About St. John’s College
Why Did You Decide on St. John’s College?
Convocation Remarks, January 16, 2012
Michael P. Peters
Good evening. Welcome January Freshmen class of 2015, known at the college as JFs, and new students in the Graduate Institute, or GIs. Congratulations on deciding to pursue your education at St. John’s College. Welcome also to family and friends of the new students. Welcome back to the rest of the college – faculty, staff, students and friends.
Soon you JFs and GIs will be off to your first St. John’s seminar. I’m sure the past few days have been a blur as you left your homes, families and friends and began to settle into the college. I am also aware that you have a lot on your minds right now, not least of which is the seminar, and I imagine you are anxious to get to it. But, before you set off let me offer a few words of welcome and encouragement.
This evening’s seminar takes place during a presidential election year as the citizens of the United States choose their leader for the next few years. This Saturday there is a presidential primary in South Carolina with another shortly thereafter in Florida and many more to follow, all leading up to national elections in November.
Your first seminar also takes place on the day set aside to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A leader who demonstrated through his life how the ideas and personal character of one man can inspire positive change in the world and improve the lives of many. Dr. King put his beliefs and the welfare of others before himself and we are beneficiaries of his decisions and actions.
So for a few minutes, while acknowledging the upcoming elections and the memory of Dr. King and before your seminar, I would like us to consider together choices and decisions – specifically your decision to attend St. John’s.
You are at St. John’s College by choice. Most of you had other possibilities, but you chose St. John’s. Why? Let me offer three crucial factors that I hope motivated your decision.
First, because you understand and appreciate the distinctiveness of our undergraduate and graduate programs and the foundation they provide for a lifetime of learning, fulfillment and contribution. Second, because you want to take the time to reflect on the most profound and important questions facing the individual and the world in an environment that encourages and nurtures such reflection. Third, because you want to read, to explore, to think and to learn with others who share your passion and dedication.
Between now and the elections in November the freshmen and graduate students will have many opportunities to read, to discuss and to think about the meaning of character, leadership and citizenship and their implications for individual judgments and decisions. And, you will see both positive and negative examples.
These examples begin tonight with the Iliad and Agamemnon, perhaps the first leader of a coalition of the willing in recorded history. And from there you will move to Odysseus, whose decisions both saved and sacrificed the lives of his men and threatened his rule. And, Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, a woman whose devotion, wisdom, strength and craftiness insured that he would have a kingdom to return to after his wanderings.
Then Herodotus, the first historian, describes the tyrannical Persian emperor Xerxes and the Athenian leader 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 character and leadership from Pericles to Alcibiades and the implications of their decisions: Pericles, who convinced the Athenians to abandon the countryside in the face of the Spartan invasion and withdraw behind the city walls. And then watched helplessly as a plague devastated the population. Alcibiades whose reaction to the Athenian citizens’ personal affront led him to betray his city and aid her enemies.
Prior to the elections as sophomores, you’ll read and discuss the challenges and decisions of ancient Hebrew leaders like Moses and David. You’ll study Plutarch’s descriptions of the character and decisions of Roman leaders including Cato and Caesar and Vigil’s description of Aeneas and his leadership in the aftermath of the fall of Troy.
While you are engaged with the Greeks this spring, the juniors will study Machiavelli’s The Prince, with its prescriptions on rule and morality. They will 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 the Founding Fathers. Meanwhile, the seniors will discuss key Supreme Court decisions, and next fall, just prior to the elections, the seniors will examine Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The graduate students will read many of these same works, but in a somewhat different sequence.
So as the citizens of the United States make decisions that will determine the direction of the country for the next four years and beyond, you and your fellow students will be reading, discussing and thinking about the decisions that citizens, leaders, cities and states, have made in the past and the implications of those decisions on the lives of individuals and the course of history.
But, of course, during your time at St. John’s you won’t just be reading, thinking about and discussing works on politics and history. You will also read widely and deeply in literature including Dante’s Divine Comedy; immerse yourself 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; mathematics with Euclid’s Elements and Newton’s Principia; philosophy – Aristotle and Kant; and music – Bach and Wagner. Beyond the established curriculum as upperclassmen and graduate students in preceptorials you will have the chance to study for example Pushkin poems, quantum phenomena, or Hayek’s economic thoughts.
But let’s return to the three central reasons why I hope you decided on St. John’s. Because, it offers an education that provides a foundation for a lifetime of learning, fulfillment and contribution; because it offers an opportunity to reflect on the most profound and important questions facing humankind in a nurturing environment; and because it offers the joy of engaging in your love of reading, thinking, exploring and learning with others who share your passions.
