Every plan of education is fraught with implicit philosophical principle. Since the program of St. John’s College is devoted to that peculiar kind of learning which of necessity includes a reflection on its own conditions, most members of the college accept the obligation of engaging in ever-recurrent discussion and review of the philosophical bases that underlie their activity.

I. Principles and Parts of the Program

Every plan of education, whether borne up by a passing trend or bound into a long tradition, is fraught with implicit philosophical principle. Since the program of St. John’s College is devoted to that peculiar kind of learning which of necessity includes a reflection on its own conditions, most members of the college accept the obligation—or yield to the fascination—of engaging in ever-recurrent discussion and review of the philosophical bases that underlie their activity. A part of the life of the college (some say too much, some too little) is devoted to such reflection. To mention this activity is a matter of minutes, while to reproduce even a sample of it would require not hours but, probably, years. Furthermore, precisely because it is a living inquiry, it is impossible for one member to state the results in behalf of the whole college. That would be tantamount to announcing that we had communally determined the answer to such questions as “What is learning?”, “What are the objects of learning?”, “What is human nature?”, and “What is truth?”

Such an announcement is, judging from good precedent, not in itself unthinkable, but it would be absurd in view of the central aim of the college, which is the pursuit of what I can only call radical inquiry. The college certainly has other and, it sometimes seems, conflicting aims. If the usual purposes of institutions of higher learning can be said to be: 1. training for scholarship or research; 2. pre-professional preparation, 3. broadening of views and sharpening of intellectual faculties and development of the sensibility, 4. initiation into the cultural tradition—then the college eschews the first almost completely, does the second fairly adequately, succeeds in the third but erratically (that is to say, about as well as other good schools), and accomplishes the last superbly, albeit according to its own lights. But, however well the college may do any of these things, it does them only incidentally to the central aim, which is to us the very purpose of liberal education.

By radical inquiry I mean the attempt to delve as deeply as possible into the roots of the world, to bring to light not only the nature of things but also the nature of thinking. When I say that it is the central aim of the college, I do not—God forbid—mean that every waking moment is devoted to first philosophy, but rather that philosophical questions are always in the background, are always welcomed, are always on the brink of being entertained, even when the subject at hand is highly technical or acutely esthetic.

Now precisely because such an inquiry is a search for truth and substance, it needs to be free, free in the sense of being conducted in a setting that imposes the fewest bars and the least presuppositions possible. The program of the college embodies an attempt to provide such a setting. If the actual life of the college is difficult to describe succinctly, its formal aspect, this very plan of learning, should be quite capable of coherent and concise presentation.

Now the program of the college consists of an almost totally prescribed course of studies. It sets not only the books to be read but the exact order in which they are to be studied and even the times, to the hour, when and the people with whom they are to be discussed. It requires its students to forego all notions of being born a humanistic or a scientific type, makes the silent speak and the speech-makers be quiet, imposes dozens of earnest formalities, requires teachers to teach what they do not know well to students who did not particularly choose to be taught by them, and requires relentless activity in the name of true leisure. And all these constraints are imposed, I must now try to show, in the interests of intellectual freedom.

It is not, of course, academic freedom in the usual understanding, that is, the students’ right to study what they please and the professors’ right to say what they think. In the St. John’s community, the latter is not so much a right as a duty, though a duty mitigated by a pedagogic tact. The former freedom is, except for small choices, confined to the initial decision to come to the college, though that decision is never permitted to be made sight unseen. Electives, which the program excludes, are the most characteristic feature of modern university organization, introduced into this country significantly by Thomas Jefferson. They were devised, on the one hand, to take account of the individual talents (and what often weighs more, the supposed inabilities) of the students, and on the other, to make up for the loss of consensus concerning a universally enforceable educational plan. The St. John’s program, on the contrary, is based on the assumption that certain fundamental studies are still universally accessible, reliably exciting and formulable as a plan to which a whole faculty can commit itself. I shall try below to set out our approach to the intellectual world, an approach that still accords it enough integrity so as to engender in a faculty the confidence to derive a plan of studies from it.

The enabling freedom which is essential to our sort of inquiry depends on a program explicitly embodying strong but minimal notions—strong enough to help and sparing enough not to hinder inquiry.

