About St. John's College: Santa Fe
The Curriculum: The Language Tutorial
Specialization in higher education has led to a profound neglect of language skills. As country is separated from country by the barrier of language, so profession is separated from profession by technical jargon. Primarily, the language tutorial attempts to remedy this condition by training in the means of precise communication. In a broad sense, it may be thought of as a present-day restoration of the traditional studies of grammar, rhetoric, and logic.
The tutorial seeks to foster an intelligent and active grasp of the relations between language on the one hand and thought and imagination on the other. To do this, it must direct attention to the fundamental ways in which words can be put together; to the modes of signifying things; to the varied connotations and ambiguities of terms; to the role of metaphors, analogies and images; and to the logical relations that connect propositions.
The study of foreign languages (Greek in the first and second years, and French in the third and fourth years) provides an effective means to these ends. By studying these languages, by translating from them into English, and by comparing them with each other and with English, the students learn something of the nature of languages in general and of their own in particular.
During the four years, then, they study language as the discourse of reason, as the articulation of experience, and as the medium of the art of poetry; and both directly and indirectly, through the intermediary of foreign tongues, they study their own language. They discover the resources of articulate speech and learn the rules that must govern it if it is to be clear, consistent and effective - if it is to be adequate and persuasive.
In the beginning, the emphasis is on the forms of words, the grammatical constructions, and the vocabulary of each language being studied. Thus the rapid reading for the seminar, with its attention to the large outlines and to the general trend and development of the central idea, is supplemented and corrected by a more precise and analytical study, one that is concerned with particular details and shades of meaning and with the abstract logical structure and rhetorical pattern of a given work. Those are matters that do not come directly into seminar discussions. The students' concern with them in the language tutorial improves all their reading, for whatever immediate end, deepens and enriches their understanding, and increases their ability to think clearly and to speak well.
A secondary purpose of the language tutorial is support of the seminar. Some of the works read for seminar are also studied in the tutorial, free from the veil of ready-made translation. Issues are brought to the fore that might otherwise have been neglected, and they can be discussed with greater precision than the seminar usually permits. This habit of precision, in its turn, can then become more common in seminar.
The language tutorial cannot and should not aim at mastery of the foreign language, but the students can reasonably expect to obtain a knowledge of grammatical forms and a grasp of the peculiar qualities of the languages that they study. To experience the individuality of another language is to extend the boundaries of one's sensibility.
The choice of foreign languages is in part dictated by the seminar reading schedule and is in part arbitrary. Latin and German might be used without changing the pattern and aims of the tutorial. The first year of Greek, however, goes well with the freshman seminar and mathematics tutorial, and the continuance of Greek into the second year advances the work of the first. The second year ends with analysis and discussion of works by Shakespeare, Donne, and other English poets.
The French of the third year begins with a brief, intensive study of French grammar followed by the reading of a French text. The aim here is economical progress toward facility in the reading of simple French. Students already fluent in French may be exempted from these early stages. Then follows examination of the form and content of French prose selections. Discussions of both form and content are related to appropriate writing assignments, including exercises in translation in which the students attempt to match in their own tongue the excellence of their models. In the second semester a play is read - Racine's Phaedre.
The principal activity of the fourth year is the reading of French prose and poetry, including a number of poems from Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal. Its immediate object is the understanding and enjoyment of each poem in its parts and as a whole. It also provides a substantial basis for discussion of the art of poetry and clarification of the relation of that art to the traditional liberal arts of language. Writing assignments include exercises in translation more ambitious than those attempted in the third year. The year ends with analysis and discussion of modern British and American poets, such as T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, W. B. Yeats, and Wallace Stevens.