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Bright Spots in the Bubble: The Case of St. John’s College

August 9th, 2013 - 9:29 am

When I was in Santa Fe a week or two ago, I had occasion to drop in on a seminar about Henry V at St. John’s College. (St. John’s maintains two campuses, the original one in Annapolis and the Land-of-Enchantment one in Santa Fe.)  I’ve long been interested in St. John’s. I first learned about it when I was in college myself. I went to a latitudinarian backwater where the only thing required of a student was a pulse and someone in the background with a checkbook. At St. John’s, I heard, everything  was required, near enough.  There was room for outside study groups, but basically everyone in every class was reading, looking at, or listening to the same thing at the same time. It sounded simultaneously amazing and forbidding.

After college, I didn’t think much about St. John’s until I met the woman I later married. She, canny lass that she was, gave Harvard a miss in favor of St. John’s, and, according to her, it was far more amazing than forbidding. (What did it was a flyer from the college that she received: “Next year, the following teachers are returning to St. John’s: Homer, Plato, Aristotle,” etc.) Having served briefly on St. John’s Board of Visitors, I am convinced she is right.

St. John’s is often presented as a “great books” school, which is almost correct. All the books one reads —in a sense beginning and ending, if I have it right, with Plato’s Phaedrus: it’s the last thing both freshmen and graduating students read — all the works one encounters (it’s not just books) are pretty great.  The aforementioned Homer, Plato, and Aristotle for starters. Then there is the Bible, Thucydides, Euclid, Archimedes, Ptolemy, Aeschylus, Aristophanes,  Virgil, and Plutarch.  Also Augustine, Dante, Rabelais, Galileo, Monteverdi, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Descartes, Leibniz, Bach, Newton, Haydn, Mozart, Locke, Jane Austen, Schubert, Rousseau,  Kant, Hegel, Marx, Wagner, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky,  various Supreme Court opinions, Flaubert, Conrad, Husserl, Heidegger, Faraday, Rutherford, Einstein, T.S. Eliot, Heisenberg, Watson & Crick. And on and on. It is quite a list.

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But the curriculum per se is only part of the St. John’s story. There are actually quite a number of (mostly quite good) colleges that offer a “classical” or “great books” curriculum. And of course there are plenty of places that pretend to teach Shakespeare (say) but merely to enlist him in a political melodrama dear to the heart of the professor (Shakespeare and colonialism, e.g.). What sets St. John’s apart is not only the curriculum but the pedagogy.  I got a taste of that with Henry V. The St. John’s approach is deeply Socratic, which means, in part, that questions, not answers, have priority.

That, as anyone familiar with education-speak knows, is just the sort of thing that college PR departments specialize in saying. Next to the promise that they teach “critical thinking” (what Jacques Barzun more accurately described as “directionless quibble”), talk about favoring questions over answers is something educationists love to broadcast.

But at St. John’s it actually works, chiefly, I suspect, because what goes on in the classroom is firmly anchored to the work before the class.  The teachers at St. John’s are not called “professors.” They are called “tutors.”  The teachers are the books, the works of art and music, that are being studied.  The tutors are facilitators, interlocutors, mediators or (as Socrates liked to say of himself) “midwives” between pupil and the work. A typical St. John’s seminar consists of about 20 students and two tutors (two  in order to reinforce the non-professorial character of the exchange).  Class begins with one of the tutors propounding a question about the reading. If my experience with Henry V is any indication, that question can go quite a long time with no response.  There is something curiously pregnant about silence among a small group of people sitting around a table, especially when they are confronted with a question. Thirty seconds seems like a long time. A minute is nearly unbearable. I suspect there is an unspoken pride keeping up the proportion of silence to talk, especially at the beginning of a seminar. As it happens, on this occasion, I was the first to break the silence, offering something (I forget just what) scintillating  and insightful about the question of how Henry exhibits the qualities of a great leader when he disguises himself in Sir Thomas Erpingham’s cloak and goes about his troops on the eve of the battle of Agincourt.

It is easy to caricature what goes on in a St. John’s seminar.  And there is a presumption among some Johnnies (as students and graduates of the College are familiarly denominated) that St. John’s offers the only truly thoughtful and self-reflective way to gain a liberal arts education.  That’s partly comic, partly just silly. (It’s silliness can be demonstrated by asking whether anyone before the current program was introduced at St. John’s seventy-five years ago managed to educate himself. If these particular Johnnies were right, the answer would have to be “No,” which is absurd. To appreciate the comedy, you have to see it in action.)

