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

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.


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.)

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.