About St. John’s College
Convocation Remarks, August 26, 2010
Convocation Remarks, August 26, 2010
President Michael P. Peters
Good morning. Welcome again Freshmen class of 2014 and new Liberal Arts and Eastern Classics students in the Graduate Institute. Congratulations on pursuing your education at St. John’s College. We are very pleased you are joining us.
A special welcome to the families who are here this morning. Each student arrives at the college not only through his or her own efforts, although they are no doubt substantial, but also through the efforts and sacrifices of others. Some of whom are here with us, especially the students’ families and friends. Please join me in thanking them.
Welcome back to the rest of the college – students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends.
I not only want to welcome you new students, but also to congratulate each of you for choosing St. John’s. You have elected to pursue perhaps the most pure liberal education in America, at a time when the value of a liberal education is increasingly questioned. At a time when the prevailing attitude extols efficiency and tangible returns, or rewards, and undervalues the immeasurable, intangible, but nonetheless very real long-term benefits of a liberal education both to the individual and to the society.
These attitudes have been exacerbated by the current economic, social and political challenges. As a result there seems to be an increasing demand from governmental and other leaders for colleges and college students to focus their education simply on acquiring the tools necessary for the workplace. The idea of higher education is seen merely as a route to economic advancement and competitiveness overlooking the enduring benefit it brings more broadly to the individual and society. The implication being that today a liberal education – a St. John’s education -- is an unaffordable luxury. This thought may have occurred to some of you, but I am pleased you and your families have rejected this erroneous, unfortunate and I believe ultimately harmful conclusion for you and our society.
Because, I believe that, on the contrary, in today’s world a St. John’s education is even more important and even more timely than ever. The St. John’s program, the program you have chosen, is about ends not means. It is not intended to limit horizons, but to broaden them. I do not deny that a vocation, earning a living, is an important part of life. Indeed, we have a growing college-funded internship program that allows students to explore vocational possibilities during their time at the college. But a job is certainly not all of life or even most of life. We spend much of our lives outside the workplace, with our families, in our communities, in the broader society and in those especially important quiet hours set aside for ourselves and our own thoughts and reflections.
You have come to St. John’s and Santa Fe, New Mexico from across the United States and the world to undertake a disciplined and integrated program, whether graduate or undergraduate, and to join a community committed to liberal education. I would like to extend a very special welcome to our international students. I applaud each of you for having the courage and independence of mind to resist the conventional wisdom focused as it is on the short term, to look beyond the immediate and to reflect on what is most valuable and most enduring. Not what seems most urgent, but what is truly most important. Rarely are these the same.
Having taken the step of signing the register and enrolling at St. John’s, what should you expect to find here? Perhaps one way to understand what lies ahead is to look at one of the culminating aspects of the undergraduate program, the senior essay.
Essays, writing, are an integral part of the St. John’s program, for both the graduate students and undergraduates. Each of you will write papers in virtually every class while at the college. However, the senior essay has a particularly visible and important role. For example, the title of each senior’s essay is published in the commencement program. The seniors submit their essay early in their final semester. Later they discuss their essay in a public conversation with three members of the faculty.
The senior essays explore and reflect upon a text or an idea that has sparked the student’s particular interest during their studies. The essays reflect the breath and depth of the program of instruction. They also reflect the student’s own intellectual passion, some of which they, like you, brought with them, but all of which were nurtured at the college. Let me give you just a taste of some of the essays from the graduating class of 2010 as a way to preview and inspire you to the opportunities at the college, again whether you are a freshman or a graduate student.
In mathematics: Knowledge and Construction in Descartes’ La Geometri; or A Systematic Analysis of Leibniz’s Mathematically Rigorous Development of the Monad; or Mathematics According to Maxwell.
In philosophy and theology: On the Utility of Metaphor in the Gospels by Way of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason; or An Examination of “Sense Certainty” in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit; or Justice Through Injustice: A New Ethic in Plato’s Republic; or On the Meaning of Faith in Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments.
In science: Faraday, Experimental Researches in Electricity; or A Phenomenology of “c” in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
In drama, prose and poetry: The Uncounted Cost of Justice in Aeschylus’ Oresteia; or Moby Dick: The Endeavor of an Ambitious Artist to Delineate Chaos; or Pride and Vanity in Pride and Prejudice, or A Search for the Origin of Poetry in William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and “The Ruined Cottage.”
In music: Helping the Chorus Lament in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
In language: A Heroine’s Struggle Towards Divinity in Racine’s Phaedra.
In political science: Lincoln’s Divine Rhetoric: the Invention of American Patriotism; or Faction and Human Nature in The Federalist Papers; or Self Interest and the Peloponnesian War.
