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.
Some 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 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