About St. John’s College
Convocation Remarks, January 18, 2010
Convocation Remarks, January 18, 2010
President Michael P. Peters
Good evening. Welcome again January Freshmen class of 2013, fondly referred to as JFs, and new students in the Graduate Institute, or GIs. Congratulations on choosing to pursue your education at St. John’s College. We are very pleased you are joining us.
A special welcome to the families who are here this evening. Each student arrives at this ceremony today not only through his or her own efforts, although they are no doubt substantial, but also through the efforts and sacrifices of others. Some of whom are here with us, especially the students’ families and friends. Please join me in thanking them.
Welcome back from Winter Break to the rest of the college – students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends.
In the Business Section of the New York Times a week or so ago there was a front page article about the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, Roger Martin. The article outlines Dean Martin’s unusual approach to business education that emphasizes so called critical thinking rather than a typical skills-based curriculum. The article goes on to describe that learning how to “imaginatively frame questions and consider multiple perspectives” have historically been associated with a liberal arts education and not a business education.
Some may question whether the description in the article accurately captures the essence of a liberal arts education, but, nonetheless, it is a refreshing recognition of the fundamental value of a liberal arts education. It is particularly refreshing to read this in the business section of a major newspaper given the current difficulties in our economy and society and the prevailing attitude that extols efficiency and tangibility and often undervalues the immeasurable and intangible benefits of a liberal education both to the individual and to the society. As a result there seems to be an increasing demand from governmental and other leaders in society for colleges and college students to focus education simply on acquiring the tools necessary to get a job. And the implication that today a liberal education – a St. John’s education -- is an unaffordable luxury; that a college’s most important goal must be to prepare students for the workplace. I imagine this thought may have occurred to some of you, but I am pleased you and your families have rejected this erroneous, unfortunate and I believe ultimately harmful conclusion for our society.
Because, I believe that in today’s world a St. John’s education is on the contrary even more important and even more timely than ever. The St. John’s program is about ends not means. It is not intended to limit horizons, but to broaden them. An education, that prepares students, as Newsweek editor Jon Mecham puts it, “for a good life, not the good life.” We do not deny that a vocation, earning a living, is an important part of life. Indeed, we have a growing college-funded internship program that allows students to explore vocational opportunities during their summers. But a job is certainly not all of life.
Further, I would assert that much of what has contributed to our current economic turmoil and political malaise is not the lack of technical preparation or competence on the part of business leaders, political leaders, academicians and average citizens, but a lack of perspective, judgment and in some cases just plain ethics. The approach of the University of Toronto’s Dean Martin would seem to support this view. The current health care debate, if you can honor it with that title, where shouting substitutes for dialogue and dogma replaces reason, is a glaring example of why truly free, open minded men and women are essential to the health of our country and our world. And, therefore, of the value of and the need for a St. John’s education.
The answer for our nation’s challenges, therefore, is not more expertise that comes from training for the job market masquerading as education or the accumulation of facts posing as knowledge, but more reflection, balance and fresh, critical thinking that comes from a liberal arts education. As Alan Brinkley, former provost of Columbia, has said, “liberal education is a crucial element in the creation of . . . one hopes, a fairer and just nation.” An education for freedom, an education that is the basis for a life-time of learning, contribution and meaning. An education that is even more of a necessity in these trying times. The education you have chosen.
Therefore, once again I applaud each of you for having the courage to resist the conventional wisdom focused as it is on the short term and to look beyond the immediate and focus on what is most valuable and enduring. I congratulate you on your decision to pursue your education, be it undergraduate or graduate, at St. John’s College.
Having taken this step what should you expect to find here?
Let me begin by calling your attention to the mural that is painted on the wall outside the college bookstore on the first floor of this building. You will walk by this mural often as you enter Peterson Hall while you are at the college, on your way to the dining hall, the snack bar, the library or the bookstore itself. I encourage you to take a moment to study it sometime soon. It is a truly remarkable work of art. The mural is an eclectic and imaginative combination of 36 images that endeavor to capture the range of topics that will engage you while at St. John’s. The images are in fact symbols that are intended to reflect the elements of our liberal education -- math, science, language, literature, music and philosophy.
