It’s almost like survival. You find ways to make it through the day. There isn’t the context of a life course as in let’s say the Lower 48 or in a city, where you go to school, you get a job. When you live in a place where there are no clocks, no calendars, no electricity, and no running water, the weeks and years don’t really flow the same way. You don’t think in terms of milestones. You think in terms of living and dealing with the moment. It was just day to day, rolling barrels up the hill, washing things, and watching out for bears.
I read that they gave you an equivalent of a fifth grade education and then said that’s it, you’re on your own. Was it really like that?
There was occasional help with reading and math, but not any formal program of instruction. My only taste of any formal schooling was when I started my schooling at the university level. During my first year in college, I volunteered in an inner-city school to help teach some kids and I also volunteered at a private school. During that time I could see (that was also the first time I was inside a school building) what high school was like, what the dynamics were like within the classes, and the level of interest and aptitude in those different school settings. That was really the first time I had any sense for what a school program could be like.
What did you think of it compared to your experience?
It was much more formal, of course. Its a model based on an early nineteenth century model of mass education where people needed to make the transition from an agrarian lifestyle to something more integrated, as was needed in the industrial revolution. An obvious limitation is that each student goes through the exact same lesson plan. Students who are little bit slower could be made to feel dumb. That’s unfortunate, because some people just develop later. Someone who’s not good at mathematics at age eight might be wonderful at age ten, but if they are made to feel they are no good at age eight, they might never reach their potential by age ten. Maybe the same thing happens for kids who develop a little bit quicker- are the held back? If you’re privately tutored, you can go at the pace that’s right for you. If you need a little bit more time to learn something, then you can take it. If you want to move a little bit faster, then you can. In the future, new technology will be more attuned to the needs of the student. The current system of mass education probably favors some students and puts others at disadvantages. It’s something we can work on.
Did you read a lot?
I did, especially during the winters when it’s dark and cold outside. The reading source that was most helpful for me was the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. That’s the 1910 version- it’s actually still used today by research scholars.
Why is that?
It has a lot of detail and the scholarship is very good. Even today I sometimes go back and use it. I have a modern set of encyclopedias and I also use Wikipedia on the web, but the eleventh edition still sometimes is best. The encyclopedia as a source on information went through at lot of change in the 20th century- increasingly, it was designed to assist students doing research, rather than professional scholars. The new ones are much easier to read, but there are no equations in the text, details, and references. That was all taken out, which is good in terms of ease of comprehension for your average high-school student. But it’s not technically interesting for someone more advanced. By the way, in my schooling my parents didn’t believe that we should work with easier readings and then work towards more difficult readings. We started with adult-level texts. This sometimes made the work hard, but it resulted in a better education, I think.
What’s the best memory of your childhood? What things did you especially enjoy?
You try to find enjoyment from all things. Activities that are difficult or challenging help us to grow. Some things you didn’t like so much, you realize in retrospect are really good things. Things that seemed important at one point in time don’t seem important in retrospect. Other things that don’t seem important end up being really important.
It is important to try to see goodness, opportunity, and ways to be creative. Always looking for ways of being constructive and helping others is very important. In the Lower 48 particularly, there is a very strong sense of individual identity and the idea of the individual doing things, but so much in our life is done with others, so teamwork is really important. You can’t have all chiefs and no Indians.
Did your family travel outside of Alaska while you were growing up?
Not so much early on, but more later, especially just before college. We traveled by car, and we visited many states. If you’re on the ground, you can stop to get a sense of local cultures and communities. It’s much better for young people than simply flying over it all.
What was Harvard like?
I was taking classes for grades which was new for me. Up to that point, I did not have experience taking formal tests…
You didn’t have SATs?
No… I was quite worried about tests, but in the end it was unfounded- I did fine.
What was your first impression of tests?
It struck me as very artificial, because when you have a question, there are a lot of different ways to answer it. I was used to dealing with questions in the context of discussion. There is no dialogue at all in a test situation–just one question and your answer. You may have three answers, though. Sometimes it was hard to get a sense for what sort of answer was expected. Early on, I asked for my exams to be oral rather than written. That way I could take the course and be examined more in the dialogical way. That format petrifies most students. For me, it was my preference because the professor will know where you’re weak. That’s fine with me. You are paying a lot of money to attend and you want to get a good education. I wanted to be challenged.
Did you transfer to Cornell after your first year at Harvard because of their ornithology department?
I was very interested in birds. I spent a major part of the time during my freshman year with Ernst Mayr in Harvard’s ornithology department. Ernst Mayr and I spent a lot of time just talking and exploring things. He was happy with my Cornell decision. Cornell has the best ornithology department in the US- and possibly the world.
When you went to Oxford, how did you find their way of teaching?
The Oxford system consists of one-on-one tutorials- meaning that your tutor can give you the level of difficulty that is appropriate for you. It’s an incredible system, but you can’t mass produce it. It would be too expensive to replicate for instance in the US. But it’s absolutely superb in terms of having the one-on-one customized education for each student.
What was going to England like for the first time-going abroad?
Not too much different from going down to the Lower 48. [Laughs] Actually, remarkably similar. They have most of the same appliances, electricity, and running water. The buildings are a little bit older, made out of stone instead of cement. A lot of history. Otherwise, not too different. [Laughs]
Returning to the schooling questions, one the most important parts of the education was not learning about limitations, but always thinking about how to solve problems when you have them.
That was very important, because during my undergraduate years, there were areas where I didn’t have the conventional training or transcripts, or I didn’t have something that was needed for a prerequisite- math has a lot of these, for instance. When selecting my courses, I would often have to go talk to the professor or the dean for permissions.
So that’s interesting about math courses.
Yes, those can be hard.
You obviously took some math in college, right?
Well, my education was both formal and informal. All the courses would show up on my transcript and there are all the courses on the side that don’t show up anywhere. When I went to Cornell, they needed to have an SAT test and a GED test. Ultimately, I had to take those tests. The GED test was really easy. If they allowed people when they are 13 or 14 to take that test, half of the population would be able to opt out of high school. But they don’t let you do take that test before the age of 16… I now know why. [Laughs]. Again, the important thing is to have the skills and awareness to live a productive life.
Are there any lessons you have taken away from being a Rhodes Scholar into your present day life?
I think that one of the things that the Rhodes Scholarship does is to highlight the importance of service. Cecil Rhodes believed that team sports were a great educator, and better than university. I see the wisdom of his insight more and more each day–society requires the coordination of many kinds of talents, and it is up to each of us to make a contribution.