An Impending Coup at St. John's College
On June 18, the Board of Visitors and Governors at St. John’s College will vote on a proposal to alter the structure of the college radically. If passed, we can say goodbye to the St. John’s that we have known for the past 79 years. It will be a very sad moment for higher education in this country—and I say this fully cognizant of the fact that higher education is in a state of crisis all over, partly for economic reasons, partly because of a failure of intellectual nerve and cultural confidence.
St. John’s is tiny. Its two campuses—one in Annapolis, Md., one in Santa Fe, N.M.—comprise fewer than 900 students. But the college makes up in intellectual seriousness what it lacks in size. There are few institutions that offer such a deep and sustained engagement with the substance of a traditional liberal arts education. It is all the sadder, then, that St. John’s may be just about to turn its back on that and fade into the beige-on-beige porridge of politically correct mediocrity and bureaucratic homogenization.
I’ll come to the particulars of this unhappy contingency below. First, a little history. I have known about St John’s since I was myself in college, back in those prelapsarian days when “trigger warnings” were posted only on the rifle range and no one worried that bathrooms were labeled “M” and “F.” Because of various contingencies that needn’t detain us, I later learned a good deal about St. John’s, and eventually served for a few years on its Board of Visitors and Governors.
Almost everything about St. John’s is unusual. I’ve already mentioned its size. It’s unusual in its administration, too: Its two campuses answer to one board but, for the last 30 or so years, to two presidents, which has meant that each campus has developed strong and deeply rooted traditions of self-governance. And then there is the matter and the method of its pedagogy.
St. John’s is often presented as a “great books” school, which is almost correct. All the books one reads—all the works one encounters (it’s not just books)—are pretty great. And nearly everything is required. All students take essentially the same course of study, known fondly as “the Program.” There’s Homer, Plato, and Aristotle for starters. Then there is the Bible, Thucydides, Euclid, Archimedes, Ptolemy, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Virgil, and Plutarch. Also Augustine, Dante, Rabelais, Galileo, Monteverdi, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Descartes, Leibniz, Bach, Newton, Haydn, Mozart, Locke, Jane Austen, Schubert, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Wagner, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, various Supreme Court opinions, Flaubert, Conrad, Husserl, Heidegger, Faraday, Rutherford, Einstein, T.S. Eliot, Heisenberg, Watson & Crick. And on and on. It is quite a list, and one that would give those poor English students at Yale heart failure. So too would the fact that the Program requirements include four years of mathematics, four years of foreign languages, three years of laboratory science, and two years of music.
But the curriculum per se is only part of the St. John’s story. There are actually quite a number of (mostly quite good) colleges that offer a “classical” or “great books” curriculum. And of course there are plenty of places that pretend to teach Shakespeare but merely to enlist him in a political melodrama dear to the heart of the professor (Shakespeare and colonialism, Shakespeare and cross-dressing, Shakespeare and patriarchy, etc. ).
What sets St. John’s apart is not only the curriculum but the pedagogy. The St. John’s approach is deeply Socratic, which means, in part, that questions, not answers, have priority. That, as anyone familiar with education-speak knows, is just the sort of thing that college PR departments specialize in saying. Next to the promise that they teach “critical thinking” (what Jacques Barzun more accurately described as “directionless quibble”), talk about favoring questions over answers is something educationists love to broadcast.
But at St. John’s it actually works, chiefly, I suspect, because what goes on in the classroom is firmly anchored to the text before the class. The teachers at St. John’s are not called “professors.” They are called “tutors.” The real teachers are the books and works of art that are being studied. The tutors are facilitators, interlocutors, mediators or (as Socrates liked to say of himself) “midwives” between pupil and the work. A typical St. John’s seminar consists of about 20 students and two tutors (two in order to reinforce the non-professorial character of the exchange). Because all students study and discuss the same works during their four years together, their life in community is immeasurably deepened by the common points of reference they are acquiring.
Which brings me back to the impending coup at St. John’s. Even a decade ago, when I served on the board, there were already signs of impatience with the college’s peculiarities. Everyone associated with the school likes to purr that St. John’s is “unique.” But some members of the board worried about the college’s U.S. News & World Report ranking. What about its physical plant? What about the racial or sexual makeup of its student body? Other colleges have study-abroad programs; never mind about its distinctive intellectual program, why shouldn’t St. John’s also offer a year abroad? The pressure to be “relevant,” to sign up for the usual academic roster of metrics, has been growing. Now, like a festering boil, it seems to have burst. The bureaucrats have supplanted the visionaries, like Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr, who brought the college into being.
Officially, the two campuses of St. John’s are equal. But the truth is that the Santa Fe campus has struggled since its inception. It has had trouble attracting enough students. Its finances are in shambles.