We have agreed on two approaches as meeting these demands. They stem from an old tradition. But it is not because they are old that we adopt them; on the contrary, they are, presumably, long-lived because they contain much pedagogical wisdom. These approaches have the medieval designation of Authors and Arts.


The wisdom of the West is handed down in a collection of books by individual authors, books of words, symbols, notes and images, books of philosophy, science and poetry, books of intellect, reason and imagination. I believe that the existence of such a written tradition is an accepted fact among all educated people. The issuing of definitive lists of these books has been a favorite activity of pedagogues since the Renaissance, and the zestful debates concerning the inclusion or exclusion of items have usually confirmed a perennial core. We tinker with our list—which we find in the main satisfactory—for various reasons. The main cause is that far more books by right belong on it than can be read in four years. (We now have an informal rule obligating anyone who wishes to add a book to the list to point out—at his peril—the one to be dropped to make room for it.) Again, certain texts turn out to be unsuccessful in discussion. Also, the splintering of the tradition in recent times makes the modern choices much less settled. So, while we invariably begin with the Homeric epics, our final readings vary. When I last taught seniors about to go forth into the so-called world, we ended most appropriately with that perfect conflation of thought and action embodied in Supreme Court decisions.

These books form a coherent tradition because their common mode is response, repudiation, revival. Each book is explicitly or implicitly a commentary on, or a critique of, preceding books. Much as we regret having affixed to ourselves the fatuous formula of a “great books” college (and exactly 100 of them, forsooth!), the irrefutable experience seems to be that these books are great, that they are inexhaustible in their depth and definiteness, in their responsiveness and self-sufficiency. It is, after all, by these criteria that the educated consensus has chosen them and guarded their survival.

What makes the study of these books relevant to practical inquiry is that they are all occupied with versions of the same root questions. Arguments have been made in this century claiming that these questions are radical misdirections of human effort, and that the tradition is in need of a respectful but merciless dismantling, but such critiques are, and mean to be, themselves within the tradition. In short, these books are helpful only on the simple working assumption that human questions are so continuously transformed as to remain fundamentally the same now, then, and for all time. If that is false, the study of these books—and indeed any book not written here and now—is a mere antiquarian amusement. I should add an observation essential to the enterprise: The acknowledgement that there are perennial questions is the very antithesis of the claim that such questions have no answer—a presumptuous supposition which implies that one has seen deeply enough into the well of things to know that it has no bottom.

One chief characteristic of these works is that they are original in both senses of the term: very much the author’s own product and very much at the beginning and origin of an intellectual development. Such texts differ from text books by communicating the order and the difficulties of discovery rather than delivering prepared packets of knowledge. Hence, precisely by reason of their originality, they imply a certain arrangement of studies, or better, they obviate the principal organizational features of modern university studies, which is the department corresponding to a field of study.

The department is the expression of a thoroughgoing intellectual prejudgment, namely the Baconian division of the intellectual world into parcels of ground, fields, areas, within which can occur that concentrated cultivation, that intensive specialization, and that well-defined research, which make possible the advancement of learning and the accumulation of intellectual products. Without attempting here to sketch out the intellectual revolution which made such a division of labor possible and profitable, let me simply say that this college, as an undergraduate teaching institution, is willing to forego all its advances for the sake of radical reflection. For us, students “make an original contribution” when they go, for themselves, to the origin of things. We want them not so much to think something new, as to think anew, not so much to discover truths for the world as for themselves.

These books, then, in their originality, precede the fixing of the divisions of studies. In the language of hindsight, in them philosophy is not yet one of many equal specialties, poetry is still a source of wisdom, physics and theology are still continuous. Hence the reading of authors involves fewer assumptions than the study of fields and permits the more natural pursuit of those questions otherwise so frustratingly formulated as “interdisciplinary?’

The order in which the books are read is by and large chronological. This observation of the given order again embodies a minimum of prejudgment. In addition it makes obvious sense for the student to have read what the author has read. As Hegel knew his Aristotle or Milton his Homer or Stravinsky his Bach, so, perhaps, ought the student. In certain, though by no means all, cases it is even indispensable to be so prepared.

