About St. John's College: Santa Fe
Convocation Remarks 2006
August 24, 2006
President Michael P. Peters
Welcome freshmen class of 2010; welcome new students in the Graduate Institute; welcome returning and transferring students to Santa Fe. Welcome back to the rest of the St. John’s College community – faculty and staff. It is a particular pleasure to have so many families and friends with us for this meaningful time in the life of the college and its students -- your sons and daughters, siblings and friends. Thank you very much for being here.
Needless to say, this is a time of great change for all of us. Each in a different way perhaps, but nonetheless real and profound for everyone. For the freshmen, who may be leaving home for the first time, it is a new location, with new friends and new experiences. For some students it is a new campus with new tutors, new dorms and a very new and different climate. For the students in the Graduate Institute it may be a new direction in a new environment. For all the students there are new books, new authors and new ideas. For the families, it is seeing sons and daughters or brothers and sisters move into a new phase of their lives and adjusting your lives as well. For the faculty, it is new students, new classes perhaps and some new colleagues. For all of us there is a physical change to the campus with the renovated central Placitas and a fishpond that doesn’t leak! Of course, as the old saw about construction goes, “when you are 90% complete you are only 50% done” and there is still the inevitable punch list. Nonetheless, we are pleased with the project and its transformation of campus and hope it has not been too much of an inconvenience for you over the past few days.
As I watched the work on the central campus unfold, I have been thinking about the exciting prospect of more physical changes on the campus over the next few years and what it means for our community of learning -- a new building to house our Graduate Institute and the likelihood of additional dorms and laboratories. In contemplating these changes, I turned to the observations and reflections of the founding president of the Santa Fe campus, Richard Weigle. In his book with the somewhat anachronistic title The Colonization of a College, Dr. Weigle describes the creation of the Santa Fe campus in the early 1960s -- a bold and some thought harebrained enterprise to establish a small liberal arts college in the desert of the Southwest. The Santa Fe campus opened in 1964 with a class of 84 students from over twenty states and two foreign countries. Can you imagine the turbulence that surrounded the students and faculty on the campus in the mid-60s? At least on the surface, the world of the 1960s looks very different from today. The Soviet empire was at its height and containing the spread of international communism, particularly in a small Southeast Asian country – Vietnam, was a principal national challenge. There was no OPEC and gasoline was under 30 cents a gallon. Measles were a childhood scourge and India was a symbol of abject poverty rather than a source of software engineers and call centers. If one of the students wanted to make a phone call home, he or she had to line up for the pay phone with a pocketful of coins and hope the connections worked. On campus meanwhile, seemingly everything was new – buildings, tutors, staff and students.
But, of course, one thing -- the most important thing -- was not new – the program of instruction. For the Santa Fe campus of the 60s was implementing an academic program that had been introduced on the Annapolis campus in the late 1930s. An academic program that we continue to refer to as “The New Program.” The New Program was introduced at a time when the country was just beginning to emerge from the Great Depression and the world was on the verge of a war of incredible destruction that would end with the dropping of the atomic bomb and usher in a “new age” in science, politics, international affairs and so much more. The faculty and students of the 1930s could not have contemplated what the world would look like in the 1960s, let alone what it would look like in just 10 years at the end of World War II, nor could they imagine that their educational experiment would bear fruit in New Mexico in a mere 30 years.
In two years the first graduates of the Santa Fe campus will observe their 40th reunion. The pioneering faculty and students of 1964 certainly could not have predicted the path the campus, the world and their lives would take into the 21 st century. Class of 2010, your 40 th reunion will be in 2050. What will the world look like then?
How does one prepare to face this almost unimaginable world of the future? How does one prepare for inevitable change? The conventional wisdom suggests doing so by staying as current as possible -- being on the so-called cutting edge. Exploring topics which are “relevant” and anticipating the trends, technologies and skills that will be most needed in the future. In other words to attempt to foresee what lies ahead. Frankly, this seems an almost impossible task. Yet, one which appears to be a fairly universal model and one some other colleges and universities embrace.
But, this is not the model the educational innovators in Annapolis of the 1930s and educational pioneers in Santa Fe of the 1960s followed. It is not the model you have chosen. It is not the model of St. John’s College. The St. John’s College faculty and students of the 30s, 60s and the years since prepared for the future by concentrating on the past – by reading, discussing and writing about the great works in philosophy, mathematics, science and more. Works that are often hundreds, if not thousands of years old. Moreover, we believe that the most valuable preparation for the future is not to try to predict it, which is bound to fail, but to equip our students to handle the inevitability of change. How? By helping you learn how to learn and how to think for yourselves. As a Dean of the College in the 1950s, Jacob Klein explained, “What the students [at St. John’s] really learn is what learning is; what understanding is.” In doing so, we hope to encourage you and indeed all of us to be intellectually curious, agile and courageous, innovative and adaptive and ultimately, principled.
St. John’s is not here to provide a particularly utilitarian education, certainly not an education tailored to a specific vocation. The St. John’s program is about ends not means. It is not intended to limit horizons, but to broaden them. St. John’s is single-mindedly committed to liberal education. And, again quoting Jacob Klein, “Liberal education is in itself its own end. What this understanding of liberal education assumes is that man’s most specific character is [the] desire to know. Only [in] pursuing this goal is man really man and really free.” Or as the founding dean of the St. John’s program, Scott Buchanan, put it, the aim of education should be “. . . . liberty, the internal freedom from passion and dogma . . .”
