About St. John’s College
2011 Convocation Remarks
The Value of College
Convocation Remarks, August 25, 2011
President Michael P. Peters
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Good morning. Welcome again freshmen class of 2015 and graduate students in Liberal Arts and Eastern Classics. Congratulations on pursuing your education at St. John’s College. We are very pleased you are joining us.
A special welcome to the families and friends of the students. While we celebrate the students’ achievement in reaching this milestone today, we know that they did not get here by themselves. They benefited from the encouragement, support and sacrifice of many others. Some of whom are here with us, especially the students’ families and friends. Please join me in thanking them.
Welcome back to the rest of the college – students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends.
In recent years there has been a great deal of debate and a plethora of articles by educators, politicians, journalists and more about the value of a college education. At one extreme is entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who has offered $100,000 each to twenty young men and women to forgo college and instead pursue an entrepreneurial venture. Ironically, Mr. Thiel has two degrees from Stanford.
At the same time, President Obama has set a goal of every American attending some program beyond high school by 2020 and doubling the college graduation rate also by 2020. And he and others in his administration, in supporting higher education, have spoken forcefully and often about the economic benefit to the individual and the nation of a college education, often casting the goal in terms of international competition.
So the question of why go to college or the value of a college education is current and seemingly pressing. By your presence here today, as either a graduate or undergraduate student, you have decided that college has value and what St. John’s College offers has particular value to you. With this in mind, as you begin your studies at St. John’s, I’d like to take a few minutes to think about the question of why go to college and in particular why go to St. John’s College.
In the June 6, 2011 edition of The New Yorker, Louis Menand, in a review of some of the recent literature on the value of a college education, characterizes what he sees as the three theories about the value or purpose of higher education.
Theory one is what he calls the meritocratic. College provides, in his words, “a mechanism for sorting out its more intelligent members from its less intelligent ones.” He goes on to say that “society wants to identify intelligent people early on so that it can funnel them into careers that maximize their talents.” He concludes by saying that in this theory, “college is, essentially, a four year intelligence test.”
In theory two, which he labels democratic, Menand says “college exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.” Or as he puts it, “college also socializes,” and that, “there is stuff that every adult ought to know, and college is the best delivery system for getting stuff into people’s heads.”
He asserts that theories one and two are principally related to liberal arts colleges, but he also mentions a third theory which emphasizes specialized training and “explains the explosion in professional master’s programs,” and I would add the proliferation of for-profit colleges or on-line courses.
So based on Menand’s theories, the reason for college is either to prove a student’s intelligence, or to learn how to function in society, or to prepare specifically for the workforce.
But, there is another, I would argue more profound, reason to attend college and a more fundamental value to college. This is what we emphasize at St. John’s and why I hope each of you has chosen to be here today. That reason is to learn for learning’s sake; not as means to an end, but as an end in itself. Learning for learning sake requires special courage on the part of you students and your families, especially during these difficult times, when the President, entrepreneurs, and other voices in our society seem to see only the economic rationale for college.
While understandable, I believe that these views are extremely shortsighted and, on the contrary, in today’s world a St. John’s education is even timelier and more valuable than ever. The St. John’s program, the program you have chosen, is about ends not means. It is not intended to limit horizons, but to broaden them. I do not deny that an occupation, earning a living, is an important part of life. Indeed, we have a growing college-funded internship program that allows students to explore vocational possibilities while at the college. And it is certainly true that a college degree provides economic benefit. On average a college graduate earns almost $30,000 a year more than a high school graduate. But a job is certainly not all of life or even most of life.
It is also true that college can provide a foundation for citizenship. For example, participation in civic activities and voting by college graduates far outpaces that of those with no college degree. At St. John’s you will read and reflect on texts that are the foundations of citizenship, from the ancient Greeks to the enlightenment to the founding documents of the American republic. But our role as citizens is also just a part of who we are.
These benefits, economic and societal and the like, while certainly worthwhile, are derivative of the intrinsic value of a St. John’s education. A St. John’s education is also not designed as a competition among students or an IQ test. Rather, it is designed to inspire and encourage a love of learning for itself in each student as an individual.
Again, I applaud each of you, whether you have come from across the street, across the country or across the globe, whether graduate or undergraduate, for having the independence of mind to resist the conventional wisdom, focused as it is on the short term, to look beyond the immediate and to reflect on what is most valuable and most enduring. Not what seems most urgent, but what is truly most important -- in this case, learning.
