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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-
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 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.