“Extreme” activities have come into fashion in recent years. Extreme sports, extreme travel, extreme survival expeditions now seem to be a fixture of the cultural landscape. Few know, however, that there is such a thing as extreme liberal education, or that St. John’s College has been practicing it for more than seventy-five years.
What is extreme liberal education? It is an education that aims at helping students learn to transform themselves throughout their lives. The distinguishing feature of this extreme form of learning is that it bends all its efforts—not just a portion of them—toward helping students to change their lives. It hopes that students will be significantly different after they “graduate,” and not just the same people with more “knowledge” stuffed into them.
Stringfellow Barr, who instituted the curriculum in extreme liberal education at St. John’s and was the first president to lead the college under its so-called “New Program,” gave an account of the aims of this form of education in 1939. He tried to communicate these aims by describing the “ideal graduate” of such a program. (Anachronism alert: Since there were no women at most colleges at the time, it was assumed that any graduate would be male. This assumption was rejected by the College some fifteen years later, a decade or two before most other colleges did so.) What will the ideal graduate be like?
He will be able to think clearly and imaginatively, to read even difficult material with understanding and delight, to write well and to the purpose. For four years he will have consorted with great minds and shared their problems with growing understanding. He will be able to distinguish sharply between what he knows and what is merely his opinion. From his constant association with the first-rate, he will have acquired a distaste for the second-rate, the intellectually cheap and tawdry; but he will have learned to discover meaning in things that most people write off as vulgar. He will get genuine pleasure from using his mind on difficult problems. He is likely to be humorous; he will certainly not be literal-minded. . . .
He will not be a trained specialist in anything; but he will be in a better position to acquire such specialized training, whether in law, medicine, engineering, business or elsewhere, more quickly than it can be acquired by even the best American college graduates today. For he will know how to apply his mind to whatever he wishes to master. . . .
He will be eminently practical, not because he “took” practical courses in college, but because he will have acquired the rare intellectual capacity to distinguish means from end. He will have learned to locate the problem, resolve it into its parts, and find a relevant solution. He will, in short, be resourceful.
He will be concerned to exercise a responsible citizenship and he will be as much concerned with his political duties as with his political rights. He will cherish freedom, for himself and others . . . [together with] freedom from ignorance and passion and prejudice as well. For, in a quite genuine sense, he will himself be a free man.
He will know something of the world he graduates into, not in the sense merely of a current events contest; but because he will know the background and development of the political institutions and economic practices he confronts. He will even have means of understanding the movements in contemporary thought. And he will be familiar with the basic scientific concepts that underlie modern technology.
Not only will he be better prepared than his contemporaries to enter business or a professional school. Not only will he be better prepared to fulfill his obligations as a citizen. He should make a better friend, a better [spouse], a better [parent]; free men do. He will in short be better prepared to live; and when his hour comes, whether through illness or civil disaster or in an army trench, he will know better how to die; free men do.
This sort of education teaches the arts of freedom. Is it for everyone? Insofar as every human being has the right to be free, it certainly is for everyone. But perhaps it is not suited to every time in a person’s life. The time is right when you finally get serious about life, when you finally need to confront the questions of who you really are, what you really know, and what is really the best way to live. Whether you are 18 or 80 when that happens, that will be the right time to embark on a voyage of extreme liberal education.
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