Table of Contents
St. John's College (August 2007)
A Quiet Counterrevolution
St. John's College teaches the classics
-- and only the classics
By Kathy Witkowsky
Sante Fe, New Mexico
FROM THE OUTSIDE, the Santa Fe campus of St. John's College looks not unlike a lot
of other small, liberal arts schools. Located on 250 acres high above New Mexico's
capital city, the campus consists of a cluster of two- and three-story adobe-style
buildings, designed to blend in with the area's southwest architecture. T-shirt and
jeans-clad students congregate outside the student union, smoking cigarettes and
drinking coffee. Most of them look desperately in need of a good night's sleep. Nothing
||Matthew Burritt works on a math problem at
St John's College, where the study of mathematics begins with basic questions like,
"What's a point? What's a line?"
But inside those buildings, St. John's is staging a quiet counterrevolution. Defying
educational trends that emphasize multiculturalism and technical know-how, St. John's
teaches the classics -- and only the classics, insisting that they still are and
should be the basis of a college education.
One morning last fall, freshman Anna Canning stood, chalk in hand, at the blackboard
in front of her dozen or so classmates. Following Euclid's proof, she created an
equilateral pentagon around a circle -- without using outside measuring tools. "I've
never really liked math," Canning, of Eugene, Oregon, said afterwards. But because
the class had started with the very basics -- What's a point? What's a line? -- math
wasn't so threatening, she said. And it was a lot more interesting. "Being able
to see where things are coming from is very different than reading a textbook that
says, "This is this way."
That's a sentiment heard over and over again from St. John's students, or "Johnnies,"
as they are known, who are taught not to take anything for granted. The tacit "because
I said so" justification so often evident in higher education classrooms and
texts does not make the grade at St. John's.
"St. John's is not committed to any notion of progress in history,"
said James Carey, who serves as dean of the school's Santa Fe campus (St. John's
also has a campus in Annapolis, Maryland; each campus has 400 to 425 undergraduate
students and another 80 to 100 graduate students). "We don't rule out the possibility
that along with some learning of things in time, there's a forgetting of things that
have already been learned."
Consider: Could you explain why the earth revolves around the sun? Write a four-voice
counterpoint composition according to rules devised by a 17th-century composer? Discuss
whether Aristophanes was justified in his criticism of Socrates? Prove the mechanical
advantage that pulleys provide?
You could if you were a graduate of St. John's.
||St. John's students read few feminist authors
because, says College Dean James Carey, "to build an education upon the desire
to represent as many perspectives as one can is problematic."
"The word 'liberal' comes from 'liberty,'" said Dean Carey. "And
liberal education is meant to be freeing." Freeing from what, exactly? From
preconceived notions and the prejudices of the day, said Carey. Thus the curriculum,
what St. John's refers to reverently as "The Program," consists almost
solely of the great books of western civilization -- and it is mandatory for all
Textbooks -- the middlemen of academics -- are conspicuous by their absence. So
are a lot of other things, like professors (teachers are called "tutors"),
lecture halls (there aren't any lectures), majors (the curriculum is preset), and
tests (students are evaluated on class participation and original papers; students
see their grades only upon request). In Santa Fe, there is also no gymnasium and
just 15 school-owned computers.
At St. John's, everything is secondary to the texts. And these are not simple
Anna Canning and her fellow freshmen are starting with the Greek philosophers,
historians and mathematicians: Homer, Sophocles, Herodotus and Euclid, among others.
Next year, they'll move on to Renaissance thinkers: Shakespeare, Aristotle, Machiavelli
and Copernicus. As juniors, they'll take on the works of the 17th and 18th centuries:
those by Cervantes, Moliere, Descartes, Newton, Hobbes, Rousseau and Mozart. And
finally, in their senior year, they'll tackle 20th-century authors: Melville, Yeats,
Dostoevski, Freud, Heidegger and Einstein. And that's just a sampling.
