“Such a high level of freedom and intellectual independence was liberating, but perhaps even more profound was the lack of a need to arrive at an absolute conclusion. It was at first strange to change topics in a discussion without a clear settlement on the last, but I soon found that this was all part of the process of learning at St. John's. I found this notion very interesting, and thinking back on it later, I came to realize that we really do not learn much from an answer; in fact, the way to that answer is far more important.”
The academic program for each Summer Academy session has been mimics St. John’s College’s prized educational methods. Depending on the week’s thematic emphasis, Summer Academy students may take laboratory, mathematics, language, and/or music classes. Because seminar exemplifies the college’s approach to learning, students engage in seminar classes every week of the Summer Academy.
Seminar is a serious and sustained discussion of a reading assignment undertaken by 16-21 students and two faculty members, known as tutors, all seated informally around a table. Seminar begins with an opening question inspired by the text that is asked by one of the instructors. Thereafter seminar consists mostly of student discussion; faculty members join in as a part of the group inquiry, but do not dominate the discussion.
Students do not raise their hands for permission to be heard, but enter the discussion or withdraw from it at will. The course of the discussion is not fixed in advance; it is determined rather by the necessity of “following the argument.” Spontaneous learning and discovery distinguish seminar from a typical learning environment; everyone collaborates to reach insights far beyond the initial views held by any of its members. The resulting informality is tempered by use of formal modes of address. Except for the requirements of common courtesy, there are only two rules that govern seminar: first, all opinions must be heard and explored, however sharply they may clash; and second, every opinion must be supported by argument. Because careful reading is essential, we have individual daily reading time to complete assignments.
In the mathematics and language tutorials, 9-12 students study and learn together under the direct guidance and instruction of a faculty member. As in the seminar, students talk freely with one another and with the tutor, but the discussion is more sharply focused on careful analysis. Whether through demonstrating a mathematical proposition or developing sensitivity to the language in a poem, Academy participants will engage in a close and careful reading that will lead to deeper insights and questions.
Music tutorials work in much the same way: led by a tutor, each class of 9-12 students analyzes works of musical literature and familiarizes themselves with music theory. The study of music at St. John’s is not directed toward performance, but toward an understanding of the phenomena of music. Group discussions of a work of music, as of a book, facilitate and enrich the understanding of it.
In laboratory, students come to understand the significance of science as a human enterprise through recreation of pivotal experiments in the history of science as well as exposition and discussion of scientific theory. In most cases, the basis for discussion and experimentation is a classic paper or other primary text.