Contrary to appearance, this temporal order is not intended to have anything to do with the “history of ideas”. We have no interest at all in having students learn how different notions have succeeded each other. Indeed, in distinction from every school I know of, we have no interest in the past whatsoever (though a good many of us are privately avid readers of history). The fact that some of these books are written by authors who happen to be physically dead is perfectly peripheral. For insofar as the books really do form a tradition, their matter has entered into the present. It has done so in at least two ways, which correspond to the two old senses of the word tradition: It signifies a process of handing down but also of traducing—of preservation, but also of subversion. Hence the matter of the older books is always there, either as an absorbed and digested element of the development or as the forgotten cause and motive of an antithetical formulation.

The attitude toward the books which the college tries to foster is one of respectful attention combined with vigorous independence. We demand such respect even for the small number of lesser or even shoddy books which we include not on their own account but for the influence they have had. This respectful listening and critical responsiveness are meant to be carried over into the communal exercise which seems to us most appropriate to the study of tradition.

We call this institutional device the seminar and regard it as the central class of the college. It is a discussion group of no more than twenty students, which meets twice a week throughout the four years of the program on a set text. It is emphatically not intended as a rap session or an encounter group, or as some exercise in group dynamics. In fact, there is no manipulation and no method which properly belong to the seminar; on the contrary, the rule is the great Heraclitan saying, “Listen not to me but to my speech.” There is, however, a certain structure. There are two seminar leaders who alternate in asking an opening question. The object of having two is to prevent the unopposed profession of authoritative opinion and to encourage students to address each other rather than the teacher. Every member of the seminar is expected to contribute to the discussion and to do so responsibly, responsively, and civilly—all members use a formal mode of address. The seminar may work at explicating the text or attempt to determine the truth. These two and a half hours can be vapid and they can be vigorous, silly or sublime, rambling, sequential, hilarious, serious. In accordance with the ancient discovery that speculative loquacity flourishes after dark, the seminars are held at night.

Juniors and seniors are given a ten-week break in the middle of the year to join the only elective class of the college, the preceptorial. It is a small study group on a book or a theme, offered by a tutor and chosen by the student.


Our second approach to reflective inquiry is through the liberal arts. The liberal arts are traditionally, and, I think, rationally, divided into the arts concerning speech and the arts concerning learnable objects, that is, the medieval trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and the quadrivium (four grades of mathematics and natural science).

The arts of language and of mathematics are root skills. By adapting the way of these arts, the college hopes to overcome the vexed question concerning what fields of study the institution should offer and which of these a student should be allowed to avoid. As I understand this question, it has, from the pedagogical point of view, two aspects. First, a modern university offers numerous wonderfully ingenious and equipotent studies among which young students have scarcely any way of choosing but by mere and un-matured preference. It also harbors certain dubious offerings, advertised in the language of piffie-land, which the same student has hardly any way of exposing but by bitter and expensive experience. Hence the choice of goods and the avoidance of trash pose an equally baffling problem to young learners, one whose acuteness increases with their obliviousness of its existence. Second, the serious studies usually require of those committed to them steeply increasing sophistication and specialization, and it is not clear that such learning is, in the language of educational psychology, transferable; indeed it often seems that a high degree of early specialization depresses rather than raises both the students’ willingness and ability to bring learning to bear widely.

The arts, on the other hand, are eminently transferable, for although they are always wedded to a definite matter—the grammar is, say, French grammar and the mathematics is, say, projective geometry—the skill and the matter together can be continuously elaborated and adapted to any use. What is more, they are eminently defensible as required subjects for their own sake, for they are by nature elementary, and that means that, aside from the boom of their general accessibility, they display an inviting combination of simplicity and depth. At least our students seem to be won by some such quality when they get absorbed, for instance, in the mysteries of the copula “is” and why a certain type of Greek sentence does without it, or again, when they recover the mental leap which leads from the naive to the formal meaning of the mathematical limit notion.