For example, the mural’s mathematical references include a straight line, the primary element in geometry and measurement; an abacus, an instrument for mathematical calculation originating in the Far East over 5000 years ago, but still in use in many parts of the world and a computer punch card, probably seemingly archaic to most of you, but really only a generation old.
In science, the mural depicts biology and genetics with a fruit fly, and Mendel’s law of genetic inheritance of dominant and recessive characteristics; algebraic and geometric expressions taken from Newtonian physics and Rutherford’s scattering of x-particles by nucleus; astronomy with the canals on Mars; and chemistry with ancient alchemical signs.
In language, literature, art and music, the pen; Aeschylus name in Greek script; Goethe’s signature in German script; a hieroglyph, the earliest known form of writing; a Minoan painted vase and a G-Clef.
In philosophy, religion and political science, an archer’s bow representing opposing tensions as in Heraclitus or Homer’s Iliad; the Gordian Knot of Alexander the Great; an Arabic greeting, “Allah is Allah” and Archimedes crown as symbol of sovereignty.
Understanding and interpreting symbols is a fundamental part of the St. John’s education. Much of your work at the college involves symbols, directly in math, science, music and language, and perhaps less directly, but no less profoundly in seminar.
Yet, the mural’s symbols and the ideas they represent would be nothing more than a hodgepodge without a mechanism to connect and integrate them. And, this connection and integration is exactly what the St. John’s program seeks to do.
The St. John’s program, for both the undergraduate and graduate students, nurtures intellectual freedom – the freedom to explore the ideas that have informed and shaped the past, inform and shape the present and will surely inform and shape the future. The freedom to question these ideas and grow in all dimensions – mind, body and spirit. The freedom to think for yourself. The freedom not just to answer questions, but to question answers. The opportunity to experience the liberating quality of education that encourages a healthy skepticism grounded in knowledge, but that rejects mindless cynicism and nihilism. As the founding dean of the St. John’s program, Scott Buchanan, put it, the aim of a St. John’s education is “. . . liberty, the internal freedom from passion and dogma.” The freedom from slavery to popular opinion or fad or fashion. To make informed choices for yourself. This freedom, however, is not license. It is freedom that also demands responsibility.
The St. John’s program also nurtures intellectual maturity. Maturity is not merely a matter of chronological age. Some people remain children in many ways for their entire lives. They never think for themselves, never develop a respect for others, never learn responsibility nor contribute to anything beyond themselves. Often they are pawns for the ideas and passions of others. They may be grown, but they are not adults. Again, the health care debate demonstrates this. The opportunity to become free adults is what St. John’s and its program aspire to provide and by signing the College register this evening, you have shown your commitment to pursue this end as well.
If the objective of a St. John’s education is freedom, or free men and women, how does St. John’s claim to help its students attain this freedom? How does the program help bring coherence to the myriad of symbols on the mural and those you will confront in your classes and the disciplines and ideas they represent? The answer is through an all-required curriculum in the liberal arts. A curriculum that requires the undergraduates to study four years of mathematics; four years of language, two of ancient Greek and two of French; three years of laboratory science; two years of music; four years of seminar; and allows for only two electives, what we call preceptorials. And a graduate curriculum that is similarly structured. A curriculum, for both the graduates and undergraduates, which is based on reading and discussing original texts, many of which were written hundreds even thousands of years ago, some in now dead languages. Texts that are sometimes referred to as the Great Books.
Why original texts; why the Great Books? How do they contribute to making free men and women?
They do so by raising the most fundamental, important and eternal questions. Questions that are as alive today as they were centuries ago. The tragedy in Haiti and the response to it reminds us once more of the timelessness of these questions. Questions of character and virtue, questions of human relations, questions of power and politics, questions of war and peace, questions of life and death, questions of who we are and where we are going, questions of the divine and more. We grapple with these questions precisely because they provide insights that may guide us today in our personal lives and in our lives as citizens and members of a global society. Questions that are the foundation of freedom.
The all-required curriculum may, on the surface, not only seem the antithesis of freedom, but even anti-democratic, as choice is the essence of democracy. While the curriculum is determined, the education that emerges from this curriculum is anything but. Choice is abundant in the questions that are raised and the manner in which they are addressed. In fact, we believe that we have the most democratic classrooms possible. Nothing is settled. Every question is open for discussion. The texts themselves are the teachers. Everyone is equal in the classroom and has a voice before the texts and the ideas they contain. Classes are led by tutors, not professors. Tutors, who are here because they want to learn with the students, not lecture or profess. The conversation begins with a question from the tutor, but the class responds to the questions of all. Learning is the goal and questions are the means.
