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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 old newspapers.
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.)
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 not
“After Einstein, Maxwell and Hegel,” noted senior
Carisa Armendariz, who is looking for a job in journalism,
“nothing seems all that hard.”
Freelance writer KathyWitkowsky lives inMissoula, Montana.
About 80 percent of
St. John’s alumni wind
up in graduate school
within five years of
Students gather around a vacuum jar in Ralph Swentzell’s physics class. Labs are
deliberately kept bare-bones, like those of early scientists.