Once more the use of the arts in the program serves to avoid prejudgments. For these arts are antecedent, both in time and in thought, to the debilitating split between the humanities and the sciences which dominates modern schools. The skills of the trivium and the quadrivium involve continuous and complementary human abilities: It is not only that the art of mathematics can be most humane and the art of language ought to be very precise, but that the elements of both are rooted in one and the same human power, the power of thought. Furthermore, the arts help us avoid the necessity for those “methods of analysis” courses with which schools attempt to reintroduce some sort on generality into their studies. We want to circumvent them because each such method embodies an enormous amount of intellectual preparation which students are scarcely sophisticated enough to discern. For example, the tremendous intellectual predeterminations involved in the application of quantitative methods to the social sciences can hardly become perspicuous to students unless they have thoroughly reflected on the nature of quantity and the process of quantification itself—one of the very intentions of our mathematical program which can, however, hardly be achieved without some detailed but reflective study of pure mathematics.

In accordance with the twofold way of the arts, the program provides for two kinds of day classes called tutorials: a language tutorial and a mathematics tutorial. These are recitation classes, most of which meet four times a week, and they are devoted to various exercises, above all to translation and demonstration.

The language tutorial uses translation as the chief learning device. The languages studied and used are Greek and French. An ancient language is useful to us precisely because it is “dead;’ that is to day, completely fixed and literary. Greek in particular is chosen first, because it is, in illuminating contrast to English, a highly inflected language; next, because of its intimate relation to our seminar readings; again, because of its literary riches; and finally, because most of the faculty has quite shamelessly fallen in love with it. The choice of French is more arbitrary. German or Russian might do as well, although it is argued that French poetry, in its artfulness, best lends itself to rhetorical analysis. The work of the language tutorial almost always begins with some sort of translation exercise.

The object of the tutorial is above all to reflect on the relation of language to thought, of the languages to each other, of correctness to persuasiveness, of logic to grammar, of form to meaning. It is secondly to support the seminar by a slower and more detailed reading of some of the central passages of seminar books, and last (though, by our own intention, least) it is to learn the language in question, for without some concrete medium the discussion would be mere hot air. Hence the tutorial always, and sometimes rather inefficiently, shifts back and forth between the necessary rote learning and the desired reflection, the more so since language, unlike mathematics, cannot be learned by advancing in a linear sequence from agreed beginning to desired conclusions; it has no clear given “elements”.

The mathematics tutorial is apparently the pedagogically most successful part of the program, and, many of us think, the most gratifying to teach.

First of all, it ought to be said that in the tutorials the injunction against the use of textbooks is of necessity somewhat relaxed. As it happens, the most appropriate beginning mathematics textbook is also a work of originality and subtlety: Euclid’s Elements. All freshmen begin their mathematical studies with a consideration of its first definition: “A point is that which has no part;’ and they end up, four years later, with the four-dimensional geometry of Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

On the way, they study mostly original texts. It may seem surprising that in so unquestionably progressive a study as mathematics and mathematical physics (the tutorial includes both, especially astronomy) the original sources are good teaching tools. But suppose one thinks of it in this way: Einstein, in the famous 1905 paper which sets out special relativity, explicitly presupposes a knowledge of Maxwell’s work. Maxwell cannot be understood without Newton, who, in his own phrase, “stands on the shoulders” of Kepler and Galileo. Galileo advocates Copernicus’ system. Copernicus   revolutionizes the Ptolemaic cosmos. Ptolemy’s theories cite Appolonius’ Conics and Apollonius is inaccessible without the Elements of Euclid. These are, in reverse order, some of the very texts used in the tutorial. Seen in this light the so-called “genetic” approach makes immediate sense.

And yet, regarded as textbooks, these works are often cumbersome and complicated. They are frequently not conducive to efficient learning and technical proficiency. But then, it is not our object to train productive or problem-solving mathematicians, though we acknowledge and want all the benefits usually attributed to mathematical studies: precision of thought, logically valid reasoning, the power of demonstration, and an appreciation of intellectual elegance. Once again, however, the chief aim is reflection on the nature of mathematics and the possibility of its application to nature. And for that the original texts are almost indispensible, providing only they are not approached in the spirit of the history of science, that is, as repositories of past and surpassed forms of thought. Instead, we look to them as setting out both enduring intellectual acquisitions and accounts of the revolution of intention and understanding which accompany their continual displacement and absorption—rarely refutation—by subsequent discoveries. In particular, we follow with fascinated care the development of mathematical structures from those humanly immediate objects of the natural intellect which engage the ancients to the sophisticated high-level abstractions of the constructive reason which preoccupy the moderns. This implied view—that the ancients and the moderns are at once separated and connected by a deep intellectual rupture whose thorough apprehension is crucial to the understanding of modernity—is perhaps the one substantial interpretative dogma built into the program.

