About St. John’s College
2012 Convocation Remarks
Convocation Remarks, August 23, 2012
Good morning. Welcome freshman class of 2016 and new students in the Graduate Institute. Congratulations on choosing to pursue your education at St. John’s College. We are very pleased to have you with us. A special welcome as well to family and friends. Thank you for taking the time to share this moment with your students and for supporting their matriculation at St. John’s. Welcome back to the rest of the college – students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends.
As we gather here on this beautiful morning to mark and celebrate this milestone in the lives of these fine students, others are about to gather for a different purpose in Tampa, Florida and Charlotte, North Carolina. There respectively, Mitt Romney will accept the Republican Party’s nomination for president of the United States and President Obama will accept the Democratic Party’s nomination.
So we come together today at an important time, a milestone if you will, in the life of our country as well as in the life of the college and in your lives -- incoming students and your families. A time of transition and expectation for each of you, for the college and for the nation.
For St. John’s College this year also marks the 75th anniversary of what we refer to as the “New Program”, the philosophy that defines the college’s sense of community, course of study and mode of governance. You may ask how a program can be new after 75 years. The “New Program” has certainly evolved since its creators Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr launched it on the Annapolis campus in 1937 but its basic structure and aims remain essentially the same. It is as alive, forward-looking and audacious today, perhaps even more so, than when it was launched 75 year ago. It is alive, forward-looking and audacious, ironically perhaps, precisely because St. John’s resists the urge to cater to the latest idea in education, to the market or to popular opinion. And instead to concentrate on offering an education that is timeless and fundamental. Something that seems increasingly rare.
Further, the program remains alive, because it concentrates on subjects, issues and questions that are important and profound rather than trendy and trite. The program remains forward-looking, because it raises issues that will face our nation, our world and us as human beings now and in the future. The program is audacious, because it focuses unabashedly on the individual’s learning, encouraging students to think for themselves. And, in doing so to it provides a foundation for the graduates to become contributing members of their family, their community, their nation and the world.
Of course, the program is further refreshed and renewed with each new class and student who engages with it. So for these and other reasons and this year especially, we celebrate the New Program! Now your program.
In addition, in 2014 we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Santa Fe campus. A visionary and courageous move to offer the New Program to more students and to demonstrate conclusively that the program’s relevance had no geographic or cultural bounds.
In this election year, it is also worth noting that from its founding 75 years ago and continuing with its migration west, the St. John’s program has dealt extensively with questions related to governance and civic responsibility. Indeed, at the formal senior dinner just prior to graduation the dean offers a toast to the four republics we celebrate at St. John’s: The republic of letters, Plato’s Republic, the republic of the United States of America and the republic of St. John’s College.
Therefore, in light of the elections, the celebration of the 75th anniversary of St. John’s New Program, the upcoming 50th anniversary of this campus and this milestone in your lives, allow me to reflect on your decision to attend St. John’s and to sign the college register this morning. What this decision will mean to you, to the college and ultimately, we hope, to others.
You are at St. John’s College by choice. Most of you had many other options, but you chose to come to St. John’s. Why?
I hope it is because you understand and appreciate the distinctiveness of our undergraduate and graduate programs. I hope it is because you love to read, think and explore with others. I hope it is because you value our commitment to a liberal (liberating) education and to lifelong learning. I hope it is because you want to be part of a community dedicated to such learning. But most importantly, I hope it is because you have thought deeply about your education and the role it will play in your life.
At St. John’s, whether graduate or undergraduate, you will have numerous opportunities to read, to discuss and to think about the meaning of character, leadership and citizenship – and you will see examples both positive and negative.
The freshmen begin with the Iliad, Agamemnon, perhaps the first leader of a coalition of the willing in recorded history, Achilles and many others. And from there to the adventures of Odysseus, whose choices both saved and sacrificed the lives of his men and threatened his rule. And Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, a woman whose incredible devotion, wisdom, strength and craftiness insured that Odysseus would have a kingdom to return to after his wanderings.
Herodotus, the first historian, introduces the tyrannical Persian emperor Xerxes and to the Athenian hero Themistocles, whose strength of character and bold decisions saved Greece.
Plato’s Republic extends the conversation on governance and the responsibilities of citizenship. Thucydides in The Peloponnesian Wars illustrates the range of Athenian leadership and character from Pericles to Alcibiades and the implications of their choices: Pericles, who asked the Athenians to abandon the countryside in the face of the Spartan invasion and to gather in the city. And then watched helplessly as a plague devastated the population. Alcibiades who betrayed Athens and aided her enemies.
The sophomores read and discuss the challenges and choices of ancient Hebrew leaders like Moses and David; study Plutarch’s descriptions of the character and decisions of Roman leaders such as Cato and Caesar as well as Vigil’s description of Aeneas’ sojourn from Troy to Italy.
The juniors study Machiavelli’s The Prince, with its prescriptions on morality and rule. They also read the founding documents of our republic – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution -- along with the Federalist papers which outline the difficult choices faced by our Founding Fathers. The seniors discuss key Supreme Court decisions, and examine Tocqueville’s commentary Democracy in America.
So as this nation makes choices that will determine its direction for the next four years and beyond, you and your fellow students will be reading, discussing and thinking about the choices that nations, their leaders and their citizens have made in the past and the implications of those choices on the lives of individuals and the course of history.
