Opposition to greatness comes from the kind of irrational irritation that made the Athenians ostracize Aristides because they were tired of hearing him called “the Just,” or from egalitarian resentment, or from fear of the demands things of quality make on us…
I want to steal four minutes of my talking time to speak of the role that the Santa Fe campus has played in my life. I remember vividly the atmosphere around its founding in the years before 1964, but only confusedly the arguments pro and con—though among the latter one worry was predominant: Were we overextending ourselves? It was a reasonable worry because of our president’s plan, reported on p. 6 of his book The Colonization of a College (1985). Here is what Dick Weigle said:
I elaborated a quixotic plan for six St. John’s Colleges strategically located throughout the United States.
It was a vision in equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. When I used to bowl across the continent in my little blue bug to assume my teaching duties in the early Graduate Institute at Santa Fe, I would sometimes take the northern, sometimes the southern route and imagine three colleges of a Johnnie empire strung across the top, three across the bottom of these United States, or even six lined up diagonally along the legendary Route 66. Yet the question was, were six St. John’s four or five too many for this world?
Doubt about the feasibility of many colleges turned into delight with the actuality of one, as the colony turned into a sister-college. —Siamese sisters as it seemed to me, two bodies with one soul, separate existences with one essence, separable only on pain of death for one or the other.
As time went on, the myth making that arises in real communities proceeded. Annapolis, locked in by its east-coast creeks, was over-intense and hyper-intellectual, Santa Fe, expansive under southwestern skies, was laid-back and loose-minded, in touch with Native American wisdom, while Annapolis was dominated by a bunch of stuffy Teutons. I was one of them, a latecomer. —Quite a few of these central Europeans had in fact found a refugee’s welcome in Maryland. It was the kind of spirited nonsense by which incipient communities develop what’s called their identities. The wonderful truth was that the Program had traveled so well, had shown itself so safely beyond a time or a place, that the conversation was just the same in the wide Southwest as in the constricted mid-Atlantic—not a boring same but an exhilarating same, like Cleopatra, of whom it is said that
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety (Anthony and Cleopatra II ii, 240).
Meanwhile I had my private mythology, since every place that has some atmosphere resonates with cognate visions. From my balcony on the lower campus I could see the then more magically defined Cerillos in the distance and, close up, the Territorial architecture of the campus. To my Aegean imagination, in its light columns and bright courtyards, it bore a resemblance to King Minos’s palace in Cretan Knossos, which harbored the thrilling mystery of the Labyrinth and its Minotaur. That’s how your campus felt to a visitor from summer-soggy Annapolis.
So now from autobiography to my real matter: immediacy. Sometimes I think that this quality, which I’m about to delineate, is our deepest, most defining characteristic. I imagine that we could remain ourselves although we lost in turn every element of our program of learning, if only we saved that mode of being. But then again, it seems to me that this directness of ours is best, perhaps even exclusively, served by the pedagogic practices and the programmatic materials we do, in fact, employ. So I’m in this respect in my most frequent state—that of thinking out of both sides of my mind, so to speak (not of my brain, I hasten to say, because that’s an improbable activity). This is how I frame the question for myself: What is our central good, and are there alternative ways of achieving it? The second part of the question is open in theory, though in practice, who would want to jettison so wellworking a way of teaching and so coherent a plan of learning?
As for the first part —what is our central virtue? —I think the history of the St. John’s Program gives a clue. Like any maturing community, we have accumulated, and are bound by, masses of customs, practices, rules. But we’re very unlike most institutions in having divested ourselves of more and more intellectual inhibitions as we went. You might say we have become more radical as we aged—not in the sense of “more incendiary” but of “closer to the roots,” in my terms, more immediate.
Here’s an example. In the first, the 1937-1938 Bulletin of the Program, written by its intellectual founder, Scott Buchanan, the Great Books list was, as is academic convention, ranged under rubrics. Thus Homer and the Old Testament came under the rubric of “Language and Literature.” Now, if you think about it, this classification intervenes between the book and the reader with a strong dose of meddling opinion: It shields the student from the fact that Homer was thought of by the Greeks as their prime theologian and that the Hebrew Bible presents itself as the history of a people and their God. I don’t mean to disparage Scott Buchanan, whose educational originality is beyond dispute. But we’ve eradicated the vestiges of conventional intermediation which were, I imagine, under his radar in those exciting days.