Tonight you take the first major step in a lifetime of learning. Most of you come to St. John’s as committed learners. But, by being here this evening you have decided to take your pursuit of learning even more seriously. However, your decision to attend the college is only the beginning. Because for Johnnies, and by signing the register tonight that is who you have become, learning is a lifetime enterprise. For, if there is one thing that defines alumni and friends of St. John’s College, it is a commitment to lifelong learning. This commitment to learning is equally shared by our alumni regardless of their profession or vocation -- whether a corporate lawyer, a cancer researcher, an artist, a religious leader, a restaurateur or a private citizen.
Just this past weekend alumni from all over the country met here at the college for a seminar on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Indeed, every month in cities around the country and the world other alumni and friends gather to continue their learning. Learning that began for them, just as it begins for you, with a seminar on the Iliad .
In addition, your time here will help lay the foundation for a life of fulfillment and contribution. If you fully embrace the opportunity of St. John’s, while not being trained for a specific vocation after graduation, you will nonetheless be prepared for anything – for life as well as a living. You will have the capacity to follow the example of Dr. King and make a positive difference in your family, your community, your country and your world.
In attending St. John’s you have demonstrated a desire to explore the most important and fundamental questions we face as individuals and as members of society. Questions that are as alive today as they were centuries ago. Questions of character and virtue, right and wrong; questions of human relations; questions of beauty and creativity; questions of power and politics; questions of love and hate; questions of war and peace; questions of the divine. We grapple with these questions for insights to guide us in our personal lives and in our lives as citizens and members of society more broadly. We grapple with these questions, because, ultimately, they inform our choices, help define who we are and provide a rationale for action.
You have also chosen to explore these questions in an environment specifically designed to encourage reflection. At St. John’s you may step away from the hurly burly of contemporary life and find time and space to think for yourself. In society today we are deluged with stimuli and distractions -- smart phones, TV, Facebook, Twitter and the like. We are awash in data and information yet find a dearth of real knowledge. There seems little time to quietly contemplate and sort out for ourselves the differences between information and knowledge, clutter and insight.
As Pico Iyer commented in a recent New York Times opinion piece, “We have more and more ways to communicate, but less and less to say.” We live in a world where the urgent constantly crowds out the important. St. John’s provides a respite from this world, if you decide to take advantage of it. The beautiful natural surroundings, the program of instruction, the tutors, your fellow students and the campus itself all contribute to an environment conducive to reflection and intellectual development. As Iyer goes on to say, “[I]t’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole and understand what you should be doing with it.” St. John’s provides this distance. Please allow yourself the opportunity to enjoy, to benefit and to learn.
St. John’s also provides the opportunity to build upon your demonstrated love of reading, exploring, thinking and learning with others who share your passion – students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends. Given your passion you may have been unusual in your high school, your undergraduate college or your community, but you are not unusual at St. John’s. Everyone, and I mean everyone, in and out of the classroom is dedicated to learning. This means you have a ready forum to explore with others. And because our students are engaged in a common program everyone has a similar frame of reference and an inherent understanding of the questions and the perspectives that arise in the books we read together. Please take advantage of this shared passion and commitment to learning. Seek out your tutors, speak with them, question them, explore with them. They are anxious to learn with you. Do the same with your fellow students and as possibilities arises with alumni and friends of the college.
Having outlined the crucial elements of your decision to attend St. John’s, let me now say a few words about campus life generally. I urge you to exercise your body and spirit as well as your mind. Get to the gym. Actively join in intramurals. You don’t have to be a jock to do so. Be a Quixotic, a Geometer, a Myrmidon or an Olympian. Throw a pot in the pottery studio. Work on a play. Go whitewater rafting. Write for The Moon, the student publication. Serve on Student Polity, the student government. This is just a sample. If you don’t find an organization that responds to your interest, start one. The college will be glad to help you.
Also in laying that foundation for your life of learning, fulfillment and contribution, look for an opportunity to serve others while you are here, to give back. There are tremendous needs in the local community. Imagine what a difference it could make if each of us found some way to serve others. Quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘what are you doing for others.’” 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 Director of Residential Life, Matt Johnston. If you do so, you will benefit yourself as well as your neighbors.
Finally and most importantly, respect yourself and others. Take care of yourself. Watch your health and mind your habits. I particularly have in mind smoking and drinking. Look out for your roommate and classmates as well.
It is now time for your first seminar, for Achilles, Agamemnon, Priam, Hector Athena and Apollo and their decisions. On behalf of the faculty and staff I welcome and congratulate you on your decision to attend St. John’s College. Where you will lay a foundation for a lifetime of learning, fulfillment and contribution. Where you will find a nurturing environment for personal reflection on the questions that face the individual and humankind. And where you will be able to read, explore and think with others who share a similar passion for learning.
JFs, GIs, the college community as whole, I declare the college in session. Convocatum Est!