For three years a full fourth of the students’ time goes into the laboratory. It is a most problematic, and yet an absolutely essential, part of the program. While the tutorial and the seminar take off from written texts, the laboratory is concerned with what its early modern proponents, eager to assimilate the direct study of nature to respectable learning, called the book of nature. But at the same time they also spoke of putting nature to the test of torture to extract her secrets. Contained in this figure of speech is the necessity for a laboratory, literally a workshop, in which strange tools are used—instruments not of production but of contemplation, instruments of observation and measurement. Close and careful study of the appearances was certainly practiced among the ancients, but the elaborately prepared and controlled kind of experience which marks the central device of the laboratory, namely the experiment, is peculiar to the moderns. That is why this class is a separate and problematic exercise in a program devoted to interpretive reading.

Pedagogically, too, the laboratory has its special difficulties. The first function of the experiments is the determination of new truths of nature. In asking students to repeat experiments, albeit crucial ones, we run the danger of mounting a deliberately rickety reenactment with unrevealing results, or of getting slick reconfirmation of predetermined laws. Add to this the necessity, in more sophisticated experiments, of using the notorious ‘lack box;’ the instrument whose insides are a dark mystery to the user, and it will be obvious how hard it can be to engender and maintain thoughtful excitement in this class.

Our aims are clear enough. We want to reflect on that enormously powerful activity called science which has arrogated to itself the name of knowledge simply; to think about the changes in meaning that the word “phenomenon” has undergone, from the ancient injunction to astronomy to “save the appearances” to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle; to consider the term “hypothesis’ for example, to understand what Newton means when he announces: “I make no hypotheses”; to understand how nature must be transformed to undergo mathematization; to think about time as the beat of the soul and the reading of a clock; to study force considered as acting at a distance and as a field; to understand energy in its continuities and discontinuities; to ask what life is; and so on and on. I might add that the problem of “scientific method;’ much beloved of philosophers of science, seems, somehow to fade away before the brilliance of original natural inquiry.

The actual laboratory sequence remains somewhat fluid even after thirty years of practice, mostly on account of the embarrassment of riches from which to choose. At present it begins in the freshman year with the observation and classification of living things and the atomic constitution of matter, that is, roughly, biology and chemistry. These subjects are taken up again in the senior year and pursued beyond the threshold of ordinary observation as molecular biology and quantum mechanics. In between there is a year of classical physics. Wherever possible the preparatory readings are original papers, from Aristotle to Monad, from Galileo to Schroedinger. In the sophomore year a music tutorial replaces the laboratory. Music is traditionally the copingstone of the liberal arts, the juncture of the theoretic with the fine arts and even with theology. Here mathematics becomes qualitative in the ratios which govern consonances; here grammar becomes passionate in the tone relations which constitute a musical rhetoric.

The music tutorial is generally regarded as the most difficult class to teach, because, our fond dogma to the contrary, previous preparation and talent are necessary to the tutor and make disturbing distinctions among the students. We do require all freshmen to sing together in the chorus and to learn some musical notation, but that is not quite adequate.

The music class begins with the elements of music. The theory of proportions, which has been studied in the mathematics tutorial, is applied to the construction of the Western, diatonic scale, and rhythm, melody and harmony are taken up. Then musical texts are subjected to detailed analytic listening, partly in preparation for the seminar, which includes a number of musical works. One example is Bach’s Matthew Passion. The seminar might respond to the fact that Bach was a learned theologian by asking how the arias of the musical passion comment on the Gospel text—an inquiry for which the music tutorial has provided the preparation.

