About St. John’s College
January 17, 2011
St. John’s and the Lessons of Martin Luther King, Jr.
President Michael P. Peters
January 17, 2011
Good evening. Welcome again January Freshmen class of 2014, fondly and forever more referred to as JFs, and new students in the Graduate Institute, equally fondly and forever more referred to as GIs. Congratulations on choosing to pursue your education at St. John’s College. We are very pleased you will be learning with us. I emphasize that we are learning together, students and faculty. This is the essence of the St. John’s education.
A special welcome to the families who are here this evening. Each student arrives at this ceremony not only through his or her own efforts, but also through the efforts and sacrifices of others. Some of whom are 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.
Tonight is a time for celebration. It marks a next important step in the lives of those of you who are entering the college. It is a tribute to what you have done in the past and a harbinger of what you will do in the future at St. John’s and beyond. It is not the beginning of your education, nor will it be the end. More on this a bit later.
Tonight is also a time for reflection. Personal reflection on your future, your individual hopes and dreams. But, it is also the day set aside for us collectively to remember and reflect upon the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This opportunity for reflection seems even more important in light of the tragic events in Tucson last week, where yet another public figure was gunned down.
Dr. King demonstrated through his life how the ideas and personal character of one man can create positive change in the world and improve the lives of many. He chose to put his beliefs and the welfare of others before himself and we are all beneficiaries.
Among the many qualities of Dr. King, there are three that I would like to highlight this evening, because I believe they speak directly to us in this room at this time and to some of what we at St. John’s College value and hope to emulate. These qualities are love of learning, intellectual courage and civility and civil discourse.
The first is Dr. King’s commitment to, and love of, learning and teaching. Dr. King was a life-long learner. He read voraciously and looked for opportunities to apply what he read and what he learned to his life. He was convinced of the power of knowledge and the importance of seeking the truth. Dr. King dedicated his life to both. He also sought every opportunity to share his quest for knowledge and his search for truth with others, whether they were close associates like Andrew Young or John Lewis or with the Nation that he loved.
Second, he was courageous. He manifested both physical and intellectual courage. His courage grew out of his faith and was bolstered by his study and great self-discipline. His actions in Selma, Birmingham and Memphis demonstrated his physical courage. But, perhaps more importantly, he had the courage of his convictions and belief in the ideals of his faith and his country. It was this belief in his country that Martin Luther King spoke to in his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. A speech delivered on the one hundredth anniversary of President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’”
Finally, Dr. King was committed to non-violence, civility and civil discourse. A commitment that seems even more urgent today, as President Obama so eloquently expressed in his remarks at the Tucson memorial service.
Dr. King called on all of us to respond to the better angels of our nature. To treat one another with respect. Or, as his faith taught him, to treat our neighbor as ourselves. He believed in the power of conversation, of dialogue. Too often in our national and personal discourse dogma replaces reason and shouting substitutes for dialogue. Some of this behavior derives from a desire, for simplicity, for simple answers, simple solutions. But, things that matter are not simple, as you will certainly see in your studies, and they do not lend themselves to simple, bumper sticker, solutions. Dr. King spoke of things that matter. He also showed that civil discourse can be passionate, but need not be demonizing. At times such as these, we should all try to follow the example of Dr. King and use words privately and publically that heal and not harm.
These three characteristics of Dr. King -- love of learning, intellectual courage and civility and civil discourse -- are essential to your lives as students at St. John’s and beyond and also essential to the welfare of our democracy and our world. So in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy, let me say a few words about each of these characteristics in relation to you students and your time at St. John’s College.
First, love of learning. The St. John’s program and our students are, first and foremost, dedicated to learning -- life-long learning. As I alluded to earlier, your time at St. John’s is not the beginning of your learning, nor is it the end. It is focused on ends not means. It is not intended to limit horizons, but to broaden them. It is an education that prepares students, as former Newsweek editor Jon Mecham put it, “for a good life, not the good life.”
