The first thing one notices while strolling the beautiful grounds of St. John’s College is that there are no cell phones. At least, none are visible. Indeed, there are no tablets, no laptops, no electronics of any sort readily discernible. The absence of screens, faculty member Eva Brann proposes, precludes students from “dispersing themselves,” giving them time to “concentrate, to collect themselves, to recollect.” Indeed, students and faculty at this small, liberal-arts college are immersed in books and in conversation, and usually meaningful conversation at that. One hears talk of Plato and Plutarch, of Shakespeare and Schubert, of Kierkegaard and Kant. Amid the eighteenth-century style brick buildings and the gently rolling green slopes of the campus, tucked into the heart of downtown Annapolis, Maryland, one feels transported back to an earlier age of American learning, when books—the great books of Western Civilization, unadulterated, unfiltered, and unclouded by second-hand interpretation—mattered.
St. John’s College instituted its Great Books program in 1937, and though the list of books has varied from year to year, the commitment to reading the best of mankind’s thought has not. Though a select number of other colleges also offer a Great Books program, St. John’s—which opened a second campus in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1964—still stands out among its peers. As the college’s president, Christopher Nelson, told me, St. John’s remains unique among Great Books schools for several reasons: (1) The books are read without mediation, the faculty giving minimal background information about the works under discussion; (2) the faculty teach across the curriculum; there are no departments or specialties; (3) all books are approached with a view toward the fundamental question of life: What does it mean to be human? (4) there is no body of knowledge to be mastered, no right or wrong, no answers. At its heart, the college advocates, as Nelson puts its, “the art of acquiring worldly wisdom.”
In the age of educational utilitarianism, when the goal of education “experts” is to have colleges “prepare students for careers in a globally competitive environment,” St. John’s refuses to alter its approach. Nelson counters the charge that the school is producing only philosophers incapable of earning good incomes by reading off a list of the impressive careers onto which “Johnnies” (the term for St. John’s graduates) have successfully embarked: as diplomats, scientists, inventors, journalists, businessmen, attorneys. How is such career success possible for those whose training consists of exploring such seemingly impractical works as seventeenth-century French poet Jean de la Fontaine’s Fables? Nelson believes that by stoking the imagination of students, St. John’s program of liberal learning develops in Johnnies the very quality that is at the heart of entrepreneurship. In addition, students learn to converse with other human beings, to discuss ideas, to think their way through things. All these skills have “practical” uses in the “real world.” Peter Kalkavage, who has taught at the college since 1977, says that St. John’s students are prepared for careers, and for life, by learning how to converse with people and by “attaining intellectual strength in working through difficult subjects.”
Students who come to St. John’s, Mr. Nelson observes, already possess certain traits: They love reading; they are sick of lectures and tests; and they do not want their instructors to provide them with superficial answers to questions which they are expected to repeat back on exams. Mr. Nelson was once such a young person himself. His father was a Johnnie and passed onto his son a love of books. “But I did not appreciate what an extraordinary place this was until I came back as president.”
Standard grades are given at St. John’s, but they are not given out to students or parents as a matter of routine (parents and students must request to see grades). Johnnies, atypically in the modern world of standards and assessment, are not preoccupied with periodic letter grades but are more concerned as to how faculty view the quality of their intellects and of their ability to grapple with assigned texts. Students are not tested in the usual ways. There are no scheduled written exams, and though quizzes exist in certain classes, such as language and science, the primary method of evaluation is done on an ongoing basis as faculty observe the quality of student participation in discussion. The key formal part of this evaluation process is the “don rag,” a session in which the undergraduate students sit individually in a room while listening to the faculty discuss their performance in classes.
Classes are conducted as Socratic seminars, with usually some ten to twenty students sitting around a conference table. There are few limits on discussion, though students are precluded from anachronistically including in their remarks the writings and ideas of thinkers who lived after the author whose work is under consideration. Seminars are held at night, from 8:00-10:00pm. This has been the traditional time for seminars since the institution of the Great Books program. In addition to the claims of tradition, the late hour of seminars is justified by practical considerations. The young are most alert physically in the evenings, and the late hour mitigates the problem of a seminar’s running late and interfering with other classes. The ten o’clock ending time is merely a guideline; tutors are encouraged to allow the seminar to run until the conversation ceases naturally of its own accord.