Having taken the step of signing the register and enrolling at St. John’s, what should you expect to find here? Perhaps an excerpt from an essay by one of our graduates and an accomplished fiction writer, Salvatore Scibona, in another New Yorker article some of you may have seen entitled “Where I Learned to Read”, summarizes it best. Some of it may already sound familiar to you. He wrote, “the summer before I started [at St. John’s College], the dean had the arriving students read the Iliad and memorize the Greek alphabet. A year before, I had not known that ancient Greek existed. I had assumed that all we knew of the Greeks was hearsay. The other students came from Louisiana, Alaska, Malaysia. I could not recognize the plant life here [in Santa Fe]. After Greek, we would learn French. A [tutor] pointed to a figure in a differential equation from Newton’s Principia and said, ‘This is where our upper-middle-class prejudices about time and space begin to break down.’”
“By senior year, we were reading Einstein in math, Darwin in lab, Baudelaire in French tutorial, Hegel in seminar. Seminar met twice a week, all students addressed by surname. On weekends, I hung out with my friends. One sat in my room with The Phenomenology of Spirit, reading out a sentence at a time and stopping to ask, ‘All right, what did that mean?’ The gravity of the whole thing would have been laughable if it hadn’t been so much fun.”
The program Scibona encountered at St. John’s is also your program. The program nurtures the student’s intellectual freedom - the freedom to explore the ideas that have informed and shaped the past, inform and shape the present and will surely inform and shape the future; the freedom to question these ideas and grow in all dimensions – mind, body and spirit. The freedom to think for yourself. The freedom not just to answer questions, but to question answers. The opportunity to experience the liberating quality of education that encourages a healthy skepticism grounded in knowledge, but that rejects mindless cynicism and nihilism. The freedom from slavery to popular opinion or fad or fashion. To make informed choices for yourself. To lead what David Brooks in a recent New York Times op-ed describes as a “learning-centered life.”
How does St. John’s help its students attain this freedom and establish a foundation for a “learning-centered life”? The answer is through a defined curriculum in the liberal arts. The undergraduate program is roughly outlined in Scibona’s article. There is a similarly structured curriculum in both the graduate programs in Eastern Classics and Liberal Arts. The program for graduate students and undergraduates is based on reading and discussing original texts, many of which were written hundreds - even thousands - of years ago, some in now dead languages. Texts that are sometimes referred to as Great Books.
Why original texts, why Great Books, eastern or western? Because, they raise the most fundamental, important and eternal questions. Questions that are as alive today as they were centuries ago. Questions of character and virtue, questions of human relations, questions of power and politics, questions of war and peace, questions of life and death, questions of who we are and why we are here, questions of the divine and more.
Although the curriculum at St. John’s is determined, the education that emerges from this curriculum is anything but. Choice is abundant in the questions that are raised and the manner in which they are addressed. In fact, we believe that we have the most open, democratic classrooms possible. Nothing is predetermined. Each question is open for discussion. Everyone is equal in the classroom and has a voice before the texts and the ideas they contain. Classes at St. John’s are led by tutors, not professors. Tutors, who are here because they are dedicated to learning for its own sake and want to learn with the students, not lecture or profess. The conversation begins with a question from the tutor, but the class responds to the questions of all. The texts themselves are the teachers. Learning is the goal and questions are the means.
But learning at St. John’s consists of more than just reading and discussing the ideas in original texts. The St. John’s program is also very much a hands-on enterprise. Active participation is the norm, whether conducting an experiment in the laboratory, demonstrating a proof at the board in math, or translating a Greek or French text. While conversation is at the heart of learning at St. John’s, it is not the only element. Experimentation, demonstration, translation, musical composition and performance, and most of all writing are integral to learning at the college.
Learning at St. John’s is also a cooperative endeavor, but it is based on individual commitment and responsibility. Just as your accomplishment in attending St. John’s did not result from your efforts alone, so your accomplishments while at St. John’s will come not only through your efforts but also through the contribution of the faculty, the staff and your fellow students.
Each member of the class is expected to be committed to the enterprise, to come prepared and to participate actively. Each student shares a responsibility for the success of the class as a whole. What a student gains from the class and the entire program depends first and foremost on his or her own preparation and participation, but it also depends on the preparation and participation of his or her classmates. Part of learning at St. John’s is listening carefully, absorbing and reflecting upon what others say, and resisting the temptation to always have the last word.
The education at St. John’s is centered on face-to-face interaction, in and out of the classroom. As Salvatore Scibona put it: reading The Phenomenology of Spirit with a friend in a dorm room one sentence at a time and “stopping to ask ‘what does that mean?’”
There is certainly a place for and a value to the internet, but at St. John’s the “social networking” we emphasize and celebrate is direct, in-person communications and dialogue. We believe that this best contributes to the education of our students. It also helps them develop the skills to engage effectively in all aspects of the college while they are here and in the larger society following graduation. It also helps lay the groundwork for a life of contribution and good citizenship.
