The following article is the result of a holiday trip to St. John's College of two members of the Student Council Committee on Liberal education, Blair Clark '40, chairman, and Phil Neal '40.
At St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., even the students are interested in education. You have seen St. John's described as the "classics" college, the "hundred great books" college, Hutchins' experiment, a new and radical departure in education. All these cliches have been applied to it in the blast of publicity which has followed the establishment of the New (ironical except as used in contrast to the Old) Program at the little college in Maryland which is, after Harvard and William and Mary, the oldest college in this country.
Because of the publicity and because the men who are now running St. John's flatly state that it is the only college in America now providing a "liberal education", its students are necessarily a little self-conscious. They haven't acquired that imperviousness to public attention of the proverbial goldfish in the bowl. (Their interest in the business of education and distaste for what are called extra-curricular activities would never let them gulp the contents of one.)
Hit "Intellectual Bastardy"
They go in strongly for flat statements at St. John's in diagnosing the ills of modern education. Their aim is to remove "the state of intellectual bastardy in which the average college graduate today rejoices." To legitimize his intellect the St. John's student spends four rigorous years learning to know his intellectual forefathers.
Here is where the classics come in. But it is a mistake to think of the classics only in the dead-languages sense; Latin and Greek are in the curriculum of the first two years only, along with a stiff dose of science. Languages are studied for the mental exercise they give, and most of the works are read in translation. A classic then means an original and irreplaceable work of human thought.
Since the classics are studied chronologically and the first class under the New Program enrolled in the Fall of 1937, the Juniors are now reading such authors as Machiavelli, Pascal, Montesquien, Grotius, Kant, Peacock, Boole, Boyle, Leignez, and Lavoisier. They fall in the three categories of Languages and Literature, Liberal Arts, and Mathematics and Science.
The lecture system as we know it has been abolished. In its place are five hours of language tutorial and five hours of mathematics tutorial each week. Every student also attends at least three hours of laboratory per week. The St. John's men don't even bother to answer the criticism of those who say that the curriculum is not scientific. They simply point out that no other liberal arts college in the country requires four years of laboratory work, and illustrate with the fact that the Johns Hopkins Medical School, one of the country's best, will admit any graduate of the New Program. The first will enter in the autumn of 1941.
The seminar is the most important of the teaching tools used at St. John's Twice a week each student meets with the five or ten students in his particular seminar and two faculty members, who are the seminar-leaders, and for two hours they tear into the book under discussion. The students with whom we talked all told us that these sessions are wonderfully stimulating and helpful.
Among the faculty (that is, the "talkers"--the real teachers are the authors) there is debate now on the technique of the seminar. One school claims that the seminars should have an end toward which the seminar-leader should guide the course of the discussion. Another group holds that it is impossible to control the direction of the discussion, and that the discussion itself, taking off from the work of the week, is the thing, regardless of what is agreed on or proved.
Seminars Integrate Work
The students told us that in the seminars they get the integration of ideas and an exciting feeling of fruitful inquiry as the result of formal argument. "Our seminars are devoted ultimately to the revival of faith in the human intellect and its most glorious use in speculative and explorative thought," Dean Scott Buchanan has written.
One of the group of Juniors Phil Neal and I were talking to made the statement that his seminar wasn't progressing too well just then, that they were stuck on something. He looked over at another member of the group and said "Jack here is gumming us up." Jack admitted that he'd struck a dialectical snag, and looked a little sheepish.
The first speaker was remarkable. He had gone through two years of the Old Program, and then begun again at the beginning of the New one along with a few others. Because of his good work and because men trained in the liberal arts, according to St. John's, are rare birds, he was doing part time teaching while still a student.
Give Sample Performance
For our benefit the group staged an impromptu seminar. The onces scheduled for that evening had been canceled because Harvard's Heinrich Bruening, Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Government was giving one of the weekly lectures in the stately Colonial ballroom of the college's main building.
They joked about our request to make them perform like trained animals, and said they were thinking of writing a play to present the seminar to curious visitors without any trouble to themselves. An informal discussion of Plato's Republic did start, however, with Neal putting in the occasional oar of the "specialist" in Government.
Unpedantic In Practice
Perhaps it is characteristic that one of them applied Aristotle's rules for tragedy to his criticism of "The Grapes of Wrath'. If may have been a little farfetched to say that Steinbeck's book did not fit the mold because it had neither the required beginning, middle, or end but it did not sound pedantic when he said it.
We were told that the most discussed topic of current events was Clarence K. Streft's "Union Now", a proposal that the democracies of Europe join in a federation.
President Barr Describes Ideal
Here is President Stringfellow Barr's statement of what the St. John's graduate should be; "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 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 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 ends. He will have learned to locate the problem, resolve it into its parts, and find a relevant solution. He will, in short, be resourceful."
Although Chicago's President Robert M. Hutchins is chairman of St. John's Board of Visitors and Governors, St. John's is not his creature to do with as he wishes. It was pointed out to us that there is less of Hutchins' Aristotelian-Thomist bias than he would probably like to have in the curriculum, and that he probably disapproved of the laboratory repetition of scientific experiments from Eucltd to Mendel. The 25 teachers at St. John's who guide the destinies of 125 students (half the college's capacity) have their own ideas.
One odd fact about this aggressive little college is that it openly boasts athletic scholarships. This follows from the abolition of intercollegiate competition last year and the attempt to set up a vigorous intra-mural system. Trained athletes are necessary to this plan, and St. John's doesn't see why they can't be educated too, now that the taint of big-time sport is removed.
A defect in imagination was one of the first faults the St. John's planners noticed in the students, and to correct it they have encouraged dramatics music, and the reading of poetry. They feel this should supplement the "sharp and orderly thinking" provided by their disciplines.
One argument advanced by the died-in-the-wool elective systematizers to combat attempts to restore a content to liberal education, namely that some people are constitutionally unable to study sciences, seems to be refuted by the experience of St. John's. The students were surprised that we thought some might have been caught on this snag of their all-required curriculum, and blamed "dead" text-books and teaching methods for it.
Faculty and students at St. John's are excited by their work and by the revival of the debt-ridden little college that almost died. They sharply reject the adjective "experimental" as applied to them, and consider the New Program as "the re-establishment of the original college with its original function of intellectual freedom and discipline."