About St. John's College: Santa Fe
The Curriculum: The Seminar
The heart of the curriculum is the seminar - a discussion of assigned readings from the books of the program. In each seminar seventeen to twenty-one students work with two members of the faculty who serve as leaders. The group meets twice a week, on Monday and Thursday evenings, from eight until ten - or sometimes well beyond if the topic under discussion has aroused a sustained and lively conversation. The assignment for each seminar amounts, on the average, to around eighty pages of reading, but may be much shorter if the text happens to be particularly difficult. The seminar begins with a question asked by one of the leaders. Thereafter the seminar consists mostly of student discussion. Students talk with one another, not just to the leaders. They do not raise their hands for permission to be heard, but enter the discussion or withdraw from it at will. The resulting informality is tempered by the use of formal modes of address.
Once underway, the seminar may take many forms. It may range from the most particular to the most general. The reading of Thucydides, for example, is almost certain to elicit a discussion of war and aggression and to bring to the surface the students' opinions and fears about the wisdom or error of national policies. Homer and Dante prompt reflections on human virtues and vices and on humanity's ultimate fate. Sometimes a seminar will devote all its time to an interpretation of the assigned reading, staying close to the text; at other times the talk may range widely over topics suggested by the reading, but bearing only indirectly on the text itself in the minds of the participants. In the coffee shop after seminar, students from different groups compare the points made in their discussions.
Except for the requirements of common courtesy, there are only two rules: first, all opinions must be heard and explored, however sharply they may clash; second, every opinion must be supported by argument - an unsupported opinion does not count. In a freshman seminar the students may tend to express their opinions with little regard for their relevance to the question or their relation to the opinions of others. Gradually, in their interplay with one another, the students learn to proceed with care, keeping to the topic and trying to uncover the meanings of the terms they use. They learn, gradually also, that to some extent the procedure of the seminar varies with the kind of reading under study; poetry is not philosophy, and it can require a different approach. Such progress in learning together may be crowned by sudden insights on the part of a few of the seminar members, or by occasions when the seminar as a whole achieves illumination.
The course of the discussion cannot be fixed in advance; it is determined rather by the necessity of "following the argument," of facing the crucial issues, or of seeking foundations upon which a train of reasoning can be pursued. The argument does not necessarily lead to the answer to a question. More often than not the question remains open with certain alternatives clearly outlined. The progress of the seminar is not particularly smooth; the discussion may sometimes branch off and entangle itself in irrelevant difficulties. Only gradually can the logical rigor of an argument emerge within the sequence of analogies and other imaginative devices by which the discussion is kept alive. A seminar may also degenerate into rather empty talk, without being able for some time to extricate itself from such a course. At its best, the seminar may reach insights far beyond the initial views held by any of its members.
Under these circumstances, the primary role of the leaders is not to give information, nor is it to produce the "right" opinion or interpretation. It is to guide the discussion, to keep it moving, to raise objections and to help the students in every way possible to understand the author, the issues and themselves. The most useful instrument for this purpose is the question; perhaps the most useful device of all is the question "Why?" But the leaders may also take a definite and positive stand and enter directly into the argument. If they do so, however, they can expect no special consideration. Reason is the only recognized authority. Consequently, all opinions must be defended with reason, and any single opinion can prevail only by general consent. The aim is always to develop the students' powers of reason and understanding, and to help them arrive at intelligent opinions of their own.
Every freshman, sophomore, and junior submits an essay on some theme suggested by the seminar readings. In Santa Fe, an essay is submitted each semester; in Annapolis, each year. The essay is not a research paper with extensive footnotes and a bibliography, but rather an attempt on the part of the students to set out in writing, as clearly as they can, their own thoughts on some aspect of the liberal arts. The essay in the second semester becomes the center of their final oral examinations. For sophomores the annual essay holds a position of special importance: it becomes the major part of the process called enabling.