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All Comments   (18)
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I graduated from St. John’s a generation ago. Briefly, in response to some of the previous comments, it’s not an education for everyone, though I think many more people could benefit from it than now do. You need not be a genius or a sage to read the books, and better to read them in college, however callow you are at that age, than never. Nor need you be a linguist. Translations will suffice; Thomas Aquinas knew Aristotle from Latin translations. Even in fields such as biology that have advanced far, old authors such as Darwin, Mendel, and Crick and Watson remain worth reading. Textbooks will give you the latest theories and facts, and sometimes the problem sets or other kinds of drill necessary to begin mastery of certain subjects. Textbooks are, however, poor at communicating the thinking that developed the great ideas, and the mistakes of great minds are often more illuminating than the correct ideas of lesser minds. St. John's graduates of my vintage who wanted to do graduate study in technical fields usually found that an extra year of study was sufficient to catch up to their counterparts with specialized undergraduate degrees.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I left Harvard to attend St. John's (Santa Fe), graduating as valedictorian in 1985. It was by far the best intellectual experience I've ever had. As PiedPiper2 notes, a full understanding of the books was largely beyond us, as I later discovered as a graduate student at the U. of Chicago, but the experience was invaluable nonetheless. St. John's is especially successful with the Greeks, precisely because we do read the poets, the playrwrights, a great deal of Plato and Aristotle, learn and translate a portion of Meno out of the Greek, study Euclid, etc. By contrast, when I discuss Plato with many philosophy majors I find that if they are not directly familiar with, say, the poets on the one hand or Euclidean geometry on the other, that they are missing key aspects of the dialogues. Analytic philosophy has created a shallow Plato which is simply the architectonic of an argument, thereby missing the fabulous coherence of the Platonic worldview and the dynamism of the drama throughout.

I'm especially glad that Kimball emphasizes the Socratic pedagogy of St. John's, which is at least as important as the Great Books themselves. After graduate school, I spent fifteen years creating schools based on St. John's Socratic pedagogy. Deployed properly, the SJC approach is a powerful way to develop reading, writing, and thinking skills while also developing students' ability to take ideas seriously.

The last school I created, a charter school in rural NM, was ranked the 36th best public high school on Newsweek's Challenge Index in its third year of operation, the other 35 being either urban magnet schools or wealthy suburban districts. This is largely due to the fact that daily close reading of texts with well-guided Socratic discussions develops the ability to perform well on AP exams (as well as SAT verbal tests, which largely consist of close reading).

In addition, however, students become more motivated when learning becomes meaningful. At the vast majority of high schools in the U.S., the educational content is a meaningless charade. The motivated students work hard to perform well on memorize-and-forget tests. The rest devote themselves to socializing while doing as little academic work as they can get away with. At all of the schools I created, the very first task was to transform the culture from one in which the putative content of learning was loathed to a culture in which we were all engaged seriously in the search for the true, the good, and the beautiful, at least to some degree.

My review of St. John's at epinions, titled "Intellectual Beauty," is here,

http://www.epinions.com/review/educ-Colleges_and_Universities-All-Saint_John_s_College_NM/educ-review-1827-5A3B7A1-393960E1-prod5
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In early 1984, a St. Johns recruiter enticed me to attend its Graduate Institute in Santa Fe. That summer, I enrolled in the Philosophy seminar, in which we'd read the Bible-as-literature. The tutor was a twice-married lapsed Jesuit who disagreed so vehemently with my interpretations of the text that he demanded I be expelled after a week. Later that year, I was named Playwright-in-Residence for the state of New Mexico, 1985-87.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
St John’s reading lists are indeed impressive. One wonders, though, how much of this remarkable accumulated knowledge could possibly be understood and absorbed by your typical 21st century undergraduate, even in 4 years.

Trying to read and assimilate “the best that has been thought and said” is a laudable goal. But it seems to me that was meant to be a lifelong pursuit, not something crammed into 4 years of concentrated study. There seems to be something totalitarian in St John’s approach. To me, it seems an unrealistic, unfulfilling and ultimately futile program.

For example, I assume that most of the readings are *translations*. Even the simplest Plato is daunting for someone without an adequate classical Greek preparation. But you don’t get that language training in this program. You get 2 years of Greek (Freshman, Sophomore) and 2 years of French (Junior, Senior) which is no more than skimming the surface of language training if you’re going to be reading original texts. (100 years ago and before, students were expected to be fully skilled in both Greek and Latin *before* entering college. But today? )

But translations, even the best, are poor representations of an original. The reading can be murderous and understanding totally elusive.

