According to Stringfellow Barr, one of the founders of the program
at St. John’s, the highest level of friendship is that in which people
seek in common to understand and advance one another’s interests.
As they pursue a common curriculum, St. John’s students realize
this ideal both in and out of the classroom. Within the shared
context of the books, everyone can talk to everyone else. This creates
a basis for friendship everywhere—not only around the seminar
table—and makes for a truly cohesive community.
The vision for community at St. John’s may seem lofty, yet it
is consistently attained, year after year. In class, freshmen gain a
feel for the collaborative approach by learning to listen when they
would rather talk and by learning to express their differing opinions
with respect and diplomacy. With tutors and upperclass students as
their models, new students adjust to their newfound academic and
social freedom. In the process, all come to realize that the best
interests of their classmates and community are their best interests
as well. And nowhere is this more evident than in the dormitories.
With small numbers of students in each dorm, the commu-
nity consists of “neighborhoods” built around student preferences
quiet, for example) and interests. Resident assistants (upperclass
students) and senior residents (faculty, staff, or graduate students)
live nearby, serving as role models and helping when needed. All
freshmen live on campus—most in doubles or triples—and in subse-
quent years can usually obtain singles if they wish. Some upperclass
students choose to live off campus in the local community.
Whatever their living situation, St. John’s students thrive
on one another’s company. Put two or more in a room, and their
talk will create a world.
With somuch learning incommon, are there differences?
Absolutely. St. John’s values diversity in both the classrooms and dormitories—not
only racial, cultural, and ethnic, but also socioeconomic and political. Differences in
background and experience bring the books and community to life, providing the basis
for even deeper conversations—and more illuminating revelations—than if everyone
had the same perspective. As students explore their differences, from the seminar
table to the dining hall table, they move toward a more complete understanding of
our shared humanity and world. And for all our differences, most would consider that
understanding among the highest aims of education.