By the time she graduates, Canning and her classmates will have completed four
years of math, two years each of ancient Greek and French, three years of laboratory
science, one year of music and four years of philosophy, history and literature,
as well as a semester of visual arts (the visual arts program is offered in Santa
Fe but not in Annapolis). In the process, they will have digested classic works by
more than 100 authors whose writings span nearly 3,000 years of western history.
Reading these works in chronological order, the thinking goes, students not only
learn facts and ideas; they learn the process by which those facts and ideas accrued.
And because all students must study all subjects, they can see the links -- and
the gaps -- between them. "There's no academic place to hide," said John
Agresto, president of the Santa Fe campus. "It takes a kid to say, "I
want to be smart in all the areas a person can be smart." Some schools boast
about the number of students who graduate with straight A's. Agresto brags about
just the opposite: "We have only graduated four straight-A students in 30-odd
years." That, he said, is partly because St. John's doesn't stoop to grade inflation,
and partly because it is virtually impossible to be good at all the subjects students
are required to take at St. John's.
No wonder The Fiske Guide to Colleges describes St. John's as "perhaps the
most intellectual college in the country." And no wonder, too, that the attrition
rate at St. John's is more than 30 percent. Officials acknowledge that St. John's
is not for everybody. But for students who like to read, and talk about what they
read, it's nothing short of collegiate heaven.
"It was like, books?! All we do is read?! That's my thing!" exclaimed
Katy Christopher, a sophomore from Gunnison, Colorado, recalling her reaction when
she first learned about St. John's. As is the case for about 40 percent of her classmates,
Katy did not apply anywhere but St. John's -- a choice she has never regretted. "Being
able to read all the time and talk to interesting people is so much fun," said
Katy. "I go home and think, 'Well, gosh, I can't really have a conversation
about Aristotle here!'"
"People at home just don't think that much," Katy continued. "They
may not be stupid," she allowed, "but they just don't think." And
to a Johnny, not thinking is, well, unthinkable.
That St. John's turned into a haven for intellectuals is little more than an accident
of history -- the silver lining to a rather ugly academic cloud looming over the
school. St. John's was founded in Annapolis in 1696 as King William's School (it
became St. John's in 1744), and for more than two centuries it limped along, distinguished
primarily, according to Dean Carey, by its lacrosse team.
But during the Depression, St. John's lost its accreditation. Subsequently, the
board of directors turned to educational reformers Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan,
hired them as president and dean, respectively, and gave them carte blanche to design
a new curriculum. Unbound by the rivalries inherent in the academic departmental
system, the two men were free to design an integrated system based upon the great
books of western civilization. About two-thirds of the authors included in the newly
unveiled 1937 curriculum remain part of it today.
In 1964, rather than increase enrollment in Annapolis, the school opened the Santa
Fe campus. Students can, and often do, transfer between the two campuses, which maintain
the same undergraduate curriculum. (St. John's also offers a master's degree in liberal
studies and, in Santa Fe, in eastern classics, too.)
Unlike many top-flight liberal arts colleges, St. John's isn't all that hard to
get into: The school accepts 75 to 80 percent of applicants, primarily based on three
written essays and, to a certain extent, grades. There is no application fee, and
standardized tests, like the Scholastic Assessment Test, are optional. About three-quarters
of the enrolled students ranked in the top half of their high school class, but only
one fifth graduated in the top tenth.
School officials said that's because they're less concerned that the applicant
show a body of accumulated knowledge than a true desire for attaining it. And more
and more students are indicating that desire; applications to the Santa Fe campus
have increased more than 40 percent over the past decade, and they're up in Annapolis,
too. About one fourth of each freshmen class is transfer students -- who decide to
enroll despite the fact that St. John's won't accept credits from other institutions.
This year, freshman Paul Obrecht of Wheaton, Illinois, was one of those transfers.
