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Spring: Sparta and Athens on the Severn

Spring in Maryland brings the students out of winter hibernation at St. John’s College and the neighboring United States Naval Academy—our Athens and Sparta on the Severn River. The two schools enjoy the local reputation of the rival Greek city-states because St. John’s is thought of as a liberal-arts school, while the Naval Academy is thought of as an officer-training school.

With the spring thaw, our two institutions throw open their doors and come together in a number of ways. This year, the interminable winter has made it even more difficult than usual to be prepared for the arrival of spring, but just this week the weather is getting warm enough for us to put away our winter cloths and get ready for our joint activities.

Two in particular are coming up right away—just next week, in fact. First, there is the annual lecture in the LCDR Erik S. Kristensen Memorial Lecture Series, and then, a few days later, the annual Croquet Match.

Lt. Cmdr. Erik S. Kristensen and female friend enjoying a beautiful spring day at the St. John's College, Annapolis croquet match

LCDR Erik S. Kristensen at a Croquet Match

I wrote about the lecture series back in January, when the film Lone Survivor appeared, which included the story of LCDR Erik S. Kristensen, an alumnus of the Naval Academy and of St. John’s, who led a sadly unsuccessful mission to rescue a team of Navy SEALs in Afghanistan in 2006. The series was established by another alumnus of St. John’s, LT Michael Zampella, who together with other friends and family members wanted to honor the memory of LCDR Kristensen by creating even closer ties between the two schools, while at the same time educating the public about the role of the liberal arts in naval and military education. This year’s lecture, entitled “Lessons from a Decade of Frustrating War,” will be delivered by The Honorable Francis J. “Bing” West, a distinguished war correspondent and military historian, on Wednesday, April 9th. (Details can be found here.)

Despite the popular notion that our two schools are rivals of sorts, the fact is that both of them are, and always have been, liberal-arts colleges. We both uphold the highest standards of learning, we both prize freedom, we both revere our nation and our nation’s ideals. This common heritage means that we could never be actual enemies, as Athens and Sparta were. At best, we are friendly rivals that occasionally test each other’s virtue.

Such is the case with the yearly Croquet Match—an occasion so distinctive that the national magazine Sports Illustrated often sends a correspondent to cover it. This year’s tournament, which will be held on Saturday, April 12th, promises to be especially riveting because there has been so little opportunity to practice. The continual snow cover of the past three months and the drenching rains of this past week have kept the croquet grounds (the lawn in front of the Barr-Buchanan Center), soggy, boggy, and unplayable.

Johnnies face off against Middies at the 2013 Croquet Match

Midshipman face off against Johnnies at the 2012 Croquet Match

As many of you know, this event is a highlight of spring in Annapolis every year. But coming on the heels of this winter season, it will no doubt be received with redoubled enthusiasm. Everyone is welcome to come watch the Midshipman in their specially designed croquet whites, try to defeat the “Johnnies,” in their usually eclectic attire. Picnicking is encouraged, along with fancy hats, eccentric costumes, and dancing, with plenty of opportunities for family fun. The crowds certainly enjoy the good food and drink, but I think they especially like the high spirits of a good, old-fashioned, friendly college rivalry that begins and ends with good-humored and amicable relations among amateur competitors—something that is hard to come by in our world of nearly professional-level college sports.

Spring is here—at last—and the greening trees and grasses are reviving Athens and Sparta on the Severn. If you are close enough to Annapolis to join us for either or both of these events, we would love to see you. And when you visit, let us know which of these schools you think best represents Athens and which Sparta. That question sparks another friendly rivalry – one better suited to serious conversation.

Wherever you are, we wish you the best of spring!

Audio of author and Fox News Strategic Analyst Ralph Peters’ 2013 Kristensen Lecture 

 

Christopher B. Nelson, President, St. John's College, Annapolis

Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Its richly varied curriculum focuses on an integrated study of philosophy, literature, history, theology, political science, mathematics, music, and science. Students and faculty engage directly—not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion—with original texts and ideas that are at the foundations of Western thought. www.sjc.edu

Renewal and Liberal Education

Crocuses blooming through the snow-covered ground at St. John's College Annapolis Campus

Crocuses blooming through the snow-covered ground at St. John’s College, Annapolis.

It is been a long winter in the eastern United States, including here in the mid-Atlantic. It’s late March as I write this, and we are just starting to see the tops of daffodils and crocuses that usually appear a month earlier.

Delayed spring means delayed renewal. Everyone feels it—the desire to get outside and breathe in some warm air, the desire to see the trees and grasses run green again, the need to clear away winter’s detritus and welcome once more the arrival of new life. Thoreau’s encomium to spring, from near the end of Walden, rings true now just as it did a century and a half ago:

The change from storm and winter to serene and mild weather, from dark and sluggish hours to bright and elastic ones, is a memorable crisis which all things proclaim. It is seemingly instantaneous at last. Suddenly an influx of light filled my house, though the evening was at hand, and the clouds of winter still overhung it, and the eaves were dripping with sleety rain. I looked out the window, and lo! where yesterday was cold gray ice there lay the transparent pond already calm and full of hope as in a summer evening, reflecting a summer evening sky in its bosom, though none was visible overhead, as if it had intelligence with some remote horizon.

