St. John's is one of the Colleges That Change Lives
From Colleges that Change Lives
By Loren Pope
Edited by Hilary Masell Oswald
St. John’s College
Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Annapolis, Maryland
“[St. John’s] is a hard-working Shangri-La for the life-of-the-mind teenager who may hate or is bored by high school or is disgusted with education’s stupid SAT system. St. John’s has the courage to reject all that stuff; it’s who you are and what you want out of college that counts.”
St. John’s is a school for the intellectual explorer. If you’re looking for someone else to tell you the right answer, skip it. But if you’re game for an adventure that equips you to think and communicate about complex ideas with a collegial community of scholars, St. John’s might be your nirvana.
The college has no majors, one mission, one catalog, two campuses, two presidents, two faculties, and two student bodies that may move freely from one campus to the other. The unusual duality is the result of the expansionist mood of the sixties, when education was a booming industry and the college’s keepers in Annapolis decided to clone the college on a mountain in Santa Fe.
St. John’s charming tidewater colonial campus of 450 students in Annapolis, with its ancient trees and mix of historic and modern buildings, is on a Severn River tributary. On another dramatically beautiful campus on the other side of the country, nestling on the shoulders of Monte Sol in the southeast corner of Santa Fe, a student body of like size wrestles with the same questions of the human condition.
Students on both campuses follow the Program, a great-books curriculum entirely deserving of its capital P. Students take four years of language (ancient Greek and French, and a close look at the nature of languages), four years of math, three years of lab science, one year of music, and four years of the queen mother of all courses, seminar—an intellectual journey with some of Western thought’s most interesting and influential authors as guides. It’s a cross-curriculum investigation of literature, political science, religion, philosophy, history, economics, and psychology.
The curriculum is based on original works of literature, art, music, language, math, and science. You learn geometry by reading Euclid. You learn astronomy from Copernicus. You learn about democracy from Tocqueville, Lincoln, and Hamilton.
That means there are no textbooks, except in the ancient Greek and French courses. Students love it: “You get to see the personalities of the people you’re reading,” says a junior from New Mexico. “You don’t get that from a textbook.”
St. John’s lacks other mainstays of typical college education: There are no midterms or finals; the only quizzes or tests happen in ancient Greek and French classes. Grades are based on class participation and papers, but the college doesn’t issue report cards and nobody talks about grades, which are recorded for graduate-school purposes only. (New College of Florida might be the only place on the planet that cares less about grades.)
There are no fraternities or sororities; all the Greeks on campus are ancient philosophers or epic poets. And there are no intercollegiate sports, but Johnnies can be fierce intramural competitors. If you enroll at the Annapolis campus, you’ll be powerless to resist the Gatsby-esque picnic that surrounds the annual croquet match against its neighbor, the Naval Academy.
What’s more, there are no faculty ranks. All professors are “tutors” because they do not profess; they stimulate learning. There is no need to publish, and they all teach everything. That is, a tutor with a PhD in philosophy might be teaching Euclid’s geometry one year and music theory the next. It’s as honest a community of learners as you’ll find.
At the end of each semester for a student’s first two years, she meets with her tutors for the “Don Rag”—a frank conversation about the student’s work. (The term comes from Oxford, where professors, called “dons,” would “rag”—or challenge—their students during oral exams.) It’s here that students learn whether they can continue in the Program. By junior year, the student prepares her own self-assessment for the Don Rag. “I never had anyone express an honest opinion about my work,” says tutor Guillermo Bleichmar, who earned his BA at Columbia and his PhD in comparative literature from Harvard. “I wish I had. You can’t imagine how powerful these conversations are for students. They change and improve and take up the challenges we offer to them.”
Intellectually demanding and intense, St. John’s is not selective; it is selected. It accepts almost 80 percent of its applicants, who demonstrate whether they belong there by writing as many as six to ten pages about themselves. Most come from the top quartile of their classes, and plenty have B averages in high school. “We’re looking for a few things: an understanding of the Program, evidence of a reading life, and an appreciation for this type of education,” says Santa Fe’s director of admission, Larry Clendenin. You don’t have to submit ACT or SAT scores, but you’d better be ready to explain why you want to study at St. John’s.
