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