After reading the list of senior essays at a St. John’s College commencement some years ago the commentator William F. Buckley, a graduate of Yale University, pronounced that this is a college he would have liked to attend. You are doing just that. What would your essay topic be, if you could write it today? Imagine what it might be in four years.
These essays and the texts and ideas they represent would be nothing more than a hodgepodge without a mechanism to connect and integrate them. And, this connection and integration is exactly what the St. John’s program seeks to do.
The St. John’s program, for both the undergraduate and graduate students, nurtures intellectual freedom – the freedom to explore the ideas that have informed and shaped the past, inform and shape the present and will surely inform and shape the future. The freedom to question these ideas and grow in all dimensions – mind, body and spirit. The freedom to think for yourself. The freedom not just to answer questions, but to question answers. The opportunity to experience the liberating quality of education that encourages a healthy skepticism grounded in knowledge, but that rejects mindless cynicism and nihilism. The freedom from slavery to popular opinion or fad or fashion. To make informed choices for yourself.
You have already exercised this freedom by enrolling at St. John’s College. Freedom, however, is not license. Freedom also demands responsibility, of which I will comment further in a moment.
The St. John’s program also nurtures intellectual maturity. Maturity is not merely a matter of chronological age. Some people remain children in many ways for their entire lives. They never think for themselves, never develop a respect for others, never learn responsibility and never contribute to anything beyond themselves. Often they are pawns for the ideas and passions of others. They may be grown, but they are not adults. The opportunity to become free adults is what St. John’s and its program aspire to provide and by signing the College register this morning, you have shown your commitment to pursue this end as well.
If the objective of a St. John’s education is freedom, or free men and women, how does St. John’s help its students attain this freedom? The answer is through an all-required curriculum in the liberal arts. The St. John’s curriculum is not as radical perhaps as the program Plato lays out in The Republic, which the freshmen and graduate students in Liberal Arts will study later this year. Yet all the undergraduates study four years of mathematics; four years of language, two of ancient Greek and two of French; three years of laboratory science; two years of music; four years of seminar; and allows for only two electives, what we call preceptorials. These courses are reflected in the senior essays. And a graduate curriculum in both Eastern Classics and Liberal Arts that is similarly structured. A curriculum for graduate students and undergraduates which is based on reading and discussing original texts, many of which were written hundreds, even thousands, of years ago, some in now dead languages. Texts that are sometimes referred to as Great Books.
Why original texts; why Great Books, eastern or western? How do they contribute to making free men and women?
They do so by raising the most fundamental, important and eternal questions. Questions that are as alive today as they were centuries ago. Questions of character and virtue, questions of human relations, questions of power and politics, questions of war and peace, questions of life and death, questions of who we are and where we are going, questions of the divine and more. We grapple with these questions precisely because they provide insights that may guide us today in our personal lives and in our lives as citizens and members of a global society. Questions that are the foundation of freedom.
The St. John’s curriculum may, on the surface, seem not only the antithesis of freedom, but even anti-democratic, as choice is the essence of democracy. However, although the curriculum is determined, the education that emerges from this curriculum is anything but. Choice is abundant in the questions that are raised and the manner in which they are addressed as is evident in the senior essay topics. In fact, we believe that we have the most democratic classrooms possible. Nothing is predetermined. Every question is open for discussion. Everyone is equal in the classroom and has a voice before the texts and the ideas they contain. Classes at St. John’s are led by tutors, not professors. Tutors, who are here because they want to learn with the students, not lecture or profess. The conversation begins with a question from the tutor, but the class responds to the questions of all. The texts themselves are the teachers. Learning is the goal and questions are the means.
But learning at St. John’s consists of more than reading about and discussing the ideas in Great Books. The St. John’s program is very much a hands-on enterprise. Active participation is the norm whether it is conducting an experiment in the laboratory, demonstrating a proof at the board in math, or translating a portion of a Greek or French text in language. While conversation is at the heart of learning at St. John’s, it is not the only element. Experimentation, demonstration, translation, musical composition and performance and most of all writing are integral to learning at the college. I hope you can see this in the senior essays I mentioned earlier.
Learning at St. John’s is also a cooperative endeavor, but it is based on individual responsibility. Just as your accomplishment in coming to St. John’s is not the result of your efforts alone, so your accomplishments while at St. John’s will come not only through your efforts but also through the contribution of faculty, fellow students and staff.
Each member of the class is expected to come prepared and to participate actively. Each student shares a responsibility for the success of the class. What a student gains from the class and the entire program depends first and foremost on his or her own preparation and participation, but it also depends on the preparation and participation of his or her classmates. Part of learning at St. John’s is listening carefully, absorbing and reflecting upon what others say and resisting the temptation to always have the last word.