I was reminded of a different sort of renewal earlier this month, when I delivered the keynote address to this year’s conference of the United World Colleges in Maastricht, the Netherlands. I was asked to speak because I represent St. John’s College, which is recognized the world over as having deliberately and staunchly maintained the traditions of the liberal arts in the face of the steady march toward specialization that has characterized higher education for much of the past two hundred years. The champion of specialization, the research university, began to dominate the educational landscape in Europe early in the nineteenth century—before it did in North America. This came at the expense of liberal learning. In America the research model did not really take hold until the 1930s and 40s, and even then, it had to compromise: most of the leading colleges insisted on retaining either distribution requirements or core courses, in order to ensure a liberal education for their undergraduate students.

Over the past eighty years, though, the liberal arts have also declined in America, as specialist education and career preparation came to be seen as the main purposes of education.  The leading voices in higher education today simply assume that the aim of education is economic: What good is education, after all, if it doesn’t get you a job that will support your family and contribute to the Gross National Product? Arguments for a more expansive view of the purpose of education appear almost daily, but they seem to have little effect. It’s not that they aren’t heard; they simply are not credited, because they speak in a tongue that cannot be interpreted into the language of “hard-headed economic reality”.

But many around the world are now realizing a need for renewal in education. Out of this relatively recent turn towards specialist education is now emerging a thirst for deeper, more serious sort of learning. Young people especially want to pull together the scattered threads of modern life. They want an education that can help them do that, a real education—and that is precisely what I was asked to speak about, to an audience of eager students preparing to go to university.

So what did I tell them? Among other things, this:

You may be asking how you are going to get into a college or university and what you hope to study in the coming years. But you must also be asking, What am I going to do with my life? and How shall I live my life in a way that will make me whole and happy?

These questions require that you ask the prior questions, What does it mean to be human? What kind of world do I live in? and What choices are open to me so that I may take ownership of the life that is mine and mine alone?

We are complex creatures—political and social beings with physical bodies that must function in an earthly world. We think, weigh evidence, and judge. We reflect on the world about us; we wish to understand it, sometimes in order to make our way in it fruitfully, and sometimes simply because we are in awe of Being itself—of the grandeur, the beauty and the mystery of the universe, which prompts us to ask, Why is there something rather than nothing? And why this particular something? . . .

These questions surely cannot all be answered over just a few years of high school or college instruction, but a little help at the start will give you the habit of reflection and the confidence to pursue the questions that will make life meaningful—so long as you remain alive to learning.

Better too that you ask these questions before you fix upon a specialty or a vocation to pursue. You need first to spend a little time getting to know yourselves and the world around you in order to make wise choices, in order to choose the life that belongs to each of you. You will face the world of specialization soon enough. Better that you first come to understand some things that are at the root of your being and your world before you study the veins on the leaves on the branches of the tree of knowledge.

It is ironic that just as others around the world are realizing the downside of specialized education, America seems to be doubling down on it. The current manias for assessment, for testing, for trying to guarantee a “return on investment” (as if the “investment” metaphor is at all appropriate for an educational experience that should be, if well-chosen and responsibly followed, literally priceless) all point to a profound misunderstanding: education is not primarily about making a living; it is primarily about making a life worth living.

More than seven decades ago, after 240 years in existence, St. John’s College explicitly dedicated itself to preserving the liberal arts in its curriculum, in its educational practice, and in its academic community. We stand ready to share our experience and our practice with anyone—in Europe, or America, or anywhere else in the world—who wants to renew education by reviving the liberal arts.

Christopher B. Nelson, President, St. John's College, AnnapolisChristopher B. Nelson is president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Its richly varied curriculum focuses on an integrated study of philosophy, literature, history, theology, political science, mathematics, music, and science. Students and faculty engage directly—not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion—with original texts and ideas that are at the foundations of Western thought. www.sjc.edu

Five Reasons to Attend St. John’s College

Now is the time of year when students finishing high school have to make a thrilling and at the same time daunting choice: Which college should I attend in the fall?

Those who are lucky enough to have multiple options often must choose among schools that are quite different in character. The decisions are difficult because every student is different too. Finding the fit is hard.

St. John’s College is the right fit for someone who is seeking a special sort of education – an education in the arts of freedom, an education in how to make learning and life their own. Our College has at least five features that make it uniquely suited to such a person.

Euclid's Proposition 471. Original Sources of Thought

The curriculum at St. John’s consists only of original sources. From Homer to Heisenberg, Plato to Planck, Euclid to Wittgenstein, Thucydides to Tolstoy—we study the actual works composed by foundational thinkers. We do not read textbooks or other secondary sources that discuss the primary texts, as it were, in the third person. A student at St. John’s confronts and wrestles with the authors themselves, not with stand-ins. And so too, for that matter, do the faculty, who are continually learning along with the students, rather than teaching at them. We study these original and timeless sources because they are in fact the grounding of all modern thought. They are also worthy of our efforts to understand them, often deeply beautiful, and always capable of firing the desire to know, which is the most necessary spur to learning.  Four years of grappling with these books will make a student better prepared to deal with the ideas of contemporary life and happier at the prospect of learning to do so.

