About St. John’s College
President Michael P. Peters
January 18, 2008
Good evening. Welcome January Freshmen of the class of 2010 and new students in the Graduate Institute. Congratulations on choosing to continue your education at St. John’s College. Welcome also to family and friends, and welcome back to the rest of the college – faculty, staff, students and friends.
In a very short time you will be off to your first St. John’s seminar. I’m sure the past few days have been something of a blur as you left your homes, families and friends and began to settle into the college. I am also aware that you have a lot on your minds right now, not least of which is the your seminar this evening, and I know you are anxious to get to it. But, before you set off let me offer a few words of context and, I hope, encouragement.
This evening’s seminar takes place in the midst of an important year in the life of our republic as we choose those who will lead our nation for the next few years. This week alone there is a presidential primary in South Carolina and a caucus in Hawaii. By the first week of February, 34 states will have held presidential primaries or caucuses leading up to the national elections in November.
It is hard to overstate the importance of this process as the choices we make, as citizens of the United States, will influence not just our lives and but the lives of our fellow citizens of the world for the years ahead.
Your first seminar also occurs on the day set aside to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader who demonstrated throughout his life how the ideas and personal character of one man can inspire positive change in the world and improve the lives of many. Dr. King chose to put his beliefs and the welfare of others before himself and we are all beneficiaries of his dedication and actions.
So for a few minutes, in light of the elections and the memory of Dr. King and before your first seminar, I would like to reflect on choices – specifically your choices.
You are certainly at St. John’s College by choice. Most of you had many other options to pursue your education, but you chose to come to St. John’s. Why?
I hope it is because you understand and appreciate the distinctiveness of our undergraduate and graduate programs. I hope it is because you love to read, think and explore with others. I hope it is because you value our commitment to liberal education and lifelong learning. I hope it is because you want to be part of a community of learning. But most importantly, I hope it is because you have thought deeply about your education.
Between now and the elections in November both you freshmen and graduate students will have many opportunities in your seminars and other classes to read, discuss and think about the meaning of character, leadership and citizenship – and you will see examples both positive and negative.
These examples begin with the Iliad and Agamemnon, perhaps the first leader of a coalition of the willing in recorded history. And from there to the travels and perils of Odysseus, whose choices both saved and sacrificed the lives of his men and threatened his rule. And Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, a woman whose incredible devotion, wisdom, strength and craftiness insured that Odysseus would have a kingdom to return to after his wanderings.
Herodotus, the first historian, introduces you to the tyrannical Persian emperor Xerxes and to the Athenian hero Themistocles, whose strength of character and bold decisions saved Greece.
Plato’s Republic extends the conversation on governance and the responsibilities of citizenship. Thucydides in The Peloponnesian Wars illustrates the range of Athenian leadership and character from Pericles to Alcibiades and the implications of their choices: Pericles asks the Athenians to abandon the countryside in the face of the Spartan invasion and to gather in the city, and then watches helplessly as a plague devastated the population; Alcibiades’ reaction to the Athenian citizens’ personal affront leads him to betray his city and aid her enemies.
In the fall before the elections, you’ll read and discuss the challenges and choices of ancient Hebrew leaders like Moses and David. You’ll study Plutarch’s descriptions of the character and decisions of Roman leaders such as Cato and Caesar as well as Virgil’s description of Aeneas’ sojourn from Troy to Italy.
While you are engaged with the Greeks this spring, the juniors will study Machiavelli’s The Prince, with its prescriptions on morality and rule. They will also be reading the founding documents of our republic – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – along with the Federalist papers which outline the difficult choices faced by our Founding Fathers. The seniors will discuss key Supreme Court decisions, and next fall, just prior to the elections, they will examine Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. You graduate students will read many of these same works, but in a somewhat different sequence.
So as this nation makes choices that will determine its direction for the next four years and beyond, you and your fellow students will be reading, discussing and thinking about the choices that nations and their leaders have made in the past and the implications of those choices on the lives of individuals and the course of history.
But, of course, during your time at St. John’s you won’t be reading, thinking about and discussing only works on politics. You will also read widely and deeply in literature including Dante’s Divine Comedy; immerse yourself in language – translating Racine or Moliere, and reading Shakespeare’s plays; study science with Darwin’s Origin of the Species and Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity; and mathematics with Euclid’s Elements and Newton’s Principia; and philosophy – Plato and Aristotle; and music – Monteverdi and Bach; and possibly art, in a preceptorial.
We read these and other Great Books precisely because they explore the most fundamental, important and eternal questions. Questions, and the choices they raise, that are as alive today as they were centuries ago. Questions of character and virtue, right and wrong; questions of human relations; questions of beauty and creativity; questions of power and politics; questions of war and peace; questions of the divine. We grapple with these questions, these choices, for insights to guide us today in our personal lives and in our lives as citizens and members of society. We grapple with these questions, because, ultimately, they inform our choices.