The experience at St. John’s is centered on face-to-face interaction, in and out of the classroom. There is certainly a place for and a value to the internet, but at St. John’s the “social networking” we emphasize and celebrate is direct, in person communications. We believe that this contributes to the education of our students and helps them develop the skills to engage effectively in all aspects of the college while they are here and in society after they leave.
While a St. John’s education is not intended to train you specifically for your first job, it will certainly help prepare you for the future, for both a living and a life. It is not unusual for alumni to claim that St. John’s “changed my life,” and just this week I received a letter from a graduate with these exact words.
St. John’s changes lives, not by offering what is considered relevant; courses designed to prepare for a specific vocation, but by providing the opportunity to hone the attributes that we know the future will demand -- an insatiable intellectual curiosity and the ability to learn and to adapt. This ability along with their innate intellectual curiosity further fostered at St. John’s are why our alumni are research scientists when we do no research, creative artists when we teach no art, internet entrepreneurs when we have no computer science classes, business executives when we teach no business, doctors when we offer no pre-med courses, or food editors and chefs when we have no culinary majors.
Dr. Norman Levan epitomizes our graduates. Dr. Levan, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California Medical School, is a 1974 alumnus of the St. John’s College Graduate Institute. He too told me that, “St. John’s College changed my life.” Indeed, his education at St. John’s, which he undertook well into his career at USC, meant so much to him that he generously funded the new building to your rear that bears his name and serves as the Graduate Institute’s home.
As Dr. Levan demonstrates, this is an education meant for a lifetime. It is the beginning not the end of your learning. An intense fervor for learning unites all St. John’s alumni. I see it whether our alumnus or alumnae is an editor in New York City, an educator on the Navajo Reservation, an international lawyer in Miami, a restaurateur in Paris, a novelist on Cape Cod, a diplomat in Burundi, a farmer in New Mexico or a screen writer in Hollywood. Indeed, every month alumni from across the globe gather for seminar, to learn together.
Today you take the first step in joining their ranks. This is not only your first day of class; it is also your first day as a Johnnie for life. The alumni, whom I have mentioned, sat where you sit today, signed the register as you have and engaged in the same programs, graduate and undergraduate, you are embarking upon this morning. Now it is your turn to seize the opportunity you have been offered and to make the most of it. Explore, define, question, commit. Don’t sit on the sidelines passively in the classroom and beyond.
Get involved. For the freshmen, we hope your dorm room is comfortable, but don’t hang out there. For the graduate students, we hope you will enjoy the new Darkey Common Room, what we call the graduate lounge, in Levan Hall, but please don’t hold up there. Exercise your body and spirit as well as your mind. Get to the gym. Actively join in intramurals. Be a Quixotic, a Geometer, a Myrmidon or an Olympian. Throw a pot in the pottery studio. Work on a play. Go whitewater rafting. Join the Search and Rescue team. Write for The Moon, the student publication. Run for Student Polity, the student government. These are just a sample. If you don’t find an organization that responds to your passion, start one. The college will be glad to help you.
Also look for an opportunity for service, to give back. There are tremendous needs in the local community. Imagine what a difference we could make if each of us found some way to serve others. Your fellow students in Project Politae are dedicated to serving the community on and off campus. They have many possibilities that can work within your schedule. You can contact them through the Director of Residential Life, Matt Johnston. If you do so you will benefit yourself as well as others.
Your first opportunity is this Saturday morning at the on-campus Community Service Day. If you get to the dining hall at 8:30 Saturday morning you can sample one of my patented presidential pancakes. Believe me; you will be glad you did.
Finally, take care of yourself and your fellow students. Look out for your roommate and classmates. Watch your health and mind your habits. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, now is the time to stop. I’ve got some shocking news. Smoking won’t improve your studies or make you any better looking! In fact, it will do just the opposite. Be very careful with alcohol. It can lead to great harm personally and have a destructive effect on the community. In addition, underage drinking is against the law and a reminder that the treatment of law in the books we read is more than merely theoretical.
In conclusion, congratulations again on choosing St. John’s. The faculty and staff are extremely pleased to have you with us and pledge to work as hard as you do to make the program come alive for you. For the freshmen, I look forward to your senior essays in less than four years. But, all of you should know, graduate students and undergraduates alike, that since you have joined us, St. John’s College will never be the same, and since you have joined St. John’s College, I am confident you will never be the same.
Class of 2014, new students in the Graduate Institute, returning students, faculty, staff, alumni, families and friends, I declare the college in session.