Finally, all members of the college are expected to attend one formal weekly lecture on any subject, which is given by a visitor or a tutor, and is followed by a (sometimes interminable) question period in which the mood ranges from puppy-dog aggression to deep cooperative probing. This exercise in listening and responding to connected discourse is quite important, especially for students who are so much called on to engage in conversation.

It goes without saying that we have various special devices for examining students beyond their daily performance and for reporting to them our opinion of their work. The most important formal test is the senior essay, which is intended to be a work of reflection rather than research; these essays vary in quality from dispiriting to exhilarating.

One last observation on the program as a whole: Because of the many factors that have to be juggled, the integration of the parts is in stretches so loose as to be hardly discernible. Happily there are other occasions when it is satisfyingly patent, when the tutorials, laboratory and seminar immediately and essentially bear on each other. The details of the schedule of studies and their relations are set out in the catalogue of the college, a frequently revised document to whose authority we attach great importance.

The Community of Learning

It remains to say something of the community of learning in which this program is realized, that is, the students, the faculty and, briefly, the administration.

First, our students. We have always maintained that the program is intended for students of widely varying intellectual capacities, and that there is no distinctive St. John’s student. Since our progress is stepwise and patient and almost all the work is elementary, there should be few parts that are technically beyond anyone’s range. Indeed, a slow and naive student may contribute more searching questions than a quick and sophisticated one. We find that, except for occasional sad cases, self-selection is the best guarantee of aptitude; the desire to learn outweighs the question of talent. Our students, consequently should and do come from everywhere—as they end up doing practically anything. As it turns out, they do, in fact, perform so very well on the standard national tests (in which we, nonetheless, place little faith) as to make the college appear far more selective than we intend it to be. There is, moreover, good corroboration that the program is indeed universally accessible. It comes from our Graduate Institute in Liberal Education, a summer- version of the program intended in the main for school teachers. Our graduate students, who teach in large part in inner-city schools, whose academic training is usually neither very recent nor, often, very good, and who are preoccupied with urgent practical problems, take to the program with great gusto and gratifying success.

The faculty, on the other hand, has undeniably over the course of time grown into a certain distinctiveness, which is largely the consequence of the one circumstance we have most difficulty in explaining to the academic world. Just as we expect the students to study the whole program, so we expect ourselves to teach it. Naturally, not everyone has done every part of the program, but it is an aim to be attained, though over decades. It means constant new learning, sitting in on each other’s classes, phoning for help. It sometimes means being only hours ahead of the students. But I think, on the whole, it makes us better teachers, closer to the students’ difficulties and more apt to find the most revealing way out. What characterizes the faculty is, therefore, a certain proud shamelessness about admitting ignorance and engaging in public learning. One way to describe this group might be to say that it is recalcitrantly unacademic: No departmental politics—we form, if you like, one large department. No imperial references to “my field” or “my century” or “my material”—we have a common subject, the program. No pride of competence or rank—our single rank and title is tutor, that is to say, “guardian” of learning. In spite of royal battles over matters of principles and gently simmering personal animosities, the faculty engages in continuous common study and conversation. When I say “faculty” I include our administrators. Our deans are, according to the college policy, chosen from among the tutors, and the other administrators, including the president, have always (as much as they could) joined in the learning and the teaching—a circumstance of incalculable value to the college. I think that most of us would say that this happy collegiality is simply a reflection of the integrity of the program.

This then is a sketch of the plan and the people that constitute St. John’s College. Now might be the moment to ask why a community should feel entitled to devote itself to the kind of inquiry I have described. I think our communal answer—briefly formulable but not briefly defensible—might be that such activity is both the mark and the source of human excellence. And if we are told that that is all very well, but that there are more urgent and immediate tasks for a college, solid, realistic, practical aims, and if we are asked how we can, in good conscience, set them aside, we might answer with some counter-questions: Have any of those myriad accommodations to the times into which schools have been driven made education one whit more immediate to life? Have the educators’ urgencies in any way made the student a better judge of the right action? Is realism in education practical? Does it work? Ever?

II. Problems and Questions Concerning the Program

Of course, rhetorical questions do not adequately dispose of the many difficulties raised about the college by friendly and not-so-friendly observers, and most intensively, by the faculty and the students themselves. Let me briefly list what seem to me the chief topics of debate, and indicate some first answers.

