Five Reasons to Attend St. John’s College

Student and faculty member converse

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!

6 Comments

  1. killerbee0925   •  

    “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.”

    I think this is one of the most eloquent explanations of the St John’s experience I’ve ever read. Bravo.

  2. S. David Krimins, A'63   •  

    Nicely stated.

  3. Lisa   •  

    I am a parent of a sophomore, and whenever I have to describe the kind of college my daughter attends, my short pitch default answer is always this, “every single kid going to this school is incredibly employable when they come out! Because every day, in every class, they have to fully participate in their own learning, thinking, and defending their understanding of something. Most important, they have to do it with respect for every other person in the room!”

  4. William   •  

    This article describes the noumenon of St. John’s College.

    Unfortunately the phenomenon is another matter: students who become adept at critical analysis but handicapped at creative synthesis; alumni who long to become tutors because they have come to believe anywhere else is a cave; tutors who ossify in self-congratulatory, sophistic isolation.

    The world needs St. John’s College for the same reason that we travelers need a lighthouse: to avoid running aground on its barren shore. While grateful for its presence, we should not become too enamored by the romance of its blinking beacon. A lighthouse is not a star, and four years or more with lighthouse keepers is unsuitable for the lives of most souls.

  5. william p hocking   •  

    Thanks very much for your comments. As a fellow parent, I am simply amazed at the level of ‘maturity’ and thoughtfulness that my 19 year old son has demonstrated since being here a little over 1 semester! It is hard to believe how much ‘growth’ he has realized in such a short time. Not to mention him literally telling me- for the first time in his life- that ‘I’ve fallen in love with a man who has been dead for 2089 years- Euclid! I really love math!”.

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