There are any number of small ways in which we’ve become more immediate. I’ll give one more example. In the early days a historical significance was often attached to the fact that our seminar list is largely ordered chronologically; terms such as “medieval,” “Renaissance,” “the modern mind” were still used. For most of us this temporal order is now simply a practical device: Later books often refer to preceding ones, as Newton uses Euclidean propositions. We don’t put a scholar-devised designation on books but read them directly. Our context is not interpretative back grounding and scholarly introduction but what you might call the quarreling, contemporaneous brotherhood of Great Books.
Let me take a moment here for a word on Great Books, a term our clueless advisors tell us to jettison. To my mind it is a true category whose members are truly discontinuous with other, perfectly good, books. There is no ultimate difficulty about listing the criteria, which require, however, not so much discernment as longevity to discern, since the chief characteristics take a lifetime to become evident. Opposition to greatness comes, I’m convinced, from the kind of irrational irritation that made the Athenians ostracize Aristides because they were tired of hearing him called “the Just,” or from egalitarian resentment, or—this one I have real sympathy for—from fear of the demands things of quality make on us.
Back to context. It is an academic habit to insulate works of stature from students and the students from them by packing them in this cotton wool of back grounding lectures and introductory readings. And since the students’ valuable time has been thus preempted, teachers then make up for that by reducing original texts to selected snippets or reproducing them as travesties by paraphrased abstracts. Add to this the emergence of theories of interpretation so sophisticated as to make an innocent approach to these books seem simple-minded.
Well, we do not occupy students’ time or prevent access to books by delivering premasticated versions of their settings or meanings. As far as I can tell we have only one interpretational maxim: A cat may look at a king (from an old adage, dating to 1652). Our royal texts can be confronted by any considering intelligence, feline or fellow-human.
I think most members of this college community—students, tutors, alumni, friends—will readily recognize this immediate relation to books as our very particular way. It carries with it certain opportunities, even obligations, that less direct approaches forego, even forbid. Chief of these is the question practically proscribed in most classrooms: Is this treatise of reasonings true in the existent world? Is this work of fictions true in the imaginative realm?
Now in educating our students and ourselves in this so natural and yet so misprized way we, actually do, I think, tiny as we are, help to repair a more global loss. To explain that, allow me to return for a moment to autobiography.
When I came to this college in 1957, Jacob Klein was its dean, its third dean in the New Program. In Winfree Smith’s A Search for a Liberal College (1983), a fine history of the beginning of the New Program, you will find a letter Jasha wrote to his future wife, Dodo in 1938 after a few weeks at the college:
…it is exciting to see how over centuries and oceans unspoiled boys (most of them are) are impressed by Plato. They read with a directness [my italics] that is sometimes frightening… I walked around the first days drunk with happiness. (p. 105)
I know all about this blissful inebriation; it was the same when I came, something short of a score of years later. Eventually I sobered up into the stable state that Aristotle would recognize as happiness: an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. In short, I did some real work.
But my point here is the “directness” Mr. Klein mentions.
There is a long and deep story behind this directness, and it is, in fact, the history behind this talk on immediacy. Generally speaking, I’m not much for hanging on to your teachers for too long; our students should take off on their own: “I was never anyone’s teacher” says the greatest of them with teacherly irony as a lesson to us tutors (Socrates in the Apology 33a). But let this be one of those permissible moments of grateful memory.
Jacob Klein wrote a book that was eventually republished by Dover as a classic. Its subject was the origin of Western algebra in a great mathematical revolution at the beginning of modernity. The work was quite specifically technical but it could be interpreted to have a very wide resonance: the loss of immediacy that made modern times so superlatively efficient in some respects and so sadly soul-deficient in others. I will try to say in a word what this indirectness, this loss of immediacy that has captured us moderns, consists of: We tend to see and approach our lives and the world through a screen of concepts, techniques, and symbols. We focus on means rather than ends, formalisms rather than substance, media rather than content. This last displacement is having its era of frenzy at the moment, when the interest in speed and variety of delivery is no longer in finite proportion to the quality and interest of the message.
