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

August 9th, 2013 - 9:29 am

But many important and successful things are easy to caricature.  And the fact that a good can be mistaken for the good or can be exaggerated at the expense of other goods is something we have recognized at least since St. Augustine. My point is simply that there is something rare and valuable that transpires in a St. John’s seminar, and fitted together into the overall St. John’s program and extended over the course of four years, it provides a distinctive liberal arts education that lives up to the clever St. John’s motto: Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque (“I make free men out of children by means of books and the scale [i.e., judgement]”).

You can’t set foot on a college campus these days without encountering incessant chatter about “diversity.” It doesn’t take long to realize that by “diversity” most colleges mean “strict intellectual and moral conformity about any contentious issue.”   Most colleges and universities are one-party states, purveying, at enormous cost, a species of ideological indoctrination while their charges enjoy a four-year holiday from the responsibilities of adult life masquerading as a liberal education.  Their parents are happy, or at least reconciled to the expense and the indoctrination, because said college provides their child with the all-important stamp of societal approval in the form of a meal ticket called a “diploma.”  What have they actually learned? What skills have they mastered? What is their character?  Those are questions no one, having just spent  (in many cases) $250,000, wants to ask. St. John’s really does offer something different. It’s just as expensive. And I suspect that a large proportion of its faculty are as reflexively left-wing as the faculty at most other colleges. But their interrogative engagement with a thoughtfully garnered distillation of masterpieces makes St. John’s quite different from almost every other institution.  Is it for everyone? No.  But it is one of our age’s failings — a liability of thoughtless “democratization” — to assume that if something isn’t good for everyone, it is good for no one.

St. John’s needs fewer than  900 students spread between two campuses to thrive. The college will be subject to many of the same financial pressures besetting other institutions affected by what Glenn Reynolds and others have called “the higher education bubble.” In ten years, there will be many fewer institutions than there are now. A financial dégringolade is in the offing — it is in fact upon us — that, in concert with the technological revolution that is moving more and more teaching to the internet, will end in deep and lasting changes to the institution of  higher education.

Nevertheless, one hopes — I certainly hope — that the coming revolution is not a process of universal homogenization.  The dirty little secret about “liberal arts education” in this country is that, at most institutions, the liberal arts are just rhetorical window dressing.  The actual education is partly vocational (that’s the good part), partly a species of indoctrination or frivolous time-wasting. I like to think that there are at least 1000 eager young adults whom fortune has favored with an eagerness and curiosity about the sorts of questions that were traditionally at the heart of a liberal arts education.  I hope that St. John’s will be there to entertain and nurture that spirit of inquiry.  Its vitality is not easily subject to the usual utilitarian metrics, but its preservation, I am convinced, is as central to the future health of our civilization as it is (as it always is) under siege.

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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.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks 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
49 weeks ago
49 weeks 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.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
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49 weeks ago
49 weeks 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.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks 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.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks 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.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks 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.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks 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.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks 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?
49 weeks ago
49 weeks 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/
50 weeks ago
50 weeks 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?
50 weeks ago
50 weeks 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
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
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