Much of what has contributed to our recent economic doldrums 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 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. An education that encourages us to remain open and learn from experiences that challenge our existing beliefs. An education that is the basis for a life-time of learning, contribution and meaning. A St. John’s education.
While a St. John’s education is not intended to train you specifically 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 my life.”
St. John’s changes lives, not by offering what is considered relevant, courses designed to prepare for a specific vocation, but by providing the opportunity to further develop the attributes that we know the future will demand -- intellectual courage and insatiable curiosity which provide the foundation to learn and to 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, doctors when we offer no pre-med courses, food editors and chefs when we have no culinary majors, and teachers when we offer no education courses.
Just this week I received a letter from an alumnus attributing his achieving advanced degrees in chemical engineering and law to his St. John’s education.
Dr. Norman Levan epitomizes our graduates. Dr. Levan, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California Medical School, is a 1974 alumnus of the Graduate Institute. He too told me that, “St. John’s College changed my life.” Indeed, his education at St. John’s, which he undertook well into his career at USC, meant so much to him that he generously funded the beautiful new building facing the placita that bears his name and serves as the home of the Graduate Institute.
Dr. Levan is a vivid example of the St. John’s alumni’s belief in life-long learning. This intense fervor for learning unites our alumni. I see it whether our alumnus or alumnae is an editor in New York City, an educator on the Navajo Reservation, an international lawyer in Miami, a restaurateur in Paris, a novelist on Cape Cod, a diplomat in Burundi, a farmer in New Mexico or a screen writer in Hollywood. Indeed, every month alumni across the globe gather for seminar, to learn together. Over the past weekend just such a group of alumni met here at the college. This evening you are joining their ranks as a life-long learner.
The St. John’s program, for both the undergraduate and graduate students, also encourages a life-long commitment to 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. The freedom from slavery to popular opinion or fad or fashion. To reject simple solutions and to make informed choices for yourself.
Let us turn to the second of Dr. King’s qualities, intellectual courage. The St. John’s program demands great intellectual courage and builds upon it. Your intellectual courage will probably never be tested in quite the way Dr. King’s was, but by your presence here this evening you have already demonstrated such courage. How? By going against the prevailing wisdom of the day that extols prevocational training and sees a college education as simply a means to a job, and instead, by seeking an education that is the foundation for a life. But, courage, both physical and intellectual, requires self-discipline and practice. It requires intense focus on your goal and a constant effort to minimize distractions.
How will St. John’s test and hone your intellectual courage? The answer is through the 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.
The all-required curriculum requires you to move beyond your intellectual comfort zone and demands attention to every facet of the program. 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. 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 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 and discussion. While conversation is central, it is not the only element. 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, and this active participation requires courage as well.
In addition, it takes intellectual courage to face the most fundamental, important and eternal questions posed by the texts. Questions that 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 life and death, questions of who we are and where we are going, questions of the divine and more. These questions can be frightening, but they provide insights that will guide us today in our personal lives and in our lives as citizens and members of a global society.
Intellectual courage also demands intellectual maturity. Dr. King certainly showed this. The St. John’s program nurtures intellectual maturity as well. 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. They are drawn to rhetoric and simple solutions. Often they are pawns for the ideas and passions of others. They may be grown, but they are not adults.
As I hope you can see St. John’s provides ample opportunities for you to develop your intellectual courage. By signing the College register this evening, you have shown your willingness to seize this opportunity.
The third characteristic Dr. King exhibited was a commitment to civility and civil discourse. And, at St. John’s, civility, civil discourse, is at the heart of the academic program and indeed at the heart of the entire life of the college. The college simply cannot flourish without it.
What does civility mean at St. John’s? It begins with our formal means of address in the classroom, Mr., Mrs., Ms., but more fundamentally it is rooted in mutual respect, truly treating your neighbor as yourself. Mutual respect is essential here, because learning at the college 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 through the contribution of faculty, staff and fellow students as well.
