by John Sledge
Imagine spending four years immersed in some of Western civilization’s greatest books. And imagine discussing these books around a small table each day with a handful of fellow-travelers. That is what students do at St. John’s College campuses in Annapolis, Md. and Santa Fe, N.M., untroubled by such shibboleths of higher education as textbooks, lectures, grades, majors and minors, computers or sororities and fraternities.
St. John’s College was founded in 1696 and is the third oldest college in the United States (after Harvard and William and Mary). It has no religious affiliation. Its most famous alumnus was Francis Scott Key. During the Depression the school foundered amidst growing competition and was unable to effectively market itself to a limited supply of students. In 1937, with encouragement from Mortimer Adler, the popular philosopher and cheerleader of the Western intellectual tradition, St. John’s decided to chart a bold and risky new course as a "Great Books" school. Though some observers were doubtful, Walter Lippman predicted in the New York Herald Tribune that the school would become the "seed bed of the American Renaissance."
St. John’s has held true to its course over the past 60 years, despite shifts in political, economic and intellectual currents. As school president Christopher Nelson said in a recent interview with the Washington Post, "In a rapidly changing world, the least valuable education is one that trains you in something that won’t be around tomorrow." Today, St. John’s College has around 400 students on each campus who share Nelson’s faith.
The school’s curriculum harkens back to that of the medieval university, which divided the seven liberal arts into the Trivium and Quadrivium. The St. John’s regimen includes Seminar (philosophy, theology, political science, literature, history, economics and psychology); Math (geometry, astronomy, algebra, calculus and relativity); Language (ancient Greek, French, English composition); Science (biology, chemistry, atomic theory and physics); and Music (theory and composition). In class, or tutorial as it is called, the students take as great a role in the discussion as the professors, who are called tutors. This is possible because St. John’s student/teacher ratio is 8-to-1, close to Plato’s ideal of 6-to-1. Over the four years of a St. John’s education, all students follow the same path reading and discussing the same books, a strategy which fosters on-going campus-wide discourse. By graduation, these students will have read such classic authors as Sophocles, Thucydides, Euripides, Aristotle, Plutarch, Milton, Locke, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Melville in the most impressive intellectual adventure to be found on the landscape of higher education.
The reading list is heavily weighted toward the "dead white males" so out of fashion these days. St. John’s is unapologetic about this, but does allow students to suggest additions to the list. The catch is that they have to also choose what to remove to make room for their suggestions. Over the school’s history, few students have voted for any cuts. As one female student said recently of alternative authors, "You have to look at whether their works are really enduring. I mean, I really enjoyed reading Flannery O’Connor this year, but compare her to Plato, forget it."
At nearly $30,000 a year for tuition, fees, books, and room and board, a St. John’s education isn’t cheap. What do such beautifully educated people do when they graduate? As it turns out, nearly three quarters of them go on to graduate school. Others take a variety of jobs common to most young college graduates, running the gamut from bartending to teaching to retail brokering. The booming economy of the late 1990s has lifted the fortunes of St. John’s graduates, just as it has those of other schools.
The St. John’s experience clearly isn’t for everyone. Yet in this day and age when too many colleges and universities are abandoning the bedrock texts and values of Western culture, the St. John’s approach is a breath of fresh air. Whatever the trends of the moment, there is wisdom in the classics that we disregard at our peril. St. John’s continued pursuit of its unfashionable and unusual curriculum demonstrates a profound appreciation of this fact.
For more information about St. John’s College, write to 1160 Camino Cruz Blanca, Santa Fe, NM 87501-4599 or call (505) 984-6104. The web address is www.sjcsf.edu.