Your enthusiasm and understanding matter because there is no middle ground: It’s excitement or misery. The miserable leave; the excited flourish. “I love the generality of the program,” says a junior from Albuquerque. “It gives me time to discover what I enjoy without having to narrow it down before I know the possibilities.” Many students—particularly women—point out that they disliked math and science in high school, but St. John’s uncovered the mathematicians and scientists in them. Maybe that’s one reason St. John’s ranks among the top fifty American colleges in producing future PhDs in science and engineering, according to data from the National Science Foundation.
Students are almost fanatical about their learning. But in typical Johnnie fashion, they don’t spew superlatives; they give thoughtful analyses: “I knew if I came here, I could discuss the perennial political and human problems. That opportunity is not taken seriously other places,” says a freshman from Minneapolis. “I’m more confused than ever”—he laughs—“but I’ve never had this much fun or fulfillment from learning.”
“I’m better able to observe my own thoughts and know when I’m being honest,” adds a junior from Albuquerque. “My learning folds into everything I am. It’s not just academic; it’s how I approach everything in my life. I feel so capable.”
“I’ve learned to talk less,” says a junior from San Francisco. “I’m not interested in ‘winning’ a point. Here, it’s about getting to a place where you can learn something. For example, we discussed the phrase ‘We the people of the United States of America’ for an hour in our last seminar. Three years ago, you could have asked me, ‘What’s a country?’ and I would have looked at you like you were missing some brain cells. Now I realize how significant a question that is, and I have some ideas about a good answer. Maybe this is kind of melodramatic, but I really think that if more Americans had to think about these questions, we’d have less ideology, more compromise, and fewer problems in the country, probably in the world.”
The self-confidence that comes from this kind of learning is unmatched. No amount of parental cheerleading or straight-A report cards can persuade a student of her own powers like thinking and writing about history’s greatest ideas and the people who gave them life.
In a sophomore language class one late spring afternoon, students sit in “Johnnie chairs”—the custom-made, simple wooden chairs are everywhere on campus—and discuss Shakespeare’s The Tempest—or more specifically, the source of Prospero’s power on his tiny, barely populated island. Students discuss his roles as father, deposed politician, and slave owner with an earnestness Supreme Court justices would admire. Can they separate his sources of power from his true nature? If his sources of power are good, does that make him virtuous? And if they’re not, can they dismiss him as evil? It doesn’t take long for a student to get here: “I think we’re talking about the definition of evil in humanity.” And all of a sudden, they are pulling ideas from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. If discussion were an Olympic sport, these students would be gold medalists in training.
Then a most unusual thing happens: The tutor (who happens to have a PhD in comparative literature) says he’s curious about a particular passage in the text. A student responds by acknowledging that yes, that passage is interesting, but what she really wants to examine is this other passage. Another student picks up her comments—and the discussion rolls again.
It takes a gifted teacher to know how to guide a class—and when to let go—and St. John’s faculty is exceptionally good. “A classroom of fifteen people who are coming from fifteen different places constitutes a whole far more powerful than any one individual, including the teacher,” says tutor John Cornell, who earned his PhD at the University of Chicago and came to St. John’s because an exceptional teacher there had been a tutor at St. John’s. “Tutors orchestrate that music. The kind of discourse we see is missing in our country today.”
Tutors are a happy group. They’re enthusiastic about what St. John’s has done for them—namely, released them from the shackles of minutiae to enjoy the Big Picture, to connect their advanced learning with the context from which it’s often removed. Topi Heikkerö, who earned a PhD in social ethics from the University of Helsinki, was deeply entrenched in the philosophy of technology before he came to St. John’s. “All those years of studying, and I didn’t know about the classics of math and science,” he says. “I was missing so much, and I feel like every class, I have a reawakening.”
