About St. John’s College
Winter 2007 Convocation Remarks
President Michael P. Peters
January 15, 2007
Good evening. Congratulations and welcome to the January Freshmen of the class of 2010 and new graduate students in Liberal Arts. Welcome also to family and friends, and welcome back to the rest of the college – faculty, staff, alumni and friends.
In a very short time you students will be off to your first official seminar at St. John’s College. I’m sure the past couple days have been a real whirlwind as you have traveled from your homes and begun to settle into the college. Given the strange weather so far this winter, some of you may have left spring-like temperatures to come to snowy Santa Fe. Wherever you are coming from, I am sure at this moment your minds are focused on the Iliad – Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Paris and Helen. Rightly so. I know you are anxious to get on to them, so I promise to be brief. But I think it is important for all of us to take a few moments and reflect on why we are here this evening. Why St. John’s College is here and why you new students, along with the faculty and staff, are at the college – St. John’s College?
While the specific answers to these questions may vary somewhat, I would like to focus on one of the most widely circulated expressions of who we are and what we aspire to – the Statement of the St. John’s Program. As you were contemplating and completing your application to St. John’s, I am sure you spent considerable time poring over this document. Let’s look at the introductory paragraph. It states:
“St. John’s College is a community dedicated to liberal education. Liberally educated human beings, the college believes, acquire a lifelong commitment to the pursuit of fundamental knowledge and to the search for unifying ideas. They are intelligently and critically appreciative of their common heritage and conscious of their social and moral obligations. They are well equipped to master the specific skills of any calling, and they possess the means and will to become free and responsible citizens.”
What does this paragraph say about us, what we are trying to do and what we are asking you new students to do?
First, it says the college is a community. What does it mean to be part of a community? You will spend some considerable time on this subject in your seminars with Plato, Locke, and Hobbes and many others. At St. John’s you are joining a community that includes not only your fellow students, but also the faculty, staff, alumni and many friends of the college. 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 extends beyond the classroom and beyond the campus itself. We are, for example, very much a part of the larger community of Santa Fe and New Mexico.
The idea that unites the St. John’s community is 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 also 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. Jacob Klein, the St. John’s dean at the middle of the 20th 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 believe that liberal education is dedicated, as the Statement says, to the “pursuit of fundamental knowledge” and the “search for unifying ideas.” The fixed undergraduate curriculum of math, science, language, music, philosophy, and social sciences is structured to support this pursuit of knowledge and unifying ideas. The Masters of Liberal Arts curriculum is also designed for this purpose. We don’t seek to be relevant or current, reacting to the latest whims in education or anticipating the priorities of the “future”.
We read the “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, question 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. And tonight as we begin to ponder these questions we note that this day has been set aside to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. Someone who demonstrated that the character of one man can have a profoundly positive affect on many.
This pursuit of knowledge and search for unifying ideas is not confined to your time as students on campus. Indeed, if there is one thing which defines alumni and friends of St. John’s College, it is a commitment to lifelong learning. The commitment to lifelong learning is equally shared by our alumni and friends whether they are an investment banker in New York, a cancer researcher in Los Angeles, a pottery artist in Northern New Mexico or a restaurateur in Paris. In fact, while at most colleges 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 seeking to continue their learning.
The Statement of the Program goes on to say that a liberally educated man or woman is intelligently and critically appreciative of his or her common heritage. Our program is based on Great Books in the Western tradition. We study these books in relatively chronological order, because the books build on one another and in their totality give us an appreciation of ideas that shape our lives. They allow us, as David Brooks of the New York Times wrote, “to step outside [our] own immediate experience into the past, to learn about the problems that never change and bring back some of that inheritance.” This approach does not deny the value of works in other traditions and their influence as well. Certainly every day the news reminds us of the influence of these other traditions. Our concentration on the Western tradition is, as much as anything, recognition that in four years, or four sessions in the Graduate Institute, you can only do so much. But it is also clear that the ideas that most influence our lives as Americans in the 21st century are drawn from this Western tradition. Of course, in our graduate program we also offer a Masters in Eastern Classics which studies some of the great works in the East Asian and Indian traditions. Perhaps some of you will want to pursue these studies after you have completed your undergraduate or graduate programs. As with all we do however, we approach the understanding of our heritage intelligently and critically. We do not accept its precepts as a given. We question, we challenge and we draw conclusions for ourselves.