But learning at St. John’s consists of more than reading about and discussing the ideas in Great Books. The St. John’s program is very much a hands-on enterprise. Active participation is the norm whether it is conducting an experiment in the laboratory, demonstrating a proof at the board in math, or translating a portion of a Greek or French text in language. While conversation is at the heart of learning at St. John’s, it is not the only element. The symbols on the mural also speak to the experimentation, demonstration, translation, musical composition and performance and writing that are integral to learning at the college.
Learning at St. John’s is a cooperative endeavor, but it is based on individual responsibility. Just as your accomplishment in coming to St. John’s is not only the result of your efforts, so your accomplishments while at St. John’s will come not only through your efforts but also through the contribution of faculty, staff and fellow students.
Each member of the class whether student or tutor is expected to come prepared and to participate actively. Each student shares a responsibility for the success of the class. What a student gains from the class and the entire program depends first on his or her own preparation and participation, but it also depends on the preparation and participation of his or her classmates. Part of learning at St. John’s is listening carefully, absorbing and reflecting upon what others say and resisting the temptation to always have the last word. The process is cumulative and becomes more and more liberating over the course of your studies leading, we hope, upon graduation, to truly free men and women.
While a St. John’s education is not intended to train you for your first job, it will certainly help prepare you for the future, for both a living and a life. It is not unusual for alumni to claim that St. John’s “changed their life.” Not by offering what is often considered relevant; courses designed to prepare for a specific vocation, but by providing the opportunity to acquire the attributes that we know the future will demand -- the ability to learn and to adapt. This ability is why St. John’s 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, doctors when we offer no pre-med courses, or food editors and chefs when we have no culinary majors.
This is an education meant for a lifetime. It is the beginning not the end of your learning. I see this fervor for learning in our alumni whether an editor in New York City, an educator on the Navajo Reservation, an international lawyer in Miami, a restaurateur in Paris, a diplomat in Japan or a farmer in New Mexico. Indeed, just this past weekend alumni from across the globe met in seminar with two of our tutors here in Santa Fe to discuss a work by one of those mentioned on the mural – Aeschylus – and his Orestia.
These alumni have sat where you sit today, signed the register as you have and engaged in the same programs, graduate and undergraduate, you are beginning this evening. Now it is your turn to seize the opportunity you have been offered and to make the most of it. Explore, define, question, commit. Don’t sit on the sidelines passively in the classroom and beyond.
Get involved. For the JFs, we hope your dorm room is comfortable, but don’t hang out there. For all of you, exercise your body and spirit as well as your mind. Get to the gym. Actively join in intramurals. Throw a pot in the pottery studio. Work on a play. Go whitewater rafting. Write for The Moon, the student publication. Work with Polity, student government. These are just a few examples. 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. Imagine what a difference we could make if each of us found some way to serve others. Your fellow students in Project Politae are dedicated to serving the community on and off campus. They have many possibilities that can work within your schedule. You can contact them through the assistant dean’s or the career services’ offices. If you do so you will both benefit others and yourself.
Finally, take care of yourself and your fellow students. Look out for your roommate and classmates. There will be construction on campus during the spring and summer for our new academic building, Levan Hall, that will serve as the home for the Graduate Institute. Please pay attention to the equipment as it moves about, particularly between the library and the lower dorms.
Watch your health and mind your habits. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, stop. Smoking won’t improve your studies or make you any better looking. In fact, it will likely do just the opposite. Be very careful with alcohol. It can lead to great harm personally and have a destructive effect on the community. In addition, underage drinking is against the law and a reminder that the treatment of law in the books we read is not merely theoretical.
Once again, congratulations on choosing St. John’s. The faculty and staff are extremely pleased to have you with us and pledge to work as hard as you do to make the symbols on the mural and the program they represent come alive for you. You should know that 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.
January Freshman class of 2013, students in the Graduate Institute, returning students, faculty, staff, alumni, families and friends, I declare the college in session.