So you can see that my view of the college is indebted to this book, or rather to my appropriation of it. Now it happens to belong to the human condition to be born as frighteningly direct babies and to be capable of retaining this immediacy, or to recover it through boy—and girlhood—and even in old age. To me our college is one agent in this recovery, this renaissance of immediacy. Let me race, then, through other elements of reborn immediacy that seem to me to characterize us, to the benefit of our humanity.
My first item was that we, tutors and students, do not, prematurely, let opined interpretations intervene between us and the books we’ve chosen to study. There is a second kind of intervention we cancel: time. The past we admit into our Program has not passed; it is now, an ingredient in our being, our ground. Human beings who live only in the latest Now, in the modo, meaning “just now,” the adverb from which “modernity” is made, are ungrounded, racing headless and footloose through nonlife, mistaking excitation for happiness and quantity for reality. So, inversely have the folk on the other side, the reactionaries who are stuck in the sort of past that has passed, that is truly dead and gone, turned a ground into a grave.
Our study, then, is that living past which reaches right into the present. It lives in what may be called the Tradition, the works, the Great Books, that are both inexhaustibly interesting in themselves and the explanatory ground of our present. Not to know the Tradition is to become the helpless victim of circumstance, while to have some familiarity with it is to gain awareness. And to be aware is to abrogate tyrannical time and to master dominating circumstance, by living in the world immediately, not divided from it by opaquely unassimilated inheritances and pointlessly smart innovations.
Now I think that to those who inspect us through conventional categories we appear to have a powerful institutional method and strong implicit presuppositions. For to an ideology-ridden world, what is really natural appears very contrived. To my mind, we have the most minimal preconceptions, and are therefore as simple—you might say as deliberately naïve—in our ways as can be. I mean institutionally—most of my colleagues, and students as well, are replete with ingenious takes on who we are.
It seems to me that our direct and time-subverting approach to the works of civilization implies, besides the A cat may look at a king maxim, just one more precept: Origins are significant. Here we call to our aid a Greek word, arché. It turns up in slews of English words from archangel to archfiend, from archeology to archetype, from archaeopteryx to matriarch: chief angel, principal devil, antiquarian study, original model, ruling mother. So arché means what is first, old, original, chief and governing; an arché is a beginning that rules. That there are such beginnings is a faith that our Program expresses; it betokens our replacement of chronological history. That is, to be sure, a potent opinion ever in need of intelligent defense. But it is not an ideology in the current understanding, meaning a body of theory implying a political agenda. We keep our classrooms free of current politics not only to protect our students from their teachers’ private preoccupations, but even more to provide them with one venue where they can think about personal and political problems deeply and directly, unobstructed by foggy drifts of current passion.
I’ve just used the word “teacher.” In his last public appearance Socrates, one of the Program’s master teachers, tells his Athenians a semi-truth I’ve already cited: “I was never ever (popote) anyone’s teacher” (Apology 33a). We tutors might say the same, and it would not be just a pretty pretense. Institutions of higher learning are staffed by professors who are distanced from their students by the authority of their expertise. The faculty of this college cannot pretend to such authority; we are intentionally and irremediably out of our depth. That is not only because our program of studies requires us to teach outside of our graduate training and professional competence—that’s the least of it—but because we require ourselves and our students to delve into depths that are beyond most of us much of the time. That’s because we demand seriousness of them as of ourselves, and in the realm of learning (as distinct from performance) seriousness begins just where competence ends.