Student and faculty member converse

2. One Community

St. John’s is a single community of learning. Everyone is engaged in the very same studies. This means that any freshman, from the moment of arrival, can converse with just about any other student or faculty member about anything on the curriculum. This is not often the case at most colleges, where the sense of community is not rooted in a joint activity. It is often difficult to discuss one’s deepest intellectual interests with one’s roommate, for instance, because he or she is taking completely different courses and pursuing a different major. At St. John’s, we talk to one another about what is most important to us all the time, and this helps us to build friendships that are often likely to last a lifetime.

Three students laugh together on the quad

3. One Life

Consequently, there is very little distinction at St. John’s between school and life. Because so much of the student’s activity revolves around reading, studying, and discussing the books and the questions they raise about how to live the best life, these studies cannot be separated from other aspects of life. Students at St. John’s cannot help but integrate their learning and their living.

4. Unified Thought

Just as the parts of a unified life are not separate compartments but complementary constituents of a whole, so too the parts of unified thinking are not separate departments, but different aspects of one intellectual activity. This is the reason why St. John’s, unlike almost all contemporary colleges, makes no invidious distinctions between sciences and humanities. Scientific and humanistic thought both belong to the repertory of human intelligence. Discussions at St. John’s travel through philosophy, history, mathematics, music, physics, poetry, and biology without obstacle, because everyone on campus is studying all of these things all the time.

Faculty member and student converse in science lab

5. Ongoing and Serious Conversation

Finally, study at St. John’s is characterized by continual dialectic, that is, by ongoing and serious conversation—not just some of the time in special sections separated off lectures, but all the time. Four years of participation in collaborative discussion develops the character of an independent thinker, who can confidently listen to others, state opinions, reconcile differences, clarify opposing positions, and change views when necessary. At St. John’s, we engage in discussion not to win arguments, but to discover a truth that all can share. There is no better preparation for real life, in which the most important work gets done by those who can tackle life’s difficulties together with others than by those who insist on winning at all costs.

In addition to these five reasons, St. John’s students can expect to experience the joys of friendship inside and outside of class. They can expect to participate in the countless activities that college students everywhere enjoy, activities that complement the academic program and contribute to the growth of our students: from athletics to theater, from fine arts to journalism, from chorus to orchestra, from dance to poetry reading—the list is as long as the imagination is inventive! And they can expect to express their individual, characteristic senses of humor through their own unique pranks, parties, games, sports, and shenanigans.

Two students chat in front of McDowell Hall

So if you are seeking an education in the arts of freedom by studying the original foundations of contemporary thought in a single community of learning where unity of life and thought are pursued through ongoing serious conversation with lively and imaginative friends—then St. John’s College may very well be just the right college for you!

 

Christopher B. Nelson, President, St. John's College, AnnapolisChristopher B. Nelson is president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Its richly varied curriculum focuses on an integrated study of philosophy, literature, history, theology, political science, mathematics, music, and science. Students and faculty engage directly—not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion—with original texts and ideas that are at the foundations of Western thought. www.sjc.edu

I Love Numbers

The day after the Super Bowl, I read in our local newspaper that the Naval Academy ordered 4,500 pizzas for its 4,000 Midshipmen on Super Bowl Sunday—3,000 from Papa John’s and another 1,500 from Ledo’s. Massive! Then it turned out that Papa John’s provided no less than 25,000 pizzas to football lovers across Anne Arundel County between 5 and 7 p.m. Huge! 5,000 pounds of cheese, 500 pounds of pepperoni, 120 pounds of sausage, and 120 gallons of sauce at just one of the Papa John’s outlets alone. (Where were the spinach, onions, and mushrooms?)

But those numbers were peanuts. Nationwide, Domino’s dished out 11,000,000 slices that day, and Pizza Hut served up 442 miles of pizza containing some 14 billion pieces of pepperoni.

And all for 51 lopsided points on the scoreboard.

St. John's seniors celebrate at President Nelson's home after turning in their essays.

St. John’s seniors celebrate at President Nelson’s
home after turning in their essays.

Then I got to thinking about St. John’s College, where the most awaited annual ritual is the party for seniors hosted at the President’s House on the first weekend in February. The price of admission: four copies of a Senior Essay, the students’ capstone project, on which each of them will be publicly examined during his or her last semester at the College. This year, the papers handed in that night had titles such as the following:

The Poet as Hero in “The Waste Land”

Together They Go Astray: The Family of Anna Karenina and Alexei Vronsky in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

The Security of Liberty: An Examination of American Identity in the American Founding Documents

Finding Home: Man’s Journey in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

Nature’s “One Long Argument”: On the Role of Man’s Ignorance in Charles Darwin’s Origin

Achilles and the Devastation of Learning

Revenge and the Permanence of Tragedy in The Virgin Spring

Intuition and Intellection: A Theory of Parallels

Jesus and Jurisprudence: Love as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses

Harmonizing Souls: An Examination of The Souls of Black Folks

S/He Had It Coming: A Murder but Not a Crime? Seeing Justice Done in Aeschylus’s Oresteia

Number of essays handed in: 105 x 4 = 420. Number of pages in total: more than 20,000. Number of pieces of sushi consumed: 400. Avocados mashed for guacamole: 24. Number of ham and cheese rolls: 500. Pounds of Hummus: 10. Chick peas, tahini, flatbread, and chips: countless. Liquid refreshments consumed: no more and no less than at any Super Bowl Party.