So you have come to a place where you will be given great freedom – to explore the ideas that informed and shaped the past, inform and shape the present and will surely inform and shape the future. You will be given the freedom and the opportunity to question these ideas for yourselves and to grow in all dimensions – mind, body and spirit. But this freedom also carries with it responsibility – responsibility to yourself, responsibility to your fellow students, and responsibility to others on campus – faculty and staff.
Over the summer I have been rereading the first book in the junior seminar, Don Quixote. Toward the conclusion of the book Don Quixote’s “squire” Sancho Panza is about to go off to become governor of his own island – part of a ruse instigated by a playful duke and duchess at whose home Quixote and Sancho are guests. Quixote has been promising to make Sancho a governor as a reward for following him on his erratic and fanciful adventures. Before Sancho departs, Quixote passes on his best advice. Among other things he tells Sancho to “. . . always remember who you are, and endeavor to know yourself. . . This self–knowledge will hinder you from blowing yourself up like a frog, in order to rival the size of an ox; if therefore, you succeed in this learning, the consideration of thy having been a swineherd, will, like the peacock’s ugly feet, be a check upon thy folly and pride.”
Now my advice is not going to be as colorful as Don Quixote’s and I doubt any of you have had the experience of being a swineherd. I also won’t follow Polonius’s advice to his son Laertes, who is returning to college, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “to thine own self be true.” But, allow me to leave you with a few points as you set off on your St. John’s adventure that perhaps will help you avoid jousting at windmills.
I spoke of your freedom and responsibility. This responsibility begins in the classroom. We are a college committed to conversation. Each of us has an obligation to participate actively. Only when everyone is involved do we all gain the maximum benefit. This means each of us must come to class prepared. And by prepared, I mean armed with questions and a readiness to listen and learn from others – from your tutors, of course, but often even more importantly from your classmates.
In Freshman year you will read and discuss many of the great works of ancient Greece, beginning with Homer’s Iliad. I hope you had a chance to read it over the summer. You will also study a number of Plato’s dialogues, and in your Greek language tutorial you will translate one of these dialogues, The Meno. As you know from your class yesterday, this dialogue begins where your first seminar this evening and all St. John’s seminars begin, with a question. In this case the title character, Meno, asks “Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught?” In the course of the dialogue the question evolves to the nature of virtue, the immortality of the soul and the relationship between virtue and knowledge with no firm conclusions. In other words, without any easy or facile answers. Just as Plato’s Socrates spurned simple solutions or easy answers so should you. This takes patience, discipline and courage, but it is also what brings joy and excitement to the enterprise you are embarking upon.
During your time at St. John’s you will grapple with questions like those raised in The Meno – questions which are as alive today and will no doubt be as alive tomorrow as they were centuries ago – questions of individual character, questions of human relations, questions of the nature of the world, questions of politics, questions of the divine and many more. You have an opportunity, as Quixote says, “to endeavor to know yourself and avoid blowing yourself up like a frog.” You also have a responsibility to take these questions beyond the classroom -- certainly in conversation with your fellow students and tutors but also in your daily life and the life of the college. You have an obligation to yourself and the community to try to put these inquiries and conversations into action. It will serve you well at St. John’s and in whatever the future may hold.
The graduate students in liberal arts and the undergraduates read another classic of Plato, The Republic. In The Republic, Socrates, as he does so often, considers the nature of the soul. Socrates believed that the soul is divided into three parts -- the rational, the spirited and the irrational, or pleasure seeking. In The Republic Socrates encourages the citizens of his ideal city to strive to insure that the rational element of the soul, that seeking justice, virtue and truth, rules over the parts of the soul seeking glory or sensual pleasure. In other words, for the ideal citizen to be guided by wisdom and not by passion. This goal seems equally appropriate for our ideal campus community at St. John’s.
In conclusion, I want to pass on a few additional direct and what I hope will be, unlike some of Don Quixote’s, practical suggestions. The returning students may have heard me say some of this before, but it bears repeating.
Exercise your new-found freedom, both inside and outside the classroom, in a responsible way. Be a productive and constructive part of the community. To do this you need to respect and take proper care of yourself and look out for your fellow students.
Don’t neglect your physical well being. Visit the Student Activities Center, what we call the gym, and see what’s available there. How about trying Brazilian jujitsu? Take advantage of some of the extracurricular opportunities Santa Fe, New Mexico and the college offer – hiking, rafting, Search and Rescue, pottery and other arts, Native American culture.
Watch your health and mind your habits. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, I urge you to give it up. Smoking won’t improve your studies or make you any better looking. In fact, it might do just the opposite. Be very careful with alcohol. It can lead to great harm personally and have a destructive effect on the community.
Finally, find an opportunity for service, to give back, on the campus or beyond. This may seem tough given the rigors of “The Program”, which must, of course, be your first priority. So take a little time before plunging in. Having said this, however, I believe that helping others will enhance your experience at St. John’s, bring the classroom to life, and be personally fulfilling. Your fellow students of “Project Politae” are dedicated to serving the community on and off campus. They will be participating in Community Service Day as well as at the Activities Fair this Saturday, August 26 th. I hope you will check them out. The Career Services office would also be happy to help identify other opportunities.
I congratulate you on choosing St. John’s. The faculty, staff and I are extremely pleased to have you with us and pledge to work as hard as you do to make your experience stimulating and rewarding. Since you have joined us, St. John’s College will never be the same, and since you have joined St. John’s College, I am confident; you will never be the same. I wish you the very best as we all embark on our journey toward the future.
I declare the college in session. Convocatum Est!