The college prepares tutors for the unusual task of teaching—and learning—outside of their primary disciplines with a variety of resources: weekly tutor study groups-cum-prep time; intensive summer workshops; Friday Night Lectures, open to the entire campus, when faculty lecture in their fields. New tutors move through the program chronologically—the same path students take—to give them the ultimate perspective. And best of all, St. John’s gives each tutor a sabbatical at full pay every eight years—a benefit that’s not always provided at institutions of higher learning. “It’s time to rest and recharge, to prepare for deepening work in the Program,” says Victoria Mora, the former dean of the college in Santa Fe. “Tutors take time to delve into a particular area that interests them most with the ultimate goal of learning more. It might be Maxwell’s equations or ancient Greek.”
Tutors are obviously fond of their students, who are quirky, witty, and earnest. You won’t find a college cafeteria anywhere where eavesdropping is more fun. Because we’ve all read the same texts, and because they’re a thoughtful group, the repartee is irresistible—even if the food isn’t.
If you long to be one of them, students advise, don’t let the school’s reading list dissuade you. It looks daunting, and the reading is significant, but motivation matters most. So what if you once thought Molière was a kind of mosquito-borne disease? “Nobody here judges. We expect a lot of each other because the best classes are the ones where everyone is prepared and amped up, but we’re protective of each other. There’s a lot of room to grow,” says a senior from Chicago.
St. John’s does a good job helping prospective students discern whether the Program is for them. When you schedule your visit, you’ll get the reading assignment in advance, but you may not participate in the discussion. It’s the perfect litmus test: if staying silent makes you crazy, St. John’s might be the place for you.
And to parents worried about the practicality of this kind of education, the college’s keepers—and its students—have a solid answer: There is no more practical education anywhere. “By focusing on fundamental things, young adults develop intellect, imagination, habits and practice, and communication skills in various ways. Those are the things necessary to be successful at anything else,” Dr. Mora says.
A student put it another way: Without knowledge, she said, “You are at the mercy of popular thought. What if popular thought is wrong?” Just a guess: The world economy shrivels up, natural resources grow scarce, and we recognize bronzed beachgoers from Jersey but can’t figure out who our local elected officials are.
This is why St. John’s is as valuable an education as any in the country. Sure, its outcomes are impressive: 80 percent of students go to graduate school, and it has produced six Rhodes Scholars—a rate that outpaces plenty of “big name” schools, such as Cornell University. Among its alumni are notable writers, researchers, and thought leaders, including Ray Cave, the former editorial director of Time; Lee Zlotoff, creator of MacGyver and a successful screenwriter and director, Andrew Krivak, nominated for a National Book Award; and Margaret Winter, head of prison projects for ACLU. But it’s also doing a great public good in producing the kind of college graduates who hold their communities accountable to ask and answer significant questions.
Alumni agree. A 2004 graduate writes, “In many ways, the school has helped me articulate the fundamentals of my own being. I’m not a different person than the student who stepped onto the campus four years ago, but I’m a much better version of who I’ve always been. I feel like I can go into the world and hold my own in any environment, something the eighteen-year-old from a small West Virginia town may not have been able to do as well as she thought… We’ve managed to identify ourselves in the huge and rich context of this culture we live in; how many colleges can claim that?”
And in perhaps the most literary explanation of what St. John’s does, alumnus and author Salvatore Scibona penned an article titled “Where I Learned to Read” about his alma mater for a June 2011 New Yorker. He wrote: “By senior year at St. John’s, we were reading Einstein in math, Darwin in lab, Baudelaire in French tutorial, Hegel in seminar. Seminar met twice a week for four years: eight o’clock to ten at night or later, all students addressed by surname. On weekends, I hung out with my friends. The surprise, the wild luck: I had friends. One sat in my room with a beer and 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, and if it hadn’t been such a gift to find my tribe.”
If his description stirs something in you, if you long for a salve from the pop-culture ballyhoo that distracts from clear thinking, you’ll likely find your tribe at St. John’s too.