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By Kathy Witkowsky
Santa Fe, NewMexico
F
rom 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 unusual
there.
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.
“The word ‘liberal’ comes from ‘liberty,’” said Carey.
“And liberal education is meant to be freeing.” Freeing
Spring 1999
A Quiet Counterrevolution
St. John’s College teaches the classics—and only the classics
from what, exactly? From preconceived notions and the
prejudices of the day, Carey said. 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 students.
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 texts.
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, Molière, Descartes,
Newton, Hobbes, Rousseau and Mozart. And finally, in their
senior year, they’ll tackle 20th-century authors: Melville,
Yeats, Dostoevsky, Freud, Heidegger and Einstein. And
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?”
“The word ‘liberal’ comes
from ‘liberty,’ and liberal
education is meant to be
freeing.”
—James Carey, dean of
St. John’s Santa Fe campus
Photos by Steve Northup, Black Star, for CrossTalk