About St. John’s College
The Example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(Convocation Remarks, January 20, 2014)
Good evening. Welcome again January Freshmen class of 2017 affectionately referred to as JFs at St. John’s, and new students in the Graduate Institute, equally affectionately referred to here as GIs. Congratulations on choosing St. John’s College here in the beautiful foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico.
A special welcome to the families who are able to join us this evening. 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 you JFs and GIs. 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.
It is also a time of celebration for the college as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Santa Fe campus. So, you will be with us as we celebrate over the next couple years with lectures, an academic conference and a myriad of other activities for the campus, college and Santa Fe communities.
Tonight is also a time for reflection. 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.
Dr. King demonstrated through his life how the ideas and character of one man can create positive change and improve the lives of many. He put his beliefs into action and the welfare of others before himself and we are all beneficiaries.
Among the many qualities of Dr. King, there are three that I want to highlight this evening, because I believe they speak directly to us in this room at this time and to some of what St. John’s College values and hopes to emulate. These three 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 was liberally educated, read voraciously and looked for opportunities to apply what he read and what he learned to his life. Dr. King was convinced of the power of knowledge and the importance of seeking the truth. He 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.
As many of you are aware, last August was the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream”. But there is another less well-known but important work of Dr. King’s that illustrates emphatically how his education and his love of learning guided his thinking and his actions. This is a letter written while he was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama in response to the admonitions of some of the city’s white clergy to forgo his demonstrations against segregation in that city, aptly known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
In refuting the arguments of the local clergy, Dr. King called upon the ideas, ideals and examples of a number of the writers and texts you will encounter at St. John’s: Socrates, St. Paul’s epistles in the New Testament, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and the founding documents of the United States. He spoke of justice and injustice, of law and morality, of rights and responsibility to self and to society, of freedom and enslavement, of courage and conviction, and of questioning and conformity. You will also confront these issues, ideas and thinkers along with so many others while at St. John’s. I commend “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to you as an example of the connection between ideas and actions. It is short, but powerful.
Second, he was courageous. He manifested both physical and intellectual courage. His courage grew out of his faith and was bolstered by his broader study and great self-discipline. His actions in Selma, Birmingham and Memphis showed his physical courage. But, perhaps more importantly, he had the courage of his convictions and belief in the ideals of his faith and of his country. It was this belief in his country that Martin Luther King spoke to in both “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and the “I Have a Dream” speech. In that speech he spoke these words, “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.’” Words that resonate through the years.
Finally, as he makes clear in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Dr. King was committed to non-violence, civility and civil discourse. A commitment that seems as urgent and important today given our political and social discourse as it was in the desegregation struggles of the 1960s.
Dr. King called on 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, so that all of us can attain and contribute all we are capable of attaining and contributing. Elsewhere he said, "All life is interrelated, that somehow we're caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality."
He believed in the power of conversation, of dialogue. Too often in our national and personal discourse dogma seems to replace reason and diatribe dialogue. Some of this behavior derives from a desire for simplicity, for simple answers, simple solutions. But, things that matter are not usually simple, as you will certainly observe in your studies. 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. We should try to follow the example of Dr. King and choose words privately and publically that help 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 are 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 not intended to limit horizons, but to broaden them.
Much of what has contributed to our recent economic doldrums and political malaise is not the lack of technical competence or expertise 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.
Therefore, the answer for our nation’s challenges today and tomorrow is not more narrow competence or 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. Education should encourage us to remain open and learn from studies and experiences that challenge our prejudices, recognized and unrecognized, and broaden our perspective. This is exactly what a St. John’s education seeks to do.
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 curiosity -- the ability 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.
This intense fervor for learning unites our alumni. Indeed, every month alumni across the globe gather for seminar, to learn together. Just this past weekend a group of alumni met here at the college to read and discuss together Dostoyevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov”. This evening you are joining their ranks as a life-long learner.
The St. John’s program also encourages a 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 freedom to reject simple solutions and to make informed choices for yourself.
This commitment to intellectual freedom extends beyond the personal to the broader society and underpins the very nature of our democratic republic. As past St. John’s president Stringfellow Barr put it in a quotation some of you may have noticed on the wall next to the admissions’ office on the first floor of Weigle Hall:
“A seminar is a republic of learning; so is a college. In order to operate it must have learners. It must also have a common body of literature and science which will serve as the medium of exchange…There must be times of confusion and times of clarification. The roads of learning must always be kept open. It is out of such institutions that the prototype of our civil liberties have spread, freedom of thought has given rise to freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the freedom of the press.”
Take a moment to read the quotation along with that of Barr’s colleague and Dean Scott Buchanan when you are in Weigle Hall.
Let us turn to the second of Dr. King’s qualities, intellectual courage. The St. John’s program demands courage and builds upon it. Your courage may 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 only as a means to a job, and instead, by seeking an education that is the foundation for a life. But, courage, both physical and intellectual, as Dr. King showed, requires self-discipline and practice. It requires intense focus on your goals and a constant effort to minimize distractions.
How will St. John’s test and hone your intellectual courage? Fundamentally through its integrated, interdisciplinary curriculum in the liberal arts. An undergraduate curriculum that brings together mathematics, language, laboratory science, music, and seminar including literature, philosophy, history and social science. And a similar graduate curriculum. A curriculum, for both the graduates and undergraduates, that is based on reading and discussing the ideas found in original texts.
The curriculum requires that you to move outside your intellectual comfort. While the curriculum is determined, the education that emerges from it 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 whose single aim is to encourage and learn with the students. 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, translating a portion of a Greek or French text in language class, or writing an essay for seminar, and this active participation requires courage as well.
In addition, it takes courage to face the most fundamental and eternal questions posed by the texts. Questions that are as alive today as they were centuries ago. Questions raised by Dr. King in “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. 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 in our personal and professional lives and in our lives as family members, citizens and members of a global society.
Intellectual courage also requires intellectual maturity. The St. John’s program helps nurture 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.
The third characteristic Dr. King exhibited was a commitment to civility and civil discourse. And, at St. John’s, civility and civil discourse are at the heart of the classroom and indeed 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, because learning at the college is a cooperative endeavor based on individual responsibility. Just as you did not get to St. John’s by yourself, so your accomplishments while at St. John’s will come not only through your efforts but in collaboration with faculty, staff and fellow students as well.
Perhaps most crucial 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 overall experience at St. John’s is centered on face-to-face interaction and dialogue, in and out of the classroom. We believe that this is essential to the education of our students and helps you develop the skills to engage effectively and civilly in all aspects of the college while you are here and in your home, your workplace and your community after you 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. Something unfortunately too often missing in social media today.
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 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. Climb a mountain. 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. Look out for your roommate and classmates as well.
So as we celebrate your matriculation at St. John’s tonight, let us also keep in mind and reflect upon 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 your studies. 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.
Once again, JFs and GIs welcome to St. John’s College. The faculty and staff celebrate this milestone in your education with 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.
Your first seminar is about to begin, so let’s get going! I declare the college in session.