I love these numbers. They show that our students are just as fired up about taking in sustenance for their souls as for their bodies.

On top of that, the entire student body put up some pretty impressive numbers on Super Bowl Weekend, preparing for their Monday-night seminars:

Freshmen: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
Books 8 and 9 (1155a1-1172a15)
60 pages x 121 students = 7,260 pages

Sophomores: Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica
2nd Part of the 2nd Part, Questions 1, 2, 4
50 pages x 100 students = 5,000 pages

Juniors: Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason
Transcendental Deduction B (B130-169)
30 pages x 101 students = 3,030 pages

Seniors: Melville’s Benito Cereno
100 pages x 109 students = 10,900 pages

Total number of pages read on Super Bowl Weekend = 26,190

Now double that total to account for our students on our Santa Fe campus! Placed end to end, those pages = 48,015 feet (11 inch page) = 9.09375 miles of Great pages read on Super Bowl Weekend.

All this in the pursuit of learning on the path to some 200 bachelor’s degrees to be awarded in Annapolis and Santa Fe this spring on another Super Sunday!

I just love numbers!

 

Christopher B. Nelson, President, St. John's College, AnnapolisChristopher B. Nelson is president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Its richly varied curriculum focuses on an integrated study of philosophy, literature, history, theology, political science, mathematics, music, and science. Students and faculty engage directly—not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion—with original texts and ideas that are at the foundations of Western thought. www.sjc.edu

Doing Well or Doing Good?

Brokers trading at the New York Stock Exchange

New York Stock Exchange

Corporate scandals over the last two decades, followed by the crash of the economy in 2008, have brought about widespread skepticism toward America’s corporate leaders. Almost daily there are calls for new legal and regulatory reforms directed at businesses, especially banks and investment firms. Some corporations have even begun to reassess their own business practices. The skeptical position can be summed up in two large questions: (1) Have business and corporate leaders forgotten their fiduciary duty to their customers, owners and employees—a duty prescribed by law or by generally accepted professional codes of conduct? And (2) Have they forgotten their civic duties, their responsibilities within the fabric of society, their commitment to the principles of democracy, their obligations to the public welfare, and their respect for high standards of business ethics that go beyond their legal responsibilities?

The first question can have only one answer: Legal responsibilities must not only be taught and understood but also enforced. The rule of law must be respected. Professional codes of conduct also deserve respect and should be enforced by peer sanction and public disclosure. Public confidence cannot be restored otherwise.

The second question, however, raises a more interesting prior question: What exactly is the social responsibility of business? Or, to put it in slightly different terms, Does the corporation have any responsibility other than to maximize profit according to the rule of law, the dictates of its shareholders, the requirements of contract, and the ethical norms of general practice?

In 1970, Milton Friedman wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine entitled “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits.” The argument is probably familiar to most of you, but let me try to capture it in a nutshell.

A business, Friedman said, is an artificial person and, as such, can have only artificial responsibilities—those required of it by law, by charter, or by its shareholders. Only human beings can have actual responsibilities. Corporate executives are human beings, and as such they may have responsibilities to family, country, religious community, or conscience. In this regard, we say, they act as principals. When, however, they act as corporate executives—except in the case of sole proprietorship—they are acting as agents of the business’s owners. They then have responsibilities to their employers and must act only in the interests of their employers “while conforming,” Friedman said, “to the basic rules of society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.” Generally, this means that their duty is to make money, though some entities, like schools and hospitals, have other purposes.

According to Friedman, it follows that executive actions lying beyond the scope of the business’s express purposes are illegitimate. In particular, actions taken to further social responsibilities not expressed in the corporate charter are illegitimate, and not in the interest of the business owners. Executives who take such actions—for example, taking measures to help curb inflation, or supporting protests against racism, or contributing to charities that do not serve the business’s express interests—are recklessly spending the company’s money for their own personal reasons, even if those reasons are not selfish. When executives take credit for promoting such social causes, they are violating their corporate duty and being hypocritical, cloaking their real motives behind a deceptive mask of false selflessness. This, in short, is Friedman’s case. He was never one for mincing words.

In the forty-odd years since its publication, Friedman’s article has entered the national psyche, where it has become a force that opposes a much older American ethical principle—the notion of “self-interest rightly understood.” Tocqueville described this principle succinctly in Democracy in America: “It is held as a truth that man serves himself in serving his fellow-creatures, and that his private interest is to do good.” You may recognize this as a modified version of the golden rule’s “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and it’s not a bad rule for conduct, especially if you continue to believe it after suffering from a few experiences that seem to deny the principle.

It appears that the principle of self-interest rightly understood is reasserting itself in the corporate realm. A new emphasis on what is called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been growing steadily in recent years: the number of U.S. businesses that published CSR reports detailing their positive contributions to society and the environment increased from 70 companies in 2007 to more than 540 companies in 2012. There is now much talk in the business world about  “doing well by doing good,” as can be seen by a simple Google search of the phrase. The idea is now even a subject of instruction in graduate school; an example is a course called “Business in Society: Doing Well by Doing Good?” taught by Geoffrey Heal at Columbia’s Business School. And in the investing world, the concept of “impact investing”—putting one’s capital to work both for profit and to influence positive social change—is growing at a substantial rate.

