About St. John's College: Santa Fe
Convocation Remarks, Fall 2007
August 30, 2007
President Michael P. Peters
What is a Johnny?
Once again, good morning. Welcome freshmen class of 2011. Welcome new students in the Graduate Institute. Welcome returning students, faculty and staff. And a very special welcome to the families who are with us. Thank you all very much for being here.
This morning the class of 2011 and our new graduate students marked their formal entry into the college with the signing of the college register. The academic tradition of signing the register as part of formal matriculation dates from the middle ages and has existed at St. John’s College since at least the introduction of the “New Program” in 1937 and on the Santa Fe campus since October, 1964. At that time the first 82 students, the class of 1968, signed the register. This tradition serves as a link to the past and our heritage as a college as well as a commitment to the future by the college and its students. Signing the college register is a recognition of those who have come before us and a pledge by us to remain true to the ideals they championed.
Each of us arrives at this ceremony today not only through our own efforts but also as a result of the efforts of others. Some of those are with us today in the families and friends of you new students, and I’d like to recognize them.
Likewise, your success at St. John’s will be the result not only of your efforts but of the faculty, staff and fellow students who are with us today and others who you will meet shortly. Please remember this.
Having signed the register you have officially become a Johnny. This evening you will attend your first official seminar. For the freshmen it is Homer’s Iliad. I hope you took time to read it thoroughly this summer. For the graduate students it is Plato’s Meno. Also tonight I will be joining the senior’s seminar -- Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
I have been sitting in on seminars since I came to the college almost three years ago, and this year I have become a senior. While following the curriculum I have reflected on what it means to be a Johnny. Now everyone, Johnny and non-Johnny, sees this somewhat differently, but I would like to spend a few minutes describing the fundamental attributes of a Johnny as I have experienced them, not only in the classroom, but in conversation with students and graduates.
The attributes I’ve observed are:
A love of reading and learning;
A belief in the importance of and a dedication to liberal education;
An intellectual courage;
A commitment to life-long learning; and
A desire to be part of a community of learning.
First, Johnnies love to read, to write and to learn. They are curious. They have lots of questions. They want to know how things work and why they work. They read for pleasure, for its own sake, and to gain insights. You will read a great deal at St. John’s. You will read widely and deeply in literature like Dante’s Divine Comedy; language -- translating Racine or Moliere; science with Darwin’s Origin of the Species; mathematics with Euclid’s Elements; politics with Machiavelli’s The Prince;
philosophy -- Plato and Aristotle; music – Monteverdi and Bach; and possibly even art, as part of a preceptorial. Obviously, this is just a small sample and fails to mention anything in the unique curriculum of Eastern Classics at all.
Johnnies look forward to exchanging their ideas with others, what they are learning and thinking. They seek out conversation, in the classroom of course, but also outside the classroom. Johnnies listen more than talk. Johnnies find they learn more from listening to others than by seeking opportunities to state their own views.
They also express their ideas in writing. Again, you will have plenty of opportunity to do this as part of your studies. Students write in almost every class, whether it is in seminar, science lab or math tutorial. Good writing requires deep thinking and articulating a position based on your reflection. It also requires that you express yourself with attention to mechanics as well as concepts. It demands discipline, dedication and just plain hard work.
Second, Johnnies are united in a belief in the importance of and a dedication to liberal education. Liberal in the sense of liberating or freeing. An education that calls upon us to question. An education that demands we not be content with received wisdom or the professions of others, not even from the authors of our “Great Books.” An education that calls upon us to refuse to be a slave to fad or fashion. An education that requires we not be content with the mere accumulation of facts or information, but aspire to knowledge. To seek to understand for ourselves. Learning how to think, not what to think. Some have called it a search for the truth. Jacob Klein, the St. John’s dean at the middle of the last century, described it this way: “Liberal education is in itself its own end. What this understanding of liberal education assumes is that a man’s most specific character is [the] desire to know.”
At St. John’s we are not looking to produce “experts” in a narrow field, although many of our graduates go on to achieve real expertise in a wide variety of endeavors. That is why there are no majors here. Johnnies are looking for connections, for relationships, for integration among disciplines. The fixed undergraduate curriculum of math, science, language, music, philosophy, and social sciences is designed to support and enhance this approach. The graduate curriculums in Liberal Arts and Eastern Classics are similarly designed.
Johnnies read “Great Books” precisely because they raise the most fundamental, important and eternal questions. Questions which are as alive today as they were centuries ago. Questions of character and virtue, questions of human relations, questions of power and politics, questions of war and peace, questions of the divine and more. We grapple with these questions for insights that may guide us today in our personal lives and in our lives as citizens and members of society.
In addition to this love of reading and learning and commitment to liberal education, Johnnies are intellectually courageous and fearless in approaching any subject. The course of study demands such courage. Even if you don’t like language or feel comfortable with math or science, you have to take it. The classes are small and everyone is expected to participate in every class. There are no large lecture courses where a student can be anonymous. Johnnies also have the courage to say what they think, even if it is contrary to the views of others. They are encouraged to emulate the model of Socrates throughout the Platonic dialogues – questioning, always questioning.
The St. John’s program is not directed toward some specific, “practical” outcome. Again this is, in part, why we avoid majors and academic specialization. St. John’s is about ends and not means. It is intended to broaden your horizons not limit them. We don’t seek to be relevant or current, as defined by the latest whims in education, nor do we alter the curriculum hoping to anticipate the priorities of the “future.”