This kind of non-professional pedagogy, which engages more in eliciting thinking than delivering answers, which regards the expression “I don’t know” more as a sign of intellectual virtue than an admission of deficiency, which respects a well-framed question more than a facile answer, draws tutors and students together. There is a genuine equality in the face of great matter, which we express in the formality of our mutual address. Our classrooms are venues for conversation, a Latin word that, as I construe it, means “turn and turn about:” All take their turn when the spirit is upon them; we do not stand on academic ceremony such as hand-raising protocol or professional primacy. We all participate spontaneously, and what matters is what is said, not who says it. And behold, in thus addressing ourselves to the matter, the individual humanity of the participants in the inquiry begins really to shine forth.
These four are probably our chief immediacies: unmediated reading of texts, time disencumbered absorption of the tradition, theoretically unobstructed approaches, and unembarrassed relations between tutors and students. They imply all sorts of pedagogic ways—their direct fall-out. So there’s a slew of other immediacies, some of which I’ll now race through. They’re all involved with each other.
To value utility is to raise means over ends; it is the antithesis of im-mediacy. Aristotle first defined liberal learning as something done, at least in part, for its own sake rather than as a means for use (Politics VIII 2, Metaphysics I 2). Its opposite is what is termed ”vocationalism,” the degradation of a beautiful word, for ”vocation” means a “calling,” a summons to a mission.
Our Program of learning is unabashedly non-vocational, non-instrumental—though that is a toxic admission under present conditions. That much the louder should we proclaim our educational radicalism. Vocationalism turns joyful learning into toilsome training, and relocates the pleasure of the college years from study to extracurricular activity. Thus it puts an intervening preparatory period between young adults and the reality of life—four years of deflected seriousness and deferred fulfillment, when the strenuous leisure of higher education ought to be as immediately real as anything in later life. We do mitigate the off-putting radicalism of an education that is its own end by pointing out that, as in much of real life, so also for our Program, the unintended consequences work their effects. In our case, these incidental outcomes are serendipitous: Our students are particularly well prepared to navigate the knowledge-economy of our time and to protect their happiness in a world fixated on means to the detriment of ends—and, I might add, on the dilution of tautly passionate engagement into slackly preferential liking.
An acute critic of the Program might object: “But in having revived, as you do, the medieval trivium and quadrivium, in organizing liberal education by means of the liberal arts, which are skills, haven’t you actually committed yourself to a training in means, since such know-how seem to be not an end but a means to an end?” We would answer that we never teach mere skills or methods. We have no courses in the “scientific method” or in “mathematical thinking” or in the “writing process.” We exemplify each approach by its finest destination, each process by its most elegant product, each skill by its most beautiful result. We keep doing and deed immediately together—study the ways of physical science through their most crucial theories, the ways of mathematics through their most elegant theorems, the ways of expression through their most moving products. In short, we rarely engage in mere training exercises but keep ”how” and “what” in close connection. Our concomitant immediacy implies that we rarely require our students to collect published information or compile secondary opinions. Be it in speaking or writing, we want them to approach some important matters directly—as the cat looks consideringly at a king. That means that we expect them to be independently critical—but not so much in the mode of “questioning everything” as of asking questions. Thus it is not a standoffish, corrosive criticality we look for but a reverent and often corroborative criticality—the sort that expresses close, respectful engagement.
Finally, in general we try to forgo mere formalisms. Instead we direct all our customs and rules to some articulable good end. In that spirit our “administrative” offices and officers stay true to their designation: they “minister to” our Program. We have only minimal bureaucracy; it is a word that literally means the “might of offices,” a domination that separates a community from its purpose by introducing the notion of power. As competition is only marginal to our learning, so power is not a mode of our governance. For as competition in learning displaces attention to the actual object, so power in governance usurps compliance with trusted authority.
I could make a long list of other immediacies and take a long time to report them, so I’ll put an end to it now. There’s one addendum, however: In reading over what I’ve written I see what I really mean by “immediacy.” I mean humanity. So now I’ll put it to myself and to you not very humbly, but, I think, truly: It is the care of our college to maintain the ways of humanity.
This essay was originally published here in November 2014, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday.
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*A presentation to a conference on the Liberal Arts in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s College, October 2014.
Editor’s note: The featured image is “Attributes of the Architect” (1725-27) by Jean-Baptiste Siméon, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.