Conspicuously absent from the seminar are notebooks. No student is taking notes at the seminar that I attend—certainly not on iPads or laptops—but not even in old-fashioned paper notebooks. Instead, they are listening, and nearly all are contributing to the discussion of Plato’s Phaedrus. The seminar is co-led by “tutors” Eva Brann and Karin Ekholm. Tutor is the the St. John’s term for faculty members, the root of the word indicating that the job of faculty is to watch and guide, not to preach. As Mr. Nelson puts it, the tutors are responsible to their students as much, or even more, than they are responsible to the college administration.
Ms. Brann, a senior contributor to The Imaginative Conservative, has taught at St. John’s for more than fifty-seven years. She began her professional career as an archaeologist but was frustrated by what she perceived as that profession’s hostility to the asking of philosophical questions. In examining pottery at a dig, for example, Ms. Brann wanted to ask not only how the craft of pottery had changed over time but why it had changed. Such questions were seen as bizarre and unprofessional by her archaeological peers. It was these very questions that she wished to consider. Ms. Brann thus found her way to St. John’s in 1957, and though she says the work is very hard, her teaching experience “has never been boring.” She enjoys the freedom from the scholarly pressures that exist at most typical institutions of higher learning. Unlike nearly every other college in the United States, for example, St. John’s does not require its faculty to publish. Tutors are able to write for the sheer joy of writing, though Ms. Brann jokes that if “you do too much writing people become suspicious.”
Ms. Ekholm is a Johnnie, having graduated from St. John’s in 2000. After teaching elementary school in Austin, Texas, and university at Cambridge University, she returned to Annapolis in January 2014 as a tutor. Comparing her experiences as a student and tutor, Ms. Ekholm muses, “we are all students; the tutors just have more experience in learning.” St. John’s, she admits, can be a formidable place, in that all are challenged to their intellectual limits in studying diverse texts and in attempting, say, to translate Greek for the class when that language is not one’s expertise. The attraction of St. John’s to Ms. Ekholm is that the program asks “timeless questions” within a true “intellectual community” in which students and tutors care about each other and each other’s ideas. Indeed, Ms. Ekholm believes that tutors earn the respect of students not by pretending to have all the answers—an idea anathema to the St. John’s premise—but by truly listening to their students. Ms. Ekholm marvels at how her colleague, Ms. Brann, will say to a student after he or she has made an observation on a text that Ms. Brann has read many times, “I have never thought of that.”
Mr. Kalkavage suggests that the tutor must avoid the “tendency to lecture, to move the conversation in a direction where you already are.” Mr. Kalkavage believes that this is more of a challenge for the veteran tutor, who usually knows the texts well. He agrees with Ms. Ekholm that the challenge for the tutor is simply to listen to the students: “We must give them room,” he says, “even to be wrong.” Mr. Kalkavage, who leads the school’s chorus, even tries to temper his enthusiasm for certain texts and pieces of music, lest his exuberance smother his students’ own process of discovery.
By interacting first-hand with the great minds of the past and then by following their own intellectual paths to their own conclusions about truth, Johnnies become essentially what Mr. Nelson calls “educational entrepreneurs.” Some might object that such an open-ended approach, in which students are not guided by underlying assumptions about God and man, right and wrong, truth and falsehood runs the danger of producing a graduating body of relativists. Ian Tuttle, a senior at the school, avers that one of the great benefits of the program is to “temper one’s thought, to temper one’s willingness to make immediate judgments. Saying that there are clear and distinct answers can be narrowing.” St. John’s, he admits, has produced in him a “fair skepticism.” Mr. Nelson, however, rejects the idea that St. John’s program is itself relativistic: “I don’t think there are any relativists. We don’t know the truth—but we know there is a truth.” At the same time it avoids coming to universal conclusions about what is good, true, and beautiful, the college remains “fundamentally conservative,” according to Mr. Tuttle because it is premised on the idea that “time has a discriminatory property.” Mr. Tuttle and the tutors I interviewed seem to agree that the great preservers of tradition at the college are in fact the students, who defend keeping the program and procedures as they have always been.
“Nowhere else,” Mr. Kalkavage concludes, “cultivates human excellence by allowing for so much human imperfection.” Mr. Nelson suggests that St. John’s best days lie ahead, as St. John’s program of true liberal learning becomes even more unique in a world ever more geared toward “practical education.” In the end, Mr. Kalkavage muses, St. John’s faculty and students are “refugees”: “from the filters of modern and post-modern interpretation, from being told what to think . . . in other words, from academia.”