Nonetheless, as Johnnies you will be preparing for the future. Not by seeking relevance and courses designed to prepare for a specific vocation, but by preparing for the one thing that we can predict regarding the future -- the ability to learn and adapt. This is why our alumni are research scientists when we do no research, creative artists when we teach no art, internet entrepreneurs when we have no computer science classes, business executives when we teach no business, or doctors when we offer no pre-med courses.
Johnnies believe that there is no realm of human endeavor that is beyond their grasp. On the surface the world you will face after graduation may seem very different from the past. But, the fundamental challenges will not have changed. And if you pursue your studies with energy and enthusiasm you will be as well prepared as any graduate, and better than most, for the world of the future.
As David Kearns, the former CEO of Xerox Corporation put it, “The only education that prepares us for change is a liberal education. In periods of change, narrow specialization condemns us to inflexibility – precisely what we do not need. We need flexible intellectual tools to be problem-solvers, to be able to continue learning over time.” That is the educational gift you will receive at St. John’s. But, it will not be handed to you. You must earn it. And, the one thing we can pledge is that every member of the faculty and staff will be with you every step of the way.
And what can we say about Johnnies after their time on campus? They are lifelong learners. The pursuit of knowledge and search for unifying ideas is not confined to their time as students. As Goethe says in Faust, a text our seniors will be reading next month in seminar, “There is no pleasing someone who is finished. He who still grows will ever render thanks.”
Time and again I hear our alumni and friends thanking the college for the opportunity it afforded them to hone their intellectual curiosity and nurture their desire for learning. Indeed, if there were only one thing that defined a Johnny to me, it would be a commitment to lifelong learning.
This is an education meant for a lifetime. It is not unusual for alumni to claim that St. John’s “changed their life.” I see this fervor for learning in our alumni whether from a book editor in New York, an educator on the Navajo Reservation, an international lawyer in Miami or a restaurateur in Paris.
While most college reunions center on athletic events, at St. John’s our reunions center on a seminar. And every month in cities around the country and the world St. John’s alumni and friends gather in seminars to continue their learning.
Finally, a Johnny, both while a student and after leaving the college, is part of a very special community – a true community of learning. A community that shares the attributes I have highlighted above and more. By signing the register this morning you have become an integral and vital part of this community. What does this mean?
You freshmen will spend some considerable time on the subject of community in your seminars with Plato, Locke, and Hobbes and many others. At St. John’s the community includes not only your fellow students, but also the faculty, staff, alumni and the many devoted friends of the college. The community extends to both graduate and undergraduate students whether you live in the dorms or off campus. We hope you families will feel a part of this community also.
We treat this sense of community very seriously. We are a community founded on respect. Respect for our common enterprise – learning. But also respect for ourselves and respect for one another. The nature of the college demands this respect and suffers when it breaks down. The community also extends beyond the classroom and beyond the campus itself. We are very much a part of the larger community of Santa Fe and New Mexico. We all need to recognize this.
The Pulitzer Prizewinning author and St. John’s Board member, Scott Momaday, in citing the very special role of the college said that, “St. John’s College stands at the very crux of responsibility and opportunity.” If the college stands in such a position, so do each of you. You have a responsibility to understand why you are at St. John’s; what it means to be a Johnny and a member of this distinctive community. Are you here to read, to learn, to think, to socialize, to serve, to work, to earn, to avoid other decisions or something else? Ultimately, you have the responsibility to make the most of your time at the college. For you freshmen, four years probably seems like an eternity, but it will fly by.
Seize the opportunity you have been offered and accepted. Explore, define, question, commit. Don’t sit on the sidelines passively in the classroom. Learning at St. John’s is in many ways a cooperative enterprise, but it rests on individual responsibility. Only if you are prepared and engaged will you learn and contribute to the learning of your fellow students. Only when everyone is actively participating do we all benefit. Prepared means you have read the material thoroughly. It also means coming to class with questions and a readiness to listen and learn from others.
Don’t sit on the sidelines outside the classroom either. Get involved in some of the myriad of student activities. We hope your dorm room is comfortable, but don’t hang out there. Get to the gym. Throw a pot in the pottery studio. Work on a play. Go whitewater rafting. Join the St. John’s Search and Rescue team. Write for The Moon, the student publication. Run for Student Polity. And these are just the beginning. If you don’t find an organization that responds to your passion, start one. The college will be glad to help you.
Also look for an opportunity for service, to give back. There are tremendous needs in the local community. Start by joining us for the on-campus community service day Saturday. Your fellow students in Project Politae are dedicated to serving the community on and off campus. You can contact them through the assistant dean’s or the career services offices. You will be glad you did.
Finally, take care of yourself and your fellow students. Practice healthy habits. Exercise your body as well as your mind. Look out for your roommate and classmates. This is also an important part of being in this community.
So once again, welcome Johnnies. Welcome to a community of learning. A community dedicated to liberal education; that loves to read about things that matter and discuss them with others; that is intellectually courageous and that is committed to a life of learning.
Class of 2011 and students in the Graduate Institute, we are pleased you are joining us. We are pleased you have chosen to be Johnnies!
I declare the college in session.