Surely the growing loss of public confidence in corporate behavior has something to do with the resurgence of the older ethical principle. But just as surely, it must be the case that more and more people are beginning to question Friedman’s argument. Perhaps they are reflecting on their own experience of dealing with people who act purely out of self-interest, and wondering whether any such person—even an artificial one—can be a reliable partner in a lasting relationship. Maybe they are beginning to become suspicious of establishing connections with businesses that declare their intention to engage only in what Aristotle called “friendships of utility”—relationships that are merely useful. Such relationships are very insecure, since either party will try to extricate itself from the relationship if it no longer serves their self-interest.

Perhaps this erosion of public confidence indicates a growing recognition that a corporation owes its very existence to a society that understands it to be serving a public good. While this public service surely includes the responsibilities of operating at a profit, growing, employing members of society at a reasonable wage, and providing goods for society’s benefit, the corporation’s success and public standing nonetheless depends on its acknowledgment that it has a responsibility to ensure the health of the society that has licensed it. When instead, it seems that a corporation is serving only its owners, its efforts to justify its behavior as somehow contributing to the public interest seem cynical, and the corporation risks losing both the moral high ground and its popular support.

Now that society is asking in what respect and to what degree a corporation may be a person, it seems only natural that it should also ask some other age-old human questions about corporations, namely, To what extent does the public good rest upon private virtue? and To what extent is the public good served by focusing on private interest? and finally, How, and to what extent, can corporate leadership embrace both private virtue and private interest?

 

Christopher B. Nelson, President, St. John's College, AnnapolisChristopher B. Nelson is president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Its richly varied curriculum focuses on an integrated study of philosophy, literature, history, theology, political science, mathematics, music, and science. Students and faculty engage directly—not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion—with original texts and ideas that are at the foundations of Western thought. www.stjohnscollege.edu

Why the World Needs St. John’s College (Part III)

St. John's College, Annapolis, MD

The first post in this series argued that the world needs St. John’s College for its graduates—well-grounded people who are fully capable of adapting to and mastering changing conditions because they are self-reliant in the highest degree.

The second post highlighted several of our graduates, and described the wide diversity of lives they have cultivated since receiving their degrees.

Now I want to discuss how our alumni come to thrive precisely because of their St. John’s education, and why the world continues to need our college—perhaps much more than it knows.

If love of learning is the secret ingredient that puts the vitality into life that we call “happiness,” then the St. John’s Program mines that ingredient and infuses it throughout the soul. It begins with the quality, the beauty, and the originality of the works our students study. All of them, written by people with unbridled love of wisdom, inspire inquisitiveness, discovery, and learning, regardless of the particular specialized study to which they may be assigned by others. The extraordinary riches that emerge from intense encounters with such masterpieces teach students to go straightforwardly to the sources, giving them the confidence to approach any person, any book, any task, any problem directly, without the need for mediation. They know that they can receive the insight they seek right from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, because they have done it often. This confidence, in time, instills in them the habit of extracting what is personally relevant from anything they wish. In other words, our students learn how to make their learning their own. And this makes them self-reliant, trusting their own judgment rather than being swayed easily by the judgment of others.

Our mode of study—serious conversation—also contributes to the thriving of our graduates. By spending hours every day helping one another tackle the deepest questions of human existence, our students develop the virtues of cooperative collaboration. Listening well—which means hearing and engaging with the ideas and concerns of others—expressing lucidly one’s own views, reaching clarity about consensus when possible or about dissention when necessary, knowing how to speak without spouting nonsense but at the same time thinking through speaking—all these are skills our students practice daily throughout their four years at St. John’s.

Our laboratory program develops facility with placid observation: our students learn how to take in the contours of the world before judging it, imposing interpretations on it, or acting on it. This develops a practical working relationship with reality. It teaches one to ask, “If the world is this way, should I work with it or oppose in this instance?” rather than striking out on a course of action based on mere conjecture about the nature of things. And, in addition to this, lab provides familiarity with the ways of science—which is now so much part of life that no one can make truly informed judgments without understanding at least its characteristic approach toward investigation, evidence, and validation.

In conjunction with lab, our mathematics program provides access to the numerical aspects of life—and this is absolutely essential for personal independence in a world where a well-informed person needs to manage finances, understand business data, government data, health care data, and all sorts of statistics. But far beyond these practical skills, the math program exercises a much more important faculty: it teaches the mind, through geometry, to “see” shapes that cannot actually be drawn, and to “see,” in the form of equations, relations that cannot be perceived with the body’s eyes. This access to the “unseen” opens the gateway to the highest of the liberal arts—the art of imagination.

Our studies of the greatest masterpieces of literature, poetry, philosophy, music, and art enable our students to develop the faculty of imagination—the power that “sees” possibilities that do not yet exist. By immersing themselves in the wanderings of Odysseus, or the colloquies of Socrates, or the quest of Dante, or the life of Elizabeth Bennet, our students learn to play with images of possible ways of living. They practice different ways of life over and over, as they consider the actions, thoughts, arguments, and decisions of fictional characters. They learn to ask themselves repeatedly what may be the most important question of all: “How should I be living my life?” They learn how to “see” possible answers in the mind’s eye. And they learn how to bring into being those not-yet-actualized possibilities through persistent choices, just as they bring into being their own learning by the choices they make day after day while they live and work with the books and with others who choose to pursue the same activity.