Each member of the class, whether student or tutor, is expected to come prepared and to participate actively. Each student shares not only a responsibility for his or her own learning but for the learning 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. Perhaps most fundamental to learning at St. John’s is the art of listening carefully, absorbing and reflecting upon what others say, respecting their perspective and resisting the temptation to always have the last word.
The report of a music critic in the local newspaper, The Santa Fe New Mexican,who attended a concert at the college, illustrates this very well.
“An appreciative audience packed the Great Hall at St. John’s College . . . for a deeply rewarding recital by two musicians of unusual perspicacity. . . . First, a word about the audience. . . [A]s the concert hour arrived, the hall filled up with a steady stream of college students, who through the entire concert displayed a level of rapt attention that is rarely encountered in the course of anyone’s concert-going. . . St. John’s students are not in every way typical of the world at large, to be sure, and since they are unusually well trained in the art of listening to other people, it is not a stretch to understand why they are similarly open to paying attention to worthwhile things being expressed through nonverbal means. Listening in their presence was uplifting.”
Just as in the concert, the overall experience at St. John’s is centered on face-to-face interaction, in and out of the classroom. We believe that this is essential to the education of our students and helps them develop the skills to engage effectively and civilly in all aspects of the college while they are here and in society after they leave. There is certainly a place for and a value to the internet, but at St. John’s the “social networking” we emphasize and celebrate is direct, in-person, and civil communications. Unfortunately, too often the internet and social media discourage civility. We must resist this.
Finally, civility requires action. You can’t practice it alone. You must get involved. For the freshmen, we hope your dorm room is comfortable, but don’t hang out there. For the graduate students, we hope you will enjoy the new Darkey Common Room, the graduate lounge, in Levan Hall, but please don’t hold up there. Exercise your body and spirit as well as your mind. Get to the gym. Actively join in intramurals. You don’t have to be a jock to do so. Be a Quixotic, a Geometer, a Myrmidon or an Olympian. Throw a pot in the pottery studio. Work on a play. Go whitewater rafting. Join the Search and Rescue team. Write for The Moon, the student publication. Serve on Student Polity, the student government. These are just a sample. If you don’t find an organization that responds to your passion, start one. The college will be glad to help you.
Further in the spirit of Martin Luther King, look for an opportunity to serve others, 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 Director of Residential Life, Matt Johnston. If you do so, you will benefit yourself as well as your neighbors.
Respect for others begins with respect for yourself. Take care of yourself. 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.
Take civility seriously with your fellow students, tutors, staff and others in the college and Santa Fe communities. Model the behavior The New Mexican critic extolled in his article. Look out especially for your roommate and classmates. Don’t allow them to disrespect or harm themselves or others.
One particular note on campus safety: During the spring and summer there will be construction for our new residential center opposite the lower dorms. Please pay attention to the work site and the equipment as it moves about.
So we celebrate your matriculation at St. John’s tonight, but as we do so, let us also keep in mind the three qualities of Dr King and their relationship to you and values of the college. Commit to your learning for today and for a lifetime. Be courageous in pursuing the breadth and depth of the academic program. Be civil and respectful in all your interactions. In doing so you will gain and contribute the most while at the college and wherever life takes you.
Before closing I want to mention that there will be a performance exploring the lives and deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X entitled “Involuntary Speech – a Performance piece for 12 Voices and Piano” this Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings. The text is by Tutor Phil LeCuyer and music by Tutor Andy Kingston and GI student Thomas Conroy and features members of the St. John’s community. I hope many of you will be able to attend.
Once again, JFs and GIs congratulations on choosing St. John’s. The faculty and staff celebrate this milestone in your education with you. We are extremely pleased to have you learning with us. 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 2014, students in the Graduate Institute, returning students, faculty, staff, alumni, families and friends, I declare the college in session.