Why was he willing to start over? "At state schools, the goal is to prepare
yourself for a career, and the diploma is a badge," said Obrecht, who majored
in education at the University of Illinois but dropped out after two years. "These
classes call upon you to synthesize everything you've learned up to that point. It's
a good opportunity to hone your thinking skills.
||President John Agresto frequently is called
upon to defend the St. John's "Great Books" curriculum, which has
changed only slightly over the years.
St. John's believes the key to honing those skills is discussion. So instead of
professors, classes are led by "tutors," whose job is to engage the students
in active learning. Don't be fooled by the humble title, though: Almost all of St.
John's tutors have earned Ph.D.s, many from the world's leading academic institutions.
But the school believes that even the most educated scholars remain advanced students
at best. So, at St. John's, teaching is less about answering questions than it is
about asking them. Even then, tutors try to limit their input. "Am I being too
directive?" tutor Michael Bybee asked his "Hamlet" class recently,
after he had suggested a course of thinking. Not a question you are likely to hear
very often at other colleges -- at least not from a teacher.
And while professors at other academic institutions are encouraged to specialize,
tutors at St. John's are required to lead classes outside their fields of study.
Over the past 33 years, for instance, tutor Ralph Swentzell has taught every single
class St. John's offers, with the exception of French. The policy, said Swentzell,
keeps tutors on their academic toes. It's easy, he said, to lose empathy for your
students if you lecture in the same subject year after year. "But when you're
forced to be a student again," he said, "you pick up a tolerance which
I think most college professors have lost."
St. John's also eschews the usual "publish or perish" attitude. Many
tutors, Swentzell among them, have never published at all. Instead, they are evaluated
on the strength of their teaching.
That teaching takes place in small, stark classrooms, which consist of a table
encircled by 20 or so chairs. There is usually a blackboard, and only sometimes a
clock, which, despite the lengthy and intense two- and three-hour classes, doesn't
seem to bother anyone. Computers are relatively rare; computer classes are non-existent.
Even the science labs are pretty bare-bones. "But there's a reason for that,"
said sophomore Heather Davis of Easton, Maryland. "We're repeating experiments
that have been done by the founders of science." They didn't have a lot of fancy
high-tech equipment. What they did have was basic curiosity and intellectual reasoning
-- and that's what St. John's is attempting to foster, Davis said.
Part of the learning process is acknowledging intellectual failings. So, at St.
John's, it is not at all unusual for students to 'fess up in front of their peers.
"I don't get it," one student announced unabashedly at the beginning of
her senior math class, which was studying Einstein. Like eager rescue workers, her
classmates rallied to her aid, requesting that she pinpoint the source of her confusion
so they could better assist her.
This skill -- the ability to listen and engage in discussion, to work together toward
intellectual growth -- is a top priority at St. John's. "We try to develop habits
of civility and rationality and discourse," said Carey. While their dress can
be described as informal at best (and sloppy at worst), students maintain a semblance
of decorum by addressing each other in class as "Mr." and "Ms."
And while "like," the '90s version of "um," shows up frequently
during freshmen seminars ("Aristotle, he was, like, pretty hard, like, on Socrates·"),
by the time they've reached the junior and senior level the students are noticeably
more articulate, their comments more thoughtful. By that time, too, it is rare to
find students interrupting each other, and when they do, they are quick to apologize.
They seem less interested in appearing smart than in becoming smart.
||The 250-acre St John's College campus sits
on a hilltop overlooking Santa Fe, New Mexico. A second campus is in Annapolis, Maryland.
And "smart," according to St. John's, doesn't mean understanding the
latest software or being able to predict the stock market's future. What it means
is being able to discern what is true from what is not. "Truth is an issue for
us," Carey said. Other issues that remain at the core of the St. John's experience:
What is a good life?; What is a just regime?; What is nature?; What is God?.
"Clarity about these questions is what we're aiming at," Carey said.
