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 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