Twice each week, about 20 students and two tutors assemble
around a table to discuss an assigned reading. Whether the reading
consists of a few pages of dense philosophical argument, a hundred
pages of a novel, or even a musical score, it provides the occasion
for an often intense two-hour discussion, an unparalleled investiga-
tion into the meaning of the text and its significance for our lives:
the St. John’s seminar.
Here, at the heart of the program, students and tutors
approach difficult ideas with the expectation that, as the conversa-
tion feels its way along, points of understanding will gradually
extend the reach of everyone in the room. Beginning with a question
asked by one of the tutors (there are two to prevent the teacher from
becoming the locus of authority or the central focus of the conversa-
tion), students delve into the work under discussion without
external sources, formulating penetrating questions of their own.
A discussion of Genesis might begin with the question, “Is God
good?”; in considering Hobbes’s
the conversation might
start with “What is a free country?” But it need not linger on the
opening question. In all cases, the discussion proceeds organically,
with no agenda other than an underlying desire to deepen our under-
standing of thematters at issue in the text and in the discussion.
How are the
Are there any lectures?
The only regularly scheduled lectures at St. John’s occur on Friday evenings,
when the entire college community is invited to gather for a formal talk by
a tutor or guest speaker on program or non-program topics. Recent talks have
included “Kant’s Rational Being as Moral Being,” “Does Beauty Have a Place
in Liberal Education?” and “The Two Lives of Compassion in Early India.”
After a brief break, many attendees reassemble in an adjacent room, where they
engage the lecturer in discussion—often until late into the night.