The St. John's Seminar
How are the books brought to life?
Twice each week, about 20 students and two tutors assemble around a table to discuss an assigned reading. Whether the reading consists of a few pages of dense philosophical argument, a hundred pages of a novel, or even a musical score, it provides the occasion for an often intense two-hour discussion, an unparalleled investigation into the meaning of the text and its significance for our lives: the St. John’s seminar.
Here, at the heart of the program, students and tutors approach difficult ideas with the expectation that, as the conversation feels its way along, points of understanding will gradually extend the reach of everyone in the room. Beginning with a question asked by one of the tutors (there are two to prevent the teacher from becoming the locus of authority or the central focus of the conversation), students delve into the work under discussion without external sources, formulating penetrating questions of their own. A discussion of Genesis might begin with the question “Is God good?”; in considering Hobbes’s Leviathan, the conversation might start with “What is a free country?” But it need not linger on the opening question. In all cases, the discussion proceeds organically, with no agenda other than an underlying desire to deepen our understanding of the matters at issue in the text and in the discussion.
Are there any lectures?
The only regularly scheduled lectures at St. John's occur on Friday evenings, when the entire college community is invited to gather for a formal talk by a tutor or guest speaker on Program or non-Program topics. Talks have included titles such as "Kant's Rational Being as Moral Being," "Does Beauty Have a Place in Liberal Education?" and "The Two Lives of Compassion in Early India." After a brief break, many attendees reassemble in an adjacent room, where they engage the lecturer in discussion—often until late into the night.