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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.”
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 according to the school’s philosophy, 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
The 250-acre St. John’s College campus sits on a hilltop
overlooking Santa Fe, New Mexico. A second campus is in
Annapolis, Maryland.
President John Agresto frequently is called upon
to defend the St. John’s “Great Books” curriculum,
which has changed only slightly over the years.