Does the world need more people like this? Does it need people who can exercise independent judgment, work cooperatively toward communal goals, size up the real contours of a situation rather than jump to conclusions? Does it need people who can  “see” the invisible relationships and forces that pervade life, envision new possibilities and new worlds waiting to be brought into being by artful choices and actions?

It most certainly does. It needs them desperately.

And that is why the world needs St. John’s College now.

 

Christopher B. Nelson, President, St. John's College, AnnapolisChristopher B. Nelson is president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Its richly varied curriculum focuses on an integrated study of philosophy, literature, history, theology, political science, mathematics, music, and science. Students and faculty engage directly—not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion—with original texts and ideas that are at the foundations of Western thought. www.stjohnscollege.edu

 

Happy Thanksgiving! The Blessings of Fruitful Fields, Healthful Skies, and Liberal Learning

1424597_10212608At the approach of our national Thanksgiving holiday, I wish to express the thanks of the entire College Community to our alumni and friends, our students, faculty and staff, for their generous support of this College and for their confidence in this endeavor.

This year is the 150th Anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, delivered in the wake of the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg and in the midst of the Civil War, but at a time nonetheless acknowledged to be “filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.”

Because today we are far from suffering the magnitude of the distress of a great civil war, we  have all the more reason to be grateful for the many blessings we all enjoy. At St. John’s, a community dedicated to liberal learning in its highest sense, we are grateful for the happiness such learning brings throughout our lives.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

The next post will complete the three-part series Why Does the World Need St. Johns College?

 

Christopher B. Nelson, President, St. John's College, AnnapolisChristopher B. Nelson is president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Its richly varied curriculum focuses on an integrated study of philosophy, literature, history, theology, political science, mathematics, music, and science. Students and faculty engage directly—not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion—with original texts and ideas that are at the foundations of Western thought. www.stjohnscollege.edu

 

Why the World Needs St. John’s College (Part II)

In my last post, I said that we could make our case for the value of a St. John’s education (1) by stating clearly our purposes and our means of achieving them; (2) by telling the stories of alumni who are thriving in the world while practicing the same intellectual and practical virtues required of them as students; and (3) by describing how they came to thrive precisely because of their St. John’s education. At that time, I tried to express succinctly our purposes and means. In this post, I’d like to take up the second part of the task by introducing you to some alumni who are flourishing in the world in the most extraordinary range of occupations.

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Our alumni make it easy to imagine how a St. John’s education prepares one for a fulfilling career. Listen to Stephen Forman, an alumnus who delivered the commencement address in Santa Fe in 2009:

When we meet with prospective students in Los Angeles, and I am asked, mostly by both students and their parents, what a student can do after this kind of education, you all now know the answer to that question: anything! If it is knowable, then it can be learned. . . .

So some may ask what you have achieved, what is the meaning of your degree—without specialty, without major, without job training? And to those who would ask, I would say that we have helped our young to become lifelong students, capable of anything, who understand listening to be a virtue, who will pursue truth in their work and in their life. Not a bad education.

Steve should know. After graduating from St. John’s he went on to study medicine—without a major in a scientific subject, and so without a specialty or job training. He is now one of the leading cancer specialists in the nation, heading up a world-renowned team at the City of Hope Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Center in California. In addition to caring for patients with cancer, he is currently directing several research grants funded by the National Cancer Institute, including studies in lymphoma and using bone marrow transplantation to treat and cure leukemia, while directing a research laboratory in tumor immunology that helps to develop new treatments for people with cancer. He has shown how a St. John’s education is personally fulfilling and a gift to the world.

When Steve says that our graduates can do anything, he is not exaggerating. For instance, some of you may know that there is growing body of St. John’s alumni who have gravitated toward careers in winemaking. The dean of them all is Warren Winiarski, who gave up an academic career in political science, learned how to make wine in California, and founded Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in the early 1970s. In 1976, his 1973 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon won first place over the best French vintages at an international wine tasting in Paris—a first for any foreign wine! This success, which is now called “The Judgment of Paris” in wine circles, transformed the wine world, opening the door to wines from all over the world to be considered as true rivals of the best European wines. Smithsonian magazine recently published “101 Objects that Made America.” Among the museum’s 137 million artifacts, works of art, and specimens in the collection, Warren’s 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon was chosen alongside such items as Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit and Lewis and Clark’s compass.

Another example of how a St. John’s education is a gift to the world.

St. John's College, Annapolis, MDAnd then there’s Lydia Polgreen, who attended Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism after leaving St. John’s, before becoming a reporter for noted regional and national newspapers, then joined the metropolitan staff of the New York Times. Since then, she has taken on a number of positions at the Times—West Africa correspondent, covering the deadly crises in Dafur, Chad, and the Congo; South Asia correspondent, covering India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and the Maldives; and now Johannesburg bureau chief. She has won numerous prestigious journalism awards, including the Livingston Award, the Overseas Press Club Award, and the George Polk Award for Foreign Reporting. Another gift to the world.

