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becoming
smart.
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 steadiness.”
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 20th-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 is 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.”
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.”
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,” saidThornhill, 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 Goethe.
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,
Tutor Ralph Swentzell has taught every subject except French
during a 33-year career at St. John’s.
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.