No doubt there are several reasons for this. Annapolis was the founding campus: priority counts for something. Santa Fe did not come along until 1964. Its location far from population centers is a problem. A lot of the bad effects of the 1960s took root in Santa Fe in ways that they didn't in Annapolis. And for some 25 years Annapolis has been blessed with an intellectually vigorous and administratively capable president in the person of Chris Nelson, himself a graduate of St. John’s. Santa Fe has rarely enjoyed the same caliber of leadership.
Nelson recently announced that he would be retiring at the end of the next school year. There are rumors that his retirement was forced by a faction of the board unhappy with the status quo at the college. I have no idea whether those rumors are true. But it is public knowledge that the board has proposed to bring both campuses under the wing of its newly appointed president of the Santa Fe campus, Mark Roosevelt. A new, “junior president” would be found, somewhere, to head Annapolis, but he or she would report to Roosevelt.
Who is Mark Roosevelt? His chief claim to distinction seems to be that he is the great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt. He went to all the best schools (St. Albans, Harvard) but evinces no discernible scholarly interests. He has written no books or intellectually substantive articles. (By contrast, Chris Nelson has kept up an active intellectual practice through articles, speeches, and teaching.) It would be interesting to know whether Mr. Roosevelt could even parse St. John’s clever motto: Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque.
His real interest seems to be in “progressive” politics, not education. He calls himself a “change agent.” He was an aspirant to various liberal Democratic positions in Massachusetts before serving as interim president at Antioch College, one of the fruitiest bastions of counter-cultural fatuousness in the American educational establishment. “At the core of his work” there, Wikipedia tells us, was furthering Antioch’s “social justice mission.”
Ah, yes: “social justice.” What, when you get down to it, does the word “social” add to the word “justice”? Plato asked about the meaning of justice. Ideologues masquerading as benefactors of humanity preach the gospel of “social justice.” The phrase is a reliable talisman that what’s on tap is not serious intellectual inquiry but politics masquerading as pedagogy. As readers of "The Road to Serfdom" know, “social” is often a “weasel word,” meant to impart a pleasing emotional charge to whatever noun it modifies.
Wikipedia has its limitations, no doubt, but I thought it instructive that Mr. Roosevelt’s page features two advisories: “This article contains content that is written like an advertisement” and “This article contains wording that promotes the subject in a subjective manner without imparting real information.” Indeed.
Concerned alumni and tutors past and present have voiced their concern about the board’s unprecedented plan to subordinate the Annapolis campus to Santa Fe and Mark Roosevelt, and eliminate the campus’s proud tradition of self-governance. It is worth noting that the new plan was passed at a special board meeting in New York, in apparent contravention of “the letter and spirit” of St. John’s governing rules. One beloved former tutor and dean has written to the board that
no one I have spoken to on this subject in the Annapolis campus community—tutors, staff, students, alumni—has had a good word to say about the Board's proposal. Even the student Delegate Council has opposed it, though the students have already left campus. It is important for you to know how much bewilderment, grief and anger has resulted from your recent actions; and not to subscribe to the flattering illusion that you have the support of some chimerical silent majority. Indeed, it seems likely that you were already well aware of how your action would be viewed, and hence you chose to enact it hastily and covertly, at exactly the least convenient moment in the academic year. If you persist in your plans, this wound will not soon heal.
You can’t set foot on a college campus these days without encountering incessant chatter about “diversity.” It doesn’t take long to realize that by “diversity” most colleges really mean “strict intellectual and moral conformity about any contentious issue.” Indeed, most colleges and universities are one-party states, purveying, at enormous cost, a species of ideological indoctrination while their charges enjoy a four-year holiday from the responsibilities of adult life masquerading as a liberal education. Their parents are happy, or at least reconciled to the expense and the indoctrination, because said college provides their child with the all-important stamp of societal approval in the form of a meal ticket called a “diploma.” What have they actually learned? What skills have they mastered? What is their character? Those are questions that no one, having just spent (in many cases) $250,000, wants to ask.
St. John’s really has offered something different. It’s just as expensive as the other places. And my impression is that a large proportion of its faculty are as reflexively left-wing as the faculty at most other colleges. But their interrogative engagement with a thoughtfully garnered distillation of masterpieces makes St. John’s quite different from almost every other institution. Is it for everyone? No. But it is one of our age’s failings—a liability of thoughtless “democratization”—to assume that if something isn’t good for everyone, it is good for no one.
St. John’s Board of Visitors and Governors is on the brink of making changes in the governing structure of the college that will set it, perhaps irrevocably, on the road to intellectual blandness and conformity. June 18 is just over a week away. I hope that anyone who cherishes what St. John’s has been—students and faculty past and present, citizens concerned with genuine diversity and excellence in American higher education—will make his voice heard before another experiment in educational excellence is absorbed into the engorging maw of politically correct mediocrity.