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.


  1. killerbee0925   •  

    President Nelson’s post reached my inbox literally the same day as a New York Times article entitled “As Interest Fades In The Humanities, College Worry” rocketed to #1 on the online Times’s “most emailed” list. Unless he has an “in” with the Times, President Nelson could not have known that the Times article was about to be published when he wrote this post.

    I mention the Times article and its position as #1 Most Emailed because I suspect that one reason for the increasing unpopularity of humanities or liberal arts (roughly exemplified by the St John’s program) is simple panic. Students (and the parents who are shelling out tidy sums for their education) are panic-stricken that their expensive undergraduate education won’t help them get a good job after college. After all, isn’t that what undergraduate education is for, to get a good job after you graduate? Oh, wait — it’s not?

    One approach we might take in convincing prospective students to go to St John’s instead of majoring in computer science at Carnegie Mellon is to remind everyone that you’re only 21 or 22 when you graduate from college. You have 40-45 years to work and make money. Why rush onto the rat race treadmill at such a young age? Why not use your undergraduate years to figure out what’s important in life and where you want to go and what will make you happy? You can always get your graduate, specialized or professional training after college and then you’ll be workforce-ready at 24 or 25 or so. Is that really so bad? But wait, I hear the panic-stricken suburban parents and their kids wail — don’t you know there’s a recession on? Jobs, jobs, jobs! Start working and making money right away! Or you’ll fall behind!

    The challenge will be to persuade them that they don’t need to rush into remunerative work right after college. If you’re already obsessed with computers or engineering at 17 so you decide to major in that, that’s fine — you will have good job prospects upon graduating. But what about the many kids who don’t know what they want to do, or want to take the time to read and think and ponder? Can we find a way to persuade them not to panic?

    I have lots more to say about this, largely based on my own personal path before, during and after St John’s but also on observing the travails and anxieties of my 3 college grad daughters and their friends. I think President Nelson has identified a crucial issue to start a dialogue on how to make a St John’s education more attractive and I look forward to more viewpoints.

  2. Max C. Duncan   •  

    Beautifully written and SO true. Max Duncan

  3. Heidi Shott   •  

    I like what a middle-aged Bowdoin alum said when I mentioned that one of our twin sons is at Bowdoin and the other is at St. John’s: “If I’d had more courage, I’d have gone to St. John’s.”

  4. killerbee0925   •  


    In 1971 I did chicken out and matriculated at Carleton College in Minn. (currently “ranked” as a “Top Ten Liberal Arts College, as is Bowdoin) instead of choosing St. John’s, when my heart was telling me I belonged at St. John’s. (My 17-year-old head was telling me St. John’s/Annapolis was just too wacky and unconventional, even though I loved every minute of my overnight visit.)

    After a single trimester of dutifully taking detailed notes while a religion professor dictated to us what we should think about The Phenomenology of Husserl so I could regurgitate his thoughts back to him on the exam, I knew with certainty I’d made the wrong choice and I transferred to St. John’s as a “February Freshman.” Best decision I ever made. I’ve never once regretted it.

  5. killerbee0925   •  

    In today’s New York Times, New School philosophy professor Simon Critchley discusses Plato’s “Phaedrus” dialogue(s) in a way which is refreshingly down-to-earth but which also captures really well the essence of the dialogue in an easy-to-relate-to way. Reading it brought me back to seminars at St. John’s, where students and tutors don’t rely on secondary sources but encounter the works directly and (to use a word currently popular in modern academic circles) unmediated.

    If only St. John’s could convey to prospective students the freshness and excitement of reading and discussing these works.

    When I was a sophomore in Santa Fe there was a young tutor named Alfred DeGrazia who gave a lecture on Euripides’s “The Bacchae.” He stood at the lectern and made the play come alive as he conveyed the madness of the Bacchae (“Imagine you’re up in the mountains”) and the ensuing tragedy, building to an incredible climax. When he was done there was a stunned silence for a few minutes, and then wild applause.

    How do we convey this excitement to prospective students? I wish I knew.

  6. Ranevskaya   •  

    The question at hand seems to be rhetorical. I am not a “Johnnie,” I was educated in the Soviet Russia where most books included in the St John’s curriculum were forbidden. So it is only natural that everyone read them. The issue of educating a person versus teaching him a set of skills has been debated for so long it almost became a mantra that Buddhists can use during their long hours of meditation. Do we, as a society, need thinking intellectuals or workforce? We need both; moreover, one would not be able to exist without another. We, as a society, would not be able to exist. One of my favorite authors Mikhail Bulgakov put it this way: “Не будешь ли ты так добр подумать над вопросом: что бы делало твое добро, если бы не существовало зла, и как бы выглядела земля, если бы с нее исчезли тени? Ведь тени получаются от предметов и людей. Вот тень от моей шпаги. Но бывают тени от деревьев и от живых существ. Не хочешь ли ты ободрать весь земной шар, снеся с него прочь все деревья и все живое из-за твоей фантазии наслаждаться голым светом? [Think, now: where would your good be if there were no evil and what would the world look like without shadows? Shadows are thrown by people and things. There’s the shadow of my sword. But shadows are also cast by trees and living things. Do you want to strip the whole globe by removing every tree and every creature to satisfy your fantasy of a bare world? “bare world” was Glenny’s translation of “голым светом”, which had to be translated as “pure light” as that word combination in Russian has a double meaning]
    The value of St John’s is obvious. Everything else seems to be a matter of personal preference.

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