We also believe a liberal education should enable us to become conscious of our social and moral obligations. You certainly shouldn’t wait until you’ve graduated to think about these issues and act them out in your life. The fundamental elements of this consciousness are contained in the books we read, discuss and write about. But, you have a responsibility to take the questions you are dealing with beyond the classroom and into your daily life and the life of the college. It will serve you well at St. John’s and in whatever the future may hold.
The St. John’s program is not directed toward some specific, “practical” outcome. 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. The program is, however, intended to equip you as the Statement puts it to “master the specifics of any calling.” But this capacity will not be handed to you. You will have to earn it, as past students have. For another distinguishing characteristic of St. John’s alumni and friends is intellectual courage. The belief that there is no realm of human endeavor that is beyond their grasp. This intellectual courage 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.
As you begin your studies, don’t fall victim to your own self-imposed intellectual limitations. Approach all your classes fearlessly and aggressively. This takes work and, yes, courage, but the rewards are tremendous -- opening new vistas, new perspectives, new connections and new opportunities. Besides, as a practical matter your tutors won’t let you hide anyway. So get on with it.
Finally, when you leave St. John’s you will, we hope, possess the means and the will to become free and responsible citizens. Prepared to take your place as productive members of society. The world of the 21st century will present many challenges, just as in past centuries. Challenges that will require thoughtful, imaginative responses. The need for these thoughtful, creative responses makes your education, a liberal education, not a luxury as some would say, but a necessity.
Begin to prepare yourself for this responsibility right now. First, by committing yourself to your studies and your classes. Learning at St. John’s is in many ways a cooperative endeavor, but it rests on individual responsibility. Do your part to contribute to your own learning as well as the learning of your fellow students and indeed your tutors. And second, by committing to becoming a contributing part of the community as a whole, both in and out of the classroom.
The college offers you great freedom – to explore ideas that informed and shaped the past, inform and shape the present and will surely inform and shape the future. You have the freedom and opportunity to question these ideas for yourself and to grow in mind, body and spirit. But this freedom, this opportunity, carries with it responsibility. Responsibility to yourself, responsibility to your fellow students and responsibility to the campus as whole including the faculty and staff. The ideals and habits you exercise while on campus will affect you for the rest of your life. Work on making sure they are as healthy in every dimension as possible. Take care of your body as well as your mind. Take advantage of the Student Activities Center – the gym. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do, give it up. It is just plain not good for you.
When you graduate from St. John’s I am confident you will have the means to become free and responsible members of society. Only you can determine whether you will have the will.
So why are we gathered here this evening? I trust each of us is here as part of a community dedicated to liberal education. A community with a lifelong commitment to the pursuit of fundamental knowledge and the search for unifying ideas. A community of women and men seeking to be intelligently and critically appreciative of their common heritage and conscious of their social and moral obligations. And men and women who are working to become equipped to master the specific skills of any calling and to possess the means and will to become free and responsible citizens.
But, as a former President of St. John’s said to students who entered before you, “Your success will not be attested by a diploma.” Rather each of you will need to assess yourself on how well you meet the ideals outlined in the Statement. Your tutors, the staff, alumni and others will be there to assist you, but ultimately it is up to you. And it all begins this evening.
If you are successful, when you complete your time at St. John’s you may receive the same compliment as one of our recent graduates. Her graduate school professor in noting her understanding of the Greek alphabet and the fundamentals of calculus in an international finance class inquired into her undergraduate background. When she responded St. John’s College, he said, “You went to the best school in the world.”
On behalf of the faculty and staff of St. John’s College, Santa Fe I welcome and congratulate you again. We are pleased you are joining us and we look forward to learning with you in the months and years ahead, indeed throughout a lifetime.
I declare the college in session. Convocatum Est!