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St. John's College in Santa Fe: Defining the Liberal Arts


The Liberal Arts. A Classical Education. Humanism.
If this is what you seek, then seek no further than St. John’s College. I spent a couple of hours on its gorgeous campus on the edge of Santa Fe, New Mexico, today. As I got out of my car, I heard the strains of a violin playing on a balcony. I passed the fountain in the center of campus, where the pool was filled with multicolored water lilies and koi. Even a pit stop revealed state-of-the-art no-flush toilets. I figured this was going to be a different sort of experience. St. John's College Santa Fe
I had a private tour, led by a dashing gentleman from Mexico. He began to list off his interests: classical Spanish literature. He was studying Persian and Hebrew in his spare time (he listed these as his “extracurricular activities.”
He told me about the fixed, four-year curriculum that leads students through a chronological study of Western civilization; philosophy, science, mathematics, literature, music, languages (start with ancient Greek, and go forward from there).
Math classes are not about memorizing formulas. Instead they read the original works of Euclid and Pythagoras. In music, they start by singing Gregorian chants and end up analyzing–and composing–in nearly every style of western music. Students take three years of lab science, but they do not use textbooks: they use Kepler and Ptolemy and Lavoisier and Darwin.
St. John’s has no professors, only tutors who guide and engage in learning with students. Said my tour guide: “professors at other universities profess the truth; here we all explore the truth together.” In class, everyone uses last names and the title of Mr. and Ms. (no “Professor or Dr. So and So,” even when your tutor is a Nobel laureate). You will find few computers. You will find no “smart classrooms” with the latest gizmos. Powerpoint? No, blackboards are sufficient. Enormous online databases? Available, but who needs them when you’re reading the classics? No need to listen to your professor interpret these texts, when you can interpret them for yourselves.
I was smitten. I wanted to start over and go here. I want to get the sort of education that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had. As my tour guide said, in some ways, their education is highly indulgent. They can explore all the great ideas of Western civilization in detail and with relish. No need to consider the outside world.
Yet many still do. The career center is tremendous. Eighty percent go on to graduate school–many to earn doctorates–and many go on to become doctors and lawyers and architects and government officials.
Most colleges and universities in America have abandoned the ideals and traditions of the liberal arts. What we, in this country, now call “liberal arts,” has nothing to do with the 19th century academic traditions–which still live on at St. John’s. Today’s “liberal arts” education is generally an enormous smorgasbord, from which students can pick what they fancy and leave what they do not. At St. John’s, there remains a coherent vision of what it means to be “liberally educated.” Since the 1960s, however, American education has veered from its roots in the Classical, humanist tradition. Now just about anything goes, with some colleges (like Brown) allowing students to take pretty much whatever they want without any real guidance whatsoever.
St. John’s is not going to be for everyone. In fact, only about 130 students matriculate to the Santa Fe campus each year. But for those few for whom this is a good fit, the opportunities to stretch your mind and train your intellect are immeasurable. If you’re looking for the smorgasbord and all the electronic bells and whistles, this is not the place for you.
But if the life of the mind is paramount in importance to you, this college is worth a second look. And a third. And maybe a fourth. St. John’s is special.
Mark Montgomery
College Counselor

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