How about John Johnson, who went on after graduation to found many innovative foundations, institutes, and businesses in the filmmaking and entertainment industries. He is the co-founder of BuzzFeed.com, one of the fastest growing viral media and Web trending sites today, with offices in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, London, and Sydney; he founded Eyebeam (a center for developing and creating new media and open source technology in New York); and he also founded the Harmony Institute, a research organization that generates original qualitative and quantitative research on entertainment’s influence on individuals, communities, institutions, and policy. More recently, he and his wife Susan Short purchased an old hotel in Nosara, Costa Rica out from under a major international chain, renovated it, and created the Harmony Hotel—a 70% ecologically self-sustainable resort facility that provides many competitive jobs and is a successful example of sustainable practices to a very welcoming community. Another gift to the world.

There’s Leslie Jump, who left St. John’s to become a strategic planner and business developer, helping to build, advise, and invest in new companies, products, and brands. She was a director at MCI, part of the team that launched the commercial Internet as well as a partner in Sawari Ventures, a Cairo-based venture capital firm investing in emerging technology companies in the Middle East and North Africa. Leslie is also a board member at UP Global, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship, grassroots leadership, and strong communities in the United States and across the globe. Most recently, she founded Startup Angels, a firm that educates investors looking to fund the startup costs for new companies. A gift to the world.

Then there’s Ryan Jensen, who went on after getting his master’s degree from the Graduate Institute to become a world-class barista and owner of Peregrine Espresso, the hottest coffee shops in Washington, D.C. And Iva Ziza, who is now a trial attorney with the Environmental Enforcement Section of the Department of Justice, working on the case against BP from the Gulf Oil spill. And Josh Rogers, founder and CEO of Arete Wealth Management, an independent boutique broker-dealer and investment advisory firm, who also writes for Forbes. After pursuing an executive MBA from Columbia University and the London School of Economics, Laura Strache joined a hedge fund in Manhattan as managing director for Sandell Asset Management; she is currently a director at Bank of America.

And Benjamin Closs, now a major in the U.S. Marine Corps, who recently received a meritorious service award for his achievements during his three-year assignment at the Pentagon. And Rebecca Needhammer, who thought she was destined for law school while a student, but is now teaching ballet in Flagstaff, Arizona, and plans to join a professional ballet company in the next year or so. And Chris Muscarella, who quickly after graduating cofounded Mobile Commons, a mobile tools company that pioneered the software for making non-profit and political contributions through text messaging, and went on to create Rucola Brooklyn, an ingredient-driven northern Italian restaurant in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. His most recent project, Kitchensurfing, connects people directly with chefs. And Kate Havard, who graduated only 18 months ago, entered the world of journalism, and has already worked at the Weekly Standard, and the Washington Post, as well as being a Collegiate Network fellow, a Hertog fellow, and a Publius fellow. As a Tikvah fellow, she recently joined the Wall Street Journal. Then go to the St. John’s College website and our alumni social media networks to see still more examples of the things our alumni are doing with their lives as teachers, researchers in a wide range of scientific fields, doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, playwrights and journalists, novelists and speechwriters, entertainers and entrepreneurs. All extraordinary examples of how a St. John’s education leads to happy and successful careers that are also gifts to the world.

I think that our alumni demonstrate pretty conclusively that one can go on to do just about anything with a St. John’s education. A recent alumni survey demonstrates that they too believe this. Ninety-four percent of them said that they were satisfied with their St. John’s education, the large majority of whom said they were very satisfied.

The next post will complete this three-part series by describing how our diversely creative and talented alumni came to flourish precisely because of their St. John’s education.


Christopher B. Nelson, President, St. John's College, Annapolis
Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Its richly varied curriculum focuses on an integrated study of philosophy, literature, history, theology, political science, mathematics, music, and science. Students and faculty engage directly—not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion—with original texts and ideas that are at the foundations of Western thought. www.stjohnscollege.edu

 

Why the World Needs St. John’s College (Part I)

Why does the world need St. John’s College? Why now, when fewer and fewer Americans believe they can afford college and more and more believe they need specialized training in order to succeed in the world?

It was once taken for granted that a liberal education was a sound path, if not also the best path, to success and happiness. Today, it seems to have lost its luster for the general public and the public-opinion shapers.

S29041_3405Some of the traditional liberal arts colleges have moved to change with the changing marketplace. Colleges that embraced a traditional liberal arts curriculum have added professional programs and master’s degrees in nursing and business, environmental studies, hospitality management, childhood education, and clinical psychology. This approach may appeal to those who demand to know the “value” of an education in terms of dollars and cents. After all, everyone wants the security of knowing that they will be able to support themselves and their families after they leave college and go out into the world of commerce and industry.

I would like to think that we at St. John’s could make the case for the value of the education we offer by finding more effective ways of telling our story, with clarity about our purposes and our means of achieving them. We can also tell our story with persuasive examples of alumni who are thriving in the world, and who embody in their lives the intellectual and moral virtues that were expected of them as students. And finally, we ought to be able to describe how they came to thrive precisely because of the education they undertook at St. John’s.

I will take up examples of thriving alumni in the next post. Then, in the post after that, I will describe the connection between our ways in the classroom and the skills they take with them into life.

