News & Publications
The College Magazine - Summer 2008
A Shared Experience
Minutes after the recessional marking the end of the 216th Commencement in Annapolis, Nancie and Bill Lee of Mililani, Hawaii, hurried to McDowell Hall carrying two Banana Republic shopping bags with their gifts: 130 purple orchid leis, one for each new graduate and their tutors. In Hawaii a lei is a gift of affection and celebration. The Lees, whose son Justin was among the Class of 2008, presented the leis in the spirit of community that is at the heart of St. John's College.
Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, touched on this spirit when he described his meeting with the students who visited him at the NEH to invite him to speak at Commencement: "One thing that struck me when I met with some members of this graduating class in January was how consistently all the students spoke in terms of 'we,' not 'I,' when discussing their experience here at the college," he said.
Cole congratulated the parents of the 106 graduating seniors and 22 Graduate Institute students who obtained master's degrees by leading a round of applause. He praised the college's "democratic" education, which he described as "the sense of a shared experience—what one St. John's alumnus has described to me as an 'intense commonality.'"
Appointed by President George W. Bush to chair the NEH in 2001, Cole was previously Distinguished Professor of Art History and Professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University in Bloomington. He praised the value of a liberal arts education, but emphasized the unique nature of St. John's. "I can say with confidence that the great books education you have received at St. John's is truly one-of-a-kind. At this college, you haven't acquired knowledge in the form of textbooks and lectures, pre-packaged for easy consumption like a frozen TV dinner. You haven't absorbed these great works through the filter of another person's mind, however brilliant that person might be."
Graduates of St. John's, Cole said, leave the college with a "moral sense" acquired through books and discussions. "By their very nature, most of the books you have encountered at St. John's have forced you to constantly ask yourselves, 'What should I do? What does it mean to live a good life?' On too many campuses today, these fundamental questions are left unasked-sometimes, as incredible as this might sound, because other questions are deemed higher priorities; and often, simply because it is presumed that ultimately we cannot find the answers. At St. John's, these questions have guided your whole education, and for that, you should be profoundly grateful."
By educating students through careful reading and genuine conversation, Cole said, "St. John's has given you more than just the means to make a living-it has also given you the tools to make a life, a good and flourishing private life as an individual, as a spouse, as a parent, as a friend."
By Patricia Dempsey
Great Books for a Global WorldAt the 41st Commencement on the Santa Fe campus, 89 undergraduates and 30 Graduate Institute students received their degrees. Rain was in the forecast, but Saturday's sky was clear, and the weather not unlike a brisk fall day. The Artemis String Quartet provided music for the procession and recession, and the college Commencement Choir sang pieces by Palestrina and de Cristo before and after the address to the graduating class given by Richard N. Haass. Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank and publisher dedicated to helping the public better understand the world and foreign policy. He has authored or edited 10 books on American foreign policy, the most recent of which is The Opportunity: America's Moment to Alter History's Course. Prior to serving on the Council on Foreign Relations, Haass was director of policy planning for the Department of State and a principal adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell. He has been vice president and director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "We were so pleased to have someone of Richard Haass' stature and experience speak to our graduates about great books, great ideas and their link to global issues and the lives of our graduates," said Michael P. Peters, president of the Santa Fe campus, who before joining St. John's was executive vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Haass began with an outline of the nonpolar nature of today's foreign relations, operating within a world that has moved from concentrated power to one of distributed power. "All of you-no matter your career path-will be affected by nonpolarity. The world is not Las Vegas: what happens there will not stay there." He referenced Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War, with its many examples of hard-headed analysis. "Through his exploration of the politics, diplomacy, and conflicts of the great powers of his day, Thucydides provided foreign policy insights that remain relevant in our time," said Haass. He suggested five books that would add greatly to one's knowledge of foreign policy: Hedley Bull's The Anarchical Society, Henry Kissinger's A World Restored, Michael Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars, Carl von Clausewiz's On War, and George Kennan's American Diplomacy. "Understanding of the world is essential not only for your role as competitors, but also for your duty as citizens," said Haass. "This understanding will enable you to meet your obligations to society and to live up to the credo of this wonderful institution, namely, 'to make intelligent, free choices concerning the ends and means of public life.' "
By Jenny Hannifin