Indeed, at a time when the nation's colleges and universities are struggling to
broaden their appeal by offering unique specialty courses designed to attract a wider
cross-section of students, St. John's remains committed to its unswervingly intellectual,
rigorous and western-based approach.
Twenty-five years ago, The Los Angeles Times published an article about St. John's
College. According to St. John's President Agresto, that article could be published
today virtually unchanged. While some schools might be embarrassed by such an admission,
Agresto, who has had to defend the St. John's curriculum against critics who attack
it as narrow and male-dominated, said, "I think that's a good testimony to our
No one denies that most of the works read at St. John's were written by white
men -- dead white men at that, since the program features very few late-twentieth
century books. Virginia Woolf and Flannery O'Connor have made the cut, but Toni Morrison
and Ralph Ellison, for instance, have not. Agresto said there's a reason for that:
The works read at St. John's have stood the test of time, and have had a lasting
effect upon society.
Those who advocate multiculturalism, Agresto said, claim they're doing so in the
name of diversity, when actually they come armed with a specific social and political
agenda. "Multiculturalism has been used by ideologists masquerading as educationalists
for decades now," charged Agresto. "And we're not going to do that."
Critics who suggest the school discriminates by excluding female and minority
authors have got it all wrong, Agresto said. By choosing works based solely on their
merits, St. John's treats women and minorities more equitably, not less so, he argued.
"Women need to know what men have known all these years," Agresto said.
"No sense giving lesser authors to the women and Great Books to the men."
Dean Carey concurred. "We wouldn't be inclined to read someone because he or
she represents a group that is disenfranchised," he said. "To build an
education upon the desire to represent as many perspectives as one can is problematic."
||Tutor Ralph Swentzell has taught every subject
except French during a 33-year career at St. John's.
Interestingly, female Johnnies accept the rationale without complaint. "Most
of what we read is written by white men -- there's no doubt about that," said
sophomore Heather Davis. But she vigorously defended the curriculum. "The point
of these great books is to read and appreciate them regardless of sex or ethnicity,"
she said, adding, "I'm not missing out on anything I won't be able to get my
hands on after I leave."
And while her mother was skeptical because of the preponderance of white male
authors taught at St. John's, senior Carisa Armendariz of El Paso, Texas, said she
thought it would help her function when she graduates and has to maneuver through
a male-dominated society. "I'm learning to think from a white male viewpoint,"
said Carisa, who is Hispanic. "And I think that's going to be a good tool for
me." (Minorities make up about ten percent of the student body at each campus.)
Occasionally, students do study modern works of fiction by women or minorities,
either in eight-week junior and senior electives called "preceptorials"
or in student-organized reading groups. The school's small bookstore maintains a
section devoted to modern fiction, where sophomore Aaron Mehlhaff of Binghamton,
New York, and Tommy Thornhill of San Rafael, California, were browsing one afternoon
last fall. They admitted they rarely found time to read anything beyond their schoolwork,
but "you can dream," said Thornhill, longingly fingering a couple of trade
paperbacks. The only way to squeeze in an extra book, he said, was to turn in early
on a Friday or Saturday night -- something he recently did in order to digest some
That might sound alternatively confining and intimidating to some But St. John's
students don't appear to chafe at the curriculum's constraints. Instead, they universally
praise the cohesive nature of their education, preferring an integrated educational
feast to a smorgasbord of viewpoints.
Take, for instance, Kallisti Staver, a sophomore from Detroit, who initially was
drawn to St. John's because of her interest in philosophy. At St. John's she has
seen connections she never thought about. "I've learned things about Greek math
from reading the Greek plays," said Kallisti. She was so excited by her academic
forays into Greek civilization, in fact, that last year she joined a Greek study
group that met outside class.
||Most classes at St. John's last two or three
hours, during which students and tutors discuss questions raised in classic works
of Western civilization.
"I really think that the way [the curriculum] is put together lays a very
strong foundation for branching off into any areas we might take," Staver said.