So, while a St. John’s education is not intended to train you specifically for your first job or your role as a citizen, it will certainly help prepare you for the future, for both a living and a life. It is not unusual for alumni to claim that St. John’s “changed my life.”
Let me mention just a few specific examples. Salvatore Scibona, who I quoted earlier, came to St. John’s to learn for its own sake, but has gone on to become a very successful writer. Dr. Patty Sollars came to St. John’s for a similar reason and has become a distinguished neuro-scientist and researcher. Robert Bienenfeld came to St. John’s to learn just as the others and went on to become a senior official at Honda Corporation concerned with environmental issues. Phelosha Collaros came to St. John’s to learn and is now a leader in the not-for-profit community in Albuquerque as well as a leader of the St. John’s College Alumni Association. Warren Winiarski came to St. John’s to learn and later founded the very prestigious Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in the Napa Valley of California.
The same is true for our graduate students. Dr. Norman Levan epitomizes our Graduate Institute alumni. Dr. Levan, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California Medical School, is a 1974 alumnus of the St. John’s College Graduate Institute. He, too, told me that “St. John’s College changed my life.” Indeed, his education at St. John’s, which he undertook well into his career at USC, meant so much to him that he generously funded the building to your rear that bears his name and serves as the Graduate Institute’s home.
These alumni demonstrate that this is an education meant for a lifetime. It is the beginning - not the end - of your learning. And it is this fervor for learning that unites all St. John’s alumni. I see it whether our alumnus or alumna is an editor in New York City, an educator on the Navajo Reservation, an international lawyer in Miami, a restaurateur in Paris, a diplomat in Burundi, a farmer in New Mexico or a screen writer in Hollywood. Indeed, every month alumni from across the globe gather for seminar, to learn together.
Today you take the first step in joining their ranks. For this is not only your first day of class; it is also your first day as a Johnnie for life. The alumni, whom I have mentioned, and thousands of others sat where you sit today, signed the register as you have and engaged in the same programs, graduate and undergraduate, you are embarking upon this morning. Now it is your turn to seize the opportunity you have been offered and to make the most of it. Explore, define, question, commit. Don’t sit passively on the sidelines either in or out of the classroom.
Get involved. For the freshmen, we hope your dorm room is comfortable, but don’t hang out there. For the graduate students, we hope you will enjoy the Darkey Common Room - the graduate lounge - in Levan Hall, but please don’t spend all your time there.
Exercise your body and spirit as well as your mind. Get to the gym. Actively join in intramurals. Be a Quixotic, a Geometer, a Myrmidon or an Olympian. Throw a pot in the pottery studio. Work on a play. Go whitewater rafting. Join the Search and Rescue team. Write for The Moon, the student newspaper. Run for Student Polity, the student government. These are just a few examples. You can get a full rundown of the possibilities at the Activities Fair this Saturday afternoon. If you don’t find an organization that responds to your passion, start one. The college will be glad to help you.
Also look for an opportunity for service, to give back. There are tremendous needs in the local community. Imagine what a difference we could make if each of us found some way to serve others. Next Wednesday there will be a Community Fair on campus that will allow you to explore possibilities in the greater Santa Fe community. In addition, your fellow students in Project Politae are dedicated to serving the community on and off campus. They have many options that can work within your schedule. You can contact them through the Director of Residential Life, Matt Johnston. If you do so, you will benefit yourself as well as others.
Your very first opportunity is this Saturday morning at the on-campus Community Service Day. If you get to the dining hall at 8:30 Saturday morning you can sample one of my presidential pancakes. Believe me, you will be glad you did.
Most importantly, however, take care of yourself and your fellow students. Look out for your roommate and classmates. Be thoughtful and considerate in your relationships. Watch your health and mind your habits. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, now is the time to stop. I’ve got some shocking news: Smoking won’t improve your studies or your health or make you any better looking! In fact, it will do just the opposite. Be very careful with alcohol. It can lead to great harm personally and have a destructive effect on the community. In addition, underage drinking is against the law and a reminder that the treatment of law in the books we read is more than merely theoretical.
One particular note on campus safety: During the year there will be construction for our new residential center opposite the lower dorms. Please pay attention to the work site and the equipment as it moves about.
In conclusion, congratulations again on choosing St. John’s. Congratulations on summoning the courage to learn for its own sake. The faculty and staff are extremely pleased to have you with us and pledge to work as hard as you do to make the program and your learning come alive. You should know, graduate students and undergraduates alike, that since you have joined us, St. John’s College will never be the same, and since you have joined St. John’s College, I am confident you will never be the same.
So I ask you students my opening question, “are you ready?”
With that, Freshman class of 2015, new students in the Graduate Institute, returning students, faculty, staff, alumni, families and friends, I declare the college in session.