But, during your time at St. John’s you won’t only read, think about and discuss works on politics or government. The undergraduates will also read widely and deeply in literature, Dante’s Divine Comedy for example; immerse themselves in language -- translating Racine or Moliere – reading Shakespeare’s plays; study science with Darwin’s Origin of the Species and Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity; and mathematics with Euclid’s Elements and Newton’s Principia; philosophy -- Plato and Aristotle; and music – Monteverdi and Bach; and possibly art, in a preceptorial. The liberal arts graduate students encounter many of these same works, but in a somewhat different sequence.
Of course, some of the graduate students who signed the register this morning are beginning studies in Eastern Classics, reading, discussing and writing about some of the great works in the East and South Asian traditions. Others of you may choose to pursue the Eastern Classics after you complete your current studies.
We read these and other works, whether Eastern or Western, sometime referred to as Great Books, because they explore the most fundamental, important and eternal questions. Questions, as I mentioned previously, that are as alive today as they were centuries ago. Questions of power and politics and questions of war and peace, of course. But also, questions of character and virtue, right and wrong; questions of human relations; questions of beauty, truth and creativity; questions of the divine. We grapple with these questions for insights to guide us today in our personal lives and in our lives as citizens and members of society.
But let’s return to your personal decision to attend St. John’s College and what it means.
First, in coming to St. John’s you have chosen to join a community -- a community that includes not only your fellow students, but also the faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the college. We treat this sense of community very seriously. We are a community founded on respect. Respect for our common enterprise – learning. But also respect for ourselves and respect for one another. The nature of the college demands this respect and suffers when it breaks down.
You have also chosen to be part of a community that is committed to a liberal education. Liberal in the sense of liberating or freeing. This is an education that calls upon each of us, student and tutor, to take responsibility for his or her own learning. An education that demands we not settle for received wisdom or the interpretations of others, not even from the authors of our Great Books. An education that also requires we not be content with the mere accumulation of facts or information, but aspire to knowledge. To seek to understand for ourselves. Learning how to think not what to think.
As I indicated earlier, St. John’s does not attempt to respond to the latest whims in education or anticipate the priorities of the future. A St. John’s education is intended to extend, not limit, your horizons, your opportunities and your choices. This is as important, if not more important, today than at any other time.
In addition, you have taken a vital step in a lifetime of learning. If there is one thing that defines alumni and friends of St. John’s College, it is a commitment to lifelong learning. This commitment is equally shared by our alumni and friends whether they are investment bankers in New York, cancer researchers in Los Angeles, pottery artists in Northern New Mexico or restaurateurs in Paris.
Just last week, for example, alumni and friends from around the country took part in a seminar on Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian Wars here on campus. Indeed, every month in cities around the country and the world alumni and friends gather in seminars seeking to continue their learning. Learning that begins with your seminar this evening. In September alumni will gather here for Homecoming and to help us celebrate the 75th anniversary of the New Program. Their program and your program.
At St. John’s, you have also chosen an education that enables you to examine your social and moral obligations. The fundamental elements of this moral consciousness are contained in the books we read, discuss and write about. But, these ideas will remain very sterile, if you didn’t try to take the questions they pose and the choices they demand beyond the classroom and into your daily life and the life of the college.
You will be presented with an array of other choices while at the college. Choices about your engagement with the program; choices about your participation in the college outside the classroom; choices about your social life; and so many more. Choices which will either enhance or impede your growth as a student and a person. Since you have made the choice to attend St. John’s use your time wisely.
The program is demanding and must, of course, be your first priority. But, I urge you to 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. You can begin Saturday morning at the on-campus community service day. If you get to the dining hall on time, you can get a good start on the day by sampling some of my Presidential pancakes. Believe me, they are worth it.
Also your fellow students in Project Politae are dedicated to serving the community on and off campus. They have many possibilities that can work within your schedule. You can contact them through the assistant dean’s or the career services’ offices. If you do so you will benefit both yourself and others.
But, you can’t help others if you don’t take care of yourself; so look out for yourself physically and emotionally. Maintain your health and mind your habits. If you don’t smoke, don’t start; if you do smoke, give it up. Smoking won’t improve your looks, your personality or your intellect.
Exercise your body as well as your mind. Don’t hang around your room or for the GI’s the Darkey Common Room in Levan Hall. Get involved in some of the myriad of student activities. Get to the gym. Throw a pot in the pottery studio. Work on a play. Go whitewater rafting. Join the St. John’s Search and Rescue team. Write for The Moon, the student publication. Serve on Polity, student government.
This is just a small sample. You’ll find the full range of possibilities at the Student Activities Fair this Saturday afternoon on the athletic field behind the Student Activities Center, otherwise known as the gym. If you can’t find an organization that responds to your passion, start one. The college will be glad to help you.
So, again, on behalf of the faculty and staff I welcome and congratulate you on achieving this milestone and attending St. John’s College. We are pleased to have you among us and we look forward to celebrating your learning, the 75th anniversary of the New Program and the 50th anniversary of the Santa Fe campus with you in the months and years ahead.
I can assure you that since you have come to St. John’s, the college will never be the same, and I am equally certain that since you have come to St. John’s College, you will never be the same.
Class of 2016, let me repeat my question to you of last evening, are you ready?
With this, I declare the college in session. Convocatum Est!