According to the college seal, that is the goal of the school. "I make free
adults out of children by means of books and a balance," it states.
Yet even St. John's officials acknowledge that such balance sometimes eludes them.
Despite its ballyhooing about classical education, there is one area in which St.
John's is somewhat remiss: physical education. The school doesn't offer any intercollegiate
sports, and physical education is not included in the curriculum.
The situation -- and the attitude about it -- is best summed up by a T-shirt popular
on the Santa Fe campus. "Great Books, No Gym," it proclaims. The T-shirt
is soon to be obsolete (the school has broken ground for a new student activities
center that includes a gymnasium, but remains short of funds to build it, and the
Annapolis campus already has a gym).
Meantime, as head of the Santa Fe campus student activities office, Mark St. John
is relegated to a messy basement room out of which he runs the school's intramural
program. Forget about trophy cases: The school's two athletic trophies -- representing
its city league softball championships -- are stashed away in a corner with some
St. John estimated that half of the students participate in one of the athletic
extracurricular activities. The school prides itself, for instance, on its Santa
Fe Search and Rescue team, which offers its services to the community. Across the
hall from his office are mountain bikes, kayaks and canoes that students can check
out for a small activity fee; students also can sign up for fencing, yoga or ballroom
dance classes. Nonetheless, St. John said, some students consider the student activities
office merely a source of "Pascalian diversions," unworthy of their time.
"There is a kind of disdain for physical activity among some students,"
St. John acknowledged. For an awful lot of students, physical activity means little
more than walking to and from class. Sure, Johnnies may play "Spartan madball"
(a kind of soccer/football/rugby free-for-all) at their spring festivals, but in
reality they wouldn't make terribly good Spartans. "There are a couple of really
weird people who do [athletic] stuff," said sophomore Nicholas Alexandra, of
New York City. "But the rest of us just sit around smoking cigarettes and thinking."
(The school does seem to have a preponderance of smokers, something students attribute
to the intensity of the program.)
||Students gather around a vacuum jar in Ralph
Swentzell's physics class. Labs are deliberately kept bare-bones, like those
of early scientists.
But eventually, those same students have to come down off the hill and deal with
the real world. The prospect of leaving the insular community of St. John's makes
them nervous, said Margaret Odell, director of placement. But they actually fare
pretty well once they make the leap. About 80 percent of St. John's alumni wind up
in graduate school within five years of graduating. A 1993 survey of graduates revealed
that 20 percent are in business or business-related occupations; another 18.5 percent
are in teaching; 14.5 are in communication and the arts. The rest go on to a wide
range of professions -- in medicine, social services and law, among others.
"I honestly don't think there's anything our students can't do," said
Odell, who, like several other staff members, is enrolled in the school's graduate
program. But at the same time, she worries that Johnnies are going to suffer from
the school's -- and the students' -- aversion to technology. "It's like pulling
teeth to get them to do research on the Internet," she lamented.
"If they don't get a little smarter about using technology, the gap between
what they learn here and in other places is going to get wider and wider," Odell
predicted. "I don't want this curriculum to become obsolete, but I think we're
going to have to make some changes."
But if the past 60 years are any indication, St. John's isn't big on changes.
School officials proclaim, without apology, that they offer the best liberal arts
education in the country. They ask, Why fix something that's not broken?
Their students agree. Despite the theoretical nature of their education, most
Johnnies profess confidence in their abilities to maneuver in the world beyond St.
John's. Sure, there are the usual "Would you like fries with that?" jokes
about the opportunities available to liberal arts graduates. But in general, Johnnies
say they're optimistic about their futures. Given what they have accomplished, that's
"After Einstein, Maxwell and Hegel," noted senior Carisa Armendariz,
who is looking for a job in journalism, "nothing seems all that hard."
Freelance writer Kathy Witkowsky lives in Missoula, Montana.