The Place of the Program in American Studies

We are often asked, and have to ask ourselves, why St. John’s College has not been more widely imitated, and of what use, beyond its own minuscule enterprise, it can be to American education if it is indeed inimitable. There have, in fact, been a number of programs modeled on ours, but by and large, the departmental organization of American schools is simply too rigid to accommodate the radical modifications demanded by this program, while the propitious conjunction of factors necessary to a new founding is very rare. I think we should not yield to the implication that institutions that are good in themselves are not doing their social duty unless they are also exerting wide influence around them. Nonetheless, the college does have a wider role to play in American education, namely, as one distinctive point of reference: a self-confident but receptive center of debate, an established repository of experience and a willing source of well-tested working devices for the restoration of the liberal arts.

The imputation of elitism is sometimes made in this context, but we must simply reject it. The program is intended for all literate human beings and most particularly for citizens of a republic—our style of learning is eminently participatory, and questions of political philosophy play a large role in the program. If smallness and intimacy is a sin, one might as well accuse the family of elitism. As for the expense of such an education, if the true costs of public, large-scale, higher education were ever honestly reckoned, this college, which has, as it were, only one single large department and no need for fancy hardware, might look good.

Finally there is the problem of vocationalism, of preparation for careers. Is this kind of education nothing but a respectable luxury on the educational scene? In fact, way over half our students go on to graduate and professional schools and they enter every conceivable profession, especially law and medicine. By their own report, after an initial disorientation, apparently comparable to that of Adam and Eve after their ejection from paradise, they find their years at the college both professionally and personally helpful to life in the world—though “helpful” is too bland a word for the effects of the program. It would be more candid to report that some students say they feel crippled by the habit of reflection they have acquired, while others—far more—claim that the world belongs to them as, they think, it does not quite belong to their peers.

The Omission of Certain Studies

One of the apparently inevitable questions at the orientation session which the Instruction Committee, the faculty group charged with the supervision of the program, has with the incoming freshmen is: Why do we study no Eastern books? The answer is threefold. First, four years barely suffice even to begin with our own Western tradition. Nothing worth doing could possibly happen in the time we might squeeze out. Second, it is by no means clear that the Eastern books can be fitted into a Western, academic, institutional framework without making a travesty of them—that they do not demand to be approached within their own living discipline. Third, we have reason to distrust available translations, because by an undiscriminating use of metaphysical terminology they seem so often to turn Eastern wisdom into a pale and unoriginal reflection of Western philosophy. In the case of Western texts we are alert to the fact that translations will tend toward the higher gibberish and we have the communal competence to counteract this difficulty—not so with Eastern works. We have similar hesitations about Islamic texts. It is not from disrespect but from the exact opposite motive that we omit these traditions.

The fact is that we have the greatest misgivings about the very notion of “encountering other cultures;’ especially as an undergraduate enterprise. Our deeper difficulty is with the concept of culture itself, which can, notoriously, include anything from menus to metaphysics. The more immediate pedagogical problem, however, concerns the idea of “encounter” or “exposure.” Surely it is not safe to encounter strange ways when one is not yet solidly grounded in one’s own, nor is it sound to approach alien traditions when one cannot afford to pursue them in depth and detail.

The other major omission of the program which is often questioned is that of history. Even observers who accept the fact that we do not study any of a number of other worthwhile fields wonder how we can read the texts without a “historical background.” Our answer, far too abruptly stated, would be, first, that such capsule history conveys very little except a prejudgment, and second, more importantly, that the works are intended by their authors to be directly accessible and self-sufficient, and that this claim must be, at least to begin with, respected.

Study Modes of the Program

Our students seem to have little difficulty in accepting an all-required program which they have, after all, chosen, which has a fairly explicit rationale, and which has the adherence of their teachers. Indeed, they turn out to be the most orthodox defenders of the program against the inroads of elective elements. What they do complain about is the lack of choice in tutors, since they are assigned to classes and discouraged from asking for transfers. It is a necessary hypothesis of the college community that all tutors are about equal in their ability to guide classes which do not, supposedly, depend so much on the teacher as on the text and the students. Of course, the hypothesis is not quite true; our classes depend a great deal on teachers, and also all the tutors are not equally competent and exciting; a few are not even very good teachers. This is one of the perennial problems of a college whose faculty thinks of itself as primarily a teaching faculty. The best that can be said is that we do agonize over the situation.