But for now, let me try to state succinctly the “value” of our form of education in terms that go beyond dollars and cents:

We say that the well educated individual—the person who has practiced, and become proficient in, the arts of language, mathematics, logic, rhetoric, and imagination—is especially well prepared for the workforce of tomorrow because he or she will have been cultivating the flexibility of intellect and imagination and acquiring the courage and discipline required to move successfully into fields and markets unknown and yet to be explored. This preparation is the result of studying, thinking about, and then articulating the most important ideas that lie at the foundation of our society—ideas like justice, technology, happiness, liberty, virtue, number, democracy, and desire. Well educated men and women will be prepared to make their way in a world where boundaries are vanishing. They will be prepared to be self-sufficient in the midst of rapid change, prepared to work with others to solve problems, prepared to find solutions that transcend traditional academic disciplines. The best educated persons today, just as yesterday, are fully capable of adapting to, or taking advantage of, changing conditions—precisely because their understanding of the world penetrates to the essentials, and because their self-understanding enables them to live well and consistently in an unpredictable world.

Above everything else, we at St. John’s share the conviction that the supreme motivator for learning is the natural desire in each of us to seek an answer just because we want to know. Learning for its own sake comes to us naturally. By the program of study at St. John’s, by the quality of the materials we use in our classes, by our classroom structure, by our restraint in teaching, and by insisting on student participation, we do everything we can to cultivate in our students a love of learning simply for the sheer joy and satisfaction that learning brings. This is an essential element of what we call “happiness,” the pursuit of which we claim as our birthright in our American Republic.

The world needs St. John’s College now to serve as a reminder of the highest purposes of education by giving the world graduates who are models of liberal learning—thoughtful adults with well-ordered souls, freed from limitations of time and place, living lives worthy of their inherent humanity.


Christopher B. Nelson, President, St. John's College, Annapolis
Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Its richly varied curriculum focuses on an integrated study of philosophy, literature, history, theology, political science, mathematics, music, and science. Students and faculty engage directly—not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion—with original texts and ideas that are at the foundations of Western thought. www.stjohnscollege.edu

 

Barnacles: Liberal Education and the Art of Coming Unstuck

Barnacles do not often occupy the thoughts of landlubbers. Most people can go for weeks without thinking about them. It had been at least that long for me when I found in my files John Gardner’s marvelous 1990 address called “Personal Renewal.” Gardner begins his speech with an arresting quotation from an article he had read:

 The barnacle is confronted with an existential decision about where it’s going to live. Once it decides, it spends the rest of its life with its head cemented to a rock.

What a thought-provoking image! Who would have thought a barnacle could exercise such judgment? Yet the barnacle effectively solves many of life’s problems, like where it’s going to sleep, how it’s going to get food, what it should do during the day, or whether it should visit its relatives. Happiness for the barnacle is having a large, caring, close-knit family—stuck to some other rock. Consider the problems this solves for society: no runaway children, no injudicious bungee-jumping, no family members getting lost while conducting dangerous expeditions into unknown regions.

But the barnacle cements its own prison and becomes its own jail-keeper. We all know one or two barnacles—people who have cemented their lives into place, who are stuck where they were years ago, who have lost the will and the imagination required to seek happiness. Indeed, if we are honest with ourselves, few of us are not barnacle-like in some respect. What does it take to develop enough imagination to come unstuck?

First, you must come to understand yourself well enough to be able to see your condition clearly. This may take shaking up, or worse—cutting loose. You must come to understand how much more is possible, how spacious and open life can be. And once you have learned these things, you must be willing to change if any of this learning is to have an effect on your life. Above all the doors to our institutions of learning should be a placard that reads: Barnacles may not enter unless willing to be scraped. The highest calling of education is to demonstrate to us barnacles that we need scraping. And that what we risk by refusing to be scraped is no small thing, but our own happiness.

How can you be persuaded that this is so? Only by taking a chance and opening yourself to the possibility. You may need to be dragged to this place by a friend or by a teacher. Or you may be moved by something beautiful, something that pulls you toward it irresistibly. Have you lost all desire for such things? What do you need to do to reawaken that desire? Whatever it takes, you must do it, for little can be learned without it.

Liberal learning staves off the onset of barnacle disease, and can reverse it once it has set in. What is more, it can help us to find a meaning in life that is unknown to barnaclekind and almost immune to considerations of success and failure, as Gardner says at the end of his speech:

 Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.

Barnacles have forgotten what it means to be free, and may even have lost the desire for freedom. Consequently, they usually need to be shocked into the realization that they need an education in the arts of freedom—a liberal education. Such an education requires exemplary objects of study—the most stunning books, artworks, and experiments that can be found anywhere. It requires cultivating good habits of mind and heart. It requires like-minded and generous companions with whom to study, and from whom to learn when the spirit is weak or the current is turbulent. It takes time. But little by little the cement crumbles. The barnacle comes unstuck. Then, finally, it is free to float to the surface and explore the vast ocean under the life-giving sun.

Christopher B. Nelson, President, St. John's College, AnnapolisChristopher B. Nelson is president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Its richly varied curriculum focuses on an integrated study of philosophy, literature, history, theology, political science, mathematics, music, and science. Students and faculty engage directly—not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion—with original texts and ideas that are at the foundations of Western thought. www.stjohnscollege.edu