In other words, your “reading” of these Greek texts has to be superficial at best.

I notice that Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” is offered in the Junior year. Cervantes? Can you really pick up his thick and complicated tome and plough through it to any usefulness without an extensive background in Spanish/European literature/history? The answer is, no, you can’t. But nowhere does it show that the student has had this background. And without it, again, you’re just skimming. Maimonides, an even more complex subject, is offered in the Sophomore year. Gee, Islamo/Jewish philosophy just like that ! I wager students will be more “perplexed” after reading him than they were previously.

Bottom line: One can’t help but be impressed with what St John’s (and similar colleges) are attempting to do with Great Books programs. And I’m glad students are flocking to these campuses, but I can’t help but feel they are ultimately being misguided.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"how much of this remarkable accumulated knowledge could possibly be understood and absorbed by your typical 21st century undergraduate"

Are you kidding me? They would have trouble merely sounding out the words... if they even know how to do that!

I never finished college. It was too slow for me, and I was working full-time. So, all I got were the beginnings, and none of these books were part of my courses. I read some of these on my own, however, and I just do not understand about the need for the ancient language training. There can be some poor translations, I am sure, but a thorough understanding of the English language and its roots made the works clear enough for me, because our language is rooted in Latin and Greek.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
St. Johns is great institution. The idea behind its curriculum came from Robert Maynard Hutchins, who was the president of the University of Chicago in the 1930s and 40s, and philosopher Mortimer Adler.

I attended the U of Chicago in the 1960s, and Hutchens and his innovations were still spoken of with awe at that time. Sadly, their curriculum has been so watered down and PCed that it is unrecognizable. The true state of the U of Chicago can be gleaned from the fact that they dumped Hussein and his harridan on the country at large without an apology.

St. Johns is a great school, but it is not for everyone. Their system is not a good way to study mathematics and science. While it is good to have read Newton's Principia. It is not a substitute for going through a modern physics textbook, working the problem sets, and doing the experiments. In other parts of Mathematics and science the gaps are even wider. It is probably the case that no chemistry textbook written before Pauling's work was fully digested is worthwhile, and that anything written about biology before 1960 is worthwhile.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
My daughter is researching colleges as a rising junior so your article is very timely for us. I am not familiar with this school but after reading this piece, it seems this is what I want her to experience or rather continue experiencing. She attends classical high school and they practice Socratic seminars. These kids are absolutely amazing and I don't mean all super geniuses, but they read " great books" and discuss them. Nobody talks about teaching critical thinking as they practice them dailyThanks again for this article.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I can highly recommend either of the two SJC campuses. But why take someone's word. Both campuses offer a week long look see at their program. The cost is minimal considering the alternatives. My son is a returning student and he loves the program and the close friendships that develop within such a small College.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"These kids are absolutely amazing and I don't mean all super geniuses, but they read " great books" and discuss them."

That's good, and good for society.

But what can they DO?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In light of this article, the western academy which is basically a leftist cesspool via its humanities/liberal arts courses & rife with indoctrination, now has at least one bright and hopeful spot. As such, perhaps a caveat to the following will be in order - http://adinakutnicki.com/2012/08/21/the-paradox-pitfalls-of-liberal-democracies-in-a-time-of-immoral-relativism-the-havoc-wrought-by-leftist-academia-commentary-by-adina-kutnicki/

Thanks for an uplifting 'bright spot', in an otherwise darkened (close-minded) academia.


Adina Kutnicki, Israel http://adinakutnicki.com/about/
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
That same Great Books ethos thrives at the University of Dallas.
Both schools are tiny and perhaps it is this scale that has provided the framework for a serious consideration of the Liberal Arts without the corruption of federal largess and faddish "Studies" programs?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I've long been an admirer of St. John, and I second Mr. Kimball's assessment. I'd also reemphasize this point he makes:

> "St. John’s needs fewer than 900 students spread between two campuses to thrive."

Each of the two St. John's campuses has only about 400 students, and this, along with the standard curriculum, contributes greatly to cohesion and intellectual development. It might seem that this kind of environment could not be replicated in a larger institution, but that isn't so, and many universities that value serious education have established or are establishing small, cross-sectional, decentralized "residential colleges" within the larger campus. (Many aspiring universities in Asia are copying this model also.)

The international clearinghouse for this residential college movement is the Collegiate Way website, which friends classical liberal education might like to visit:

http://collegiateway.org
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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