On our part, we worry about the amount of spoon feeding and handholding our students absorb and wonder whether it strengthens them or unfits them for making choices and working independently. We are never quite sure what we ought to do in this respect.

Our students, again, tend to suspect us—sometimes with irritation and sometimes with a kind of intellectual frisson—of propagating some esoteric dogma through the classes. Nothing can resolve these suspicions except constant readiness on the part of the faculty to make explicit and to discuss the assumptions behind our studies.

An academic critic might question the complete absence of scholarship and research. Truth to tell, the students do not miss them, and they do get the benefit of their teacher’s fuller attention. Perhaps there is some loss in the absence of ongoing intellectual productivity (though many of us do write quite a bit), but we comfort ourselves with the thought that there is something very timely indeed about our ambition to recollect and revivify our intellectual inheritance and our reluctance to join in the further accumulation of largely unabsorbed rational artifacts.

Finally, the scantiness of our contemporary readings is often criticized. I think that, like everybody else, we are simply embarrassed by the fragmented enormity of the material. We would excuse ourselves from fully resolving this difficulty by pointing out that the appreciation and critique of modernity, which is indeed one of our central preoccupations, is best initiated with the aid of earlier, more fundamental texts.

Institutional Difficulties

Pressure is the chief difficulty in realizing the program institutionally: the pressure of doing difficult daily preparation, the frustration of racing through extensive seminar assignments, the weariness of continuous involvement in that contradiction of terms, the scheduled conversation. We used to call the week between semesters “Dead Week”. Tutors and students alike felt like zombies.

By way of relief we have been slowly cutting down the program, shortening the readings and giving ourselves some long weekends. But oddly enough, the final fact of the matter seems to be that, endless complaints notwithstanding, people like it this way.

The one aspect of this problem that observers most often notice is the relentless, strenuous intellectuality of the college. Again there is some relief in the art studio, the drama groups and in amateur music. Also students have the choice of being at the Western campus, which is said to be somewhat more relaxed. But the condition itself is not curable, since it is the consequence of a program that has no intention of educating “the whole person” (an enterprise which is part impertinence, part impossibility), but addresses itself mainly to what is self-aware, rational and communicable, in sum, to what is traditionally called free in human beings. The faculty’s contribution must be a great effort to ensure that it is not a dry and brittle but a passionate and absorbing intellectuality that dominates the community.

“Real Life”

Our students persistently bring to us a perplexity which we share, though more occasionally and less acutely. Who is there who spends his life with objects of thought and does not sometimes feel a panic of fright that reality is not being reached, that life is going on, but elsewhere? Young students are especially vulnerable to such suspicions, because they are the most afflicted with idealism, a propensity for pitching ideas too high for action and too shallow for truth. But the sporadic fear that thought and life are forever disjoined—which has nothing to do with such mundane worries as being prepared to make a living—is an endemic anxiety of any serious community of learning and particularly of St. John’s College.

Now the ultimate relation of thought to things and theory to action is precisely one of those perennial questions of the inquiring tradition with which we are incessantly preoccupied. Hence all we the faculty can immediately do is to urge melancholic students to engage in lots of sports (we have a lively and inclusive intramural program) and to refrain as much as possible from being mere intellectuals—I mean, people who stake out arid claims in a ghostly, self-sufficient environment of abstractions. Probably the best we can do is ourselves to show fairly unfailing trust, not to say faith, that thinking can reach the world and that learning is indeed possible.

This essay was originally published here in August 2014, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It was written for the Rockefeller Foundation Conference “Toward the Restoration of the Liberal Arts Curriculum” September 28, 1978 and originally appeared in The St. John’s Review (Volume 35, No. 3, 1984). It is republished here with permission. 

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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Kindred Spirits” (1849) by Asher Durand, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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