But let’s get back to your more immediate choices by looking at some of the implications of your decision to attend St. John’s College.
First, in coming to St. John’s you have chosen to join a community. What does it mean to be part of a community? You will focus on this subject in your seminars with Plato, Locke, Hobbes and others. You are joining a community that includes not only your fellow students, but also the faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the college. We treat this sense of community very seriously. We are a community founded on respect. Respect for our common enterprise – learning. But also respect for ourselves and respect for one another. The nature of the college demands this respect and suffers when it breaks down. You will study a lot about ethics in your classes. And I believe ethics and etiquette are inexorably linked. We expect civility in the classroom and out, principally because it is the right way to comport ourselves, but also because it is a practical necessity if a small community like ours is to be possible at all.
The community extends beyond the classroom and beyond the campus itself. We are, for example, very much a part of the larger very distinctive communities of Santa Fe and New Mexico. I encourage you to learn about them and to the extent possible take advantage of what they offer. How about whitewater rafting through Student Activities, or hiking in the nearby hills, or exploring a local museum of Native American or Spanish Colonial Art?
You have also chosen to be part of a community that is committed to liberal education. Liberal in the sense of liberating or freeing. An education that calls upon us to take responsibility for our own learning. An education that demands we not settle for received wisdom or the interpretations of others, not even from the authors of our Great Books. An education that also requires we not be content with the mere accumulation of facts or information, but aspire to knowledge. To seek to understand for ourselves. Learning how to think, not what to think.
We believe that liberal education is dedicated to the “pursuit of fundamental knowledge” and the “search for unifying ideas.” The fixed undergraduate curriculum, while not offering much choice, is structured to support this pursuit of knowledge and unifying ideas. The Masters of Liberal Arts curriculum has a similar purpose.
We don’t aim to be relevant or current, reacting to the latest whims in education or anticipating the priorities of the future. A St. John’s education is intended to extend, not limit, your horizons, your opportunities and your choices.
In addition, you have chosen to engage in a lifetime of learning. If there is one thing that defines alumni and friends of St. John’s College, it is a commitment to lifelong learning. This commitment is equally shared by our alumni and friends whether they are investment bankers in New York, cancer researchers in Los Angeles, pottery artists in Northern New Mexico or restaurateurs in Paris.
Just this past weekend alumni and friends from all over the country took part in a seminar on Don Quixote here on campus. Indeed, every month in cities around the country and the world other alumni and friends gather in seminars seeking to continue their learning. Learning that will begin with your seminar tonight.
In choosing St. John’s you have also elected to join other men and women who desire to be intelligently and critically appreciative of their common heritage. The programs you are embarking upon are based on Great Books in the Western tradition. We study these books in relatively chronological order, because the books build on one another and in their totality give us an appreciation of the ideas that shape our lives. They allow us, as David Brooks of the New York Times wrote, “to step outside [our] own immediate experience into the past, to learn about the problems that never change and bring back some of that inheritance.” Our approach does not reject the value of works in other traditions or their significance. Certainly every day the news reminds us of the influence of these other traditions. Our concentration on the Western tradition is, as much as anything, recognition that in four years, or four sessions in the Graduate Institute, you can only do so much. And it is also clear that the ideas that most influence our lives as Americans in the 21st century emerge from this tradition.
Of course, we also offer a Masters in Eastern Classics which studies some of the great works in the East and South Asian traditions. Perhaps some of you will want to pursue these studies after you have completed your current programs. As with all we do, however, we approach the understanding of whatever heritage we study thoughtfully and critically. We do not accept its precepts as dogma. We question, we challenge and we make intellectual choices for ourselves.
At St. John’s, you have also chosen an education that enables you to examine your social and moral obligations. The fundamental elements of this moral consciousness are contained in the books we read, discuss and write about. But, these fundamentals will remain very sterile if you don’t try to take the questions they pose and the choices they demand beyond the classroom and into your daily life and the life of the college.
You will be presented with an array of other choices during your tenure at St. John’s: choices about your engagement with the program; choices about your participation in the college outside the classroom; choices about your social life; and so many more. Choices which will either enhance or impede your growth as a student and a person. Since you have made the choice to attend St. John’s, use your time wisely.
I am confident that when you graduate you will have the means to become free and responsible members of society, a society that is hungry for your contribution. Only you can determine whether you have the will. It is and will be your choice, but I speak for the entire college when I say we stand ready to help you make that choice.
So, again, on behalf of the faculty and staff I welcome and congratulate you on choosing St. John’s College and applaud your decision to join us in Santa Fe. We are pleased to have you among us and we look forward to learning with you in the months and years ahead, and moreover throughout your lifetime.
I declare the college in session. Convocatum Est!