About St. John’s College
Convocation Remarks, January 19, 2009
Convocation Remarks, January 19, 2009
President Michael P. Peters
January Freshmen of the class of 2012 and new students in the Graduate Institute congratulations and welcome to St. John’s College. A special welcome as well to the families and friends who are with us this evening. Thank you for making the effort to share this time with your students and for supporting their matriculation at St. John’s.
What an incredible moment to begin your studies at St. John’s College -- on the day set aside to remember the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the day before the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama. This evening is a new beginning for each of you and tomorrow is a new beginning for our nation. For you, it is a beginning that is built upon your past accomplishments and sacrifices. For our country, it is a new beginning built upon the accomplishments and sacrifices of citizens in the past, including Dr. King.
The new beginning for our nation grows out of a vision, over two centuries old. A vision that emerged from earlier ideas you will study at the college. Our nation’s vision was articulated by the small number of men who drafted the Declaration of Independence in which they boldly asserted that “all men are created equal”. A vision furthered by President Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War. In his remarks at the dedication of the cemetery for those who perished in the battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln promised, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom . . .” and in his second inaugural address “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
It was this unfulfilled vision that Martin Luther King spoke to directly in his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. A speech delivered on the one hundredth anniversary of President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Dr. King’s words will certainly resound in the nation’s capital tomorrow. “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” So this is indeed an important moment for our country – a new beginning. But it is just a beginning, a promise. The real measure of this beginning will be where it leads, and there will certainly be many obstacles to overcome.
Just as it is an important moment for our country it is surely an important moment for you personally and for St. John’s College. Very shortly you will be off to your first official St. John’s seminar. I know you have a lot on your minds right now, not least of which is your seminar. And, I am sure you are anxious to get to it. But, before you set off let me offer a few words about your “new beginning” as a student at St. John’s College.
What does your “new beginning” at St. John’s signify?
Quite simply it is the beginning of a new life at a very distinctive college. A college composed of students and faculty who love to read, think and explore with others. A college committed to liberal education. A college that sees itself as a community of learning. It is also a new beginning for a lifetime of learning.
“New beginnings” are a common thread through a number of the works you will study at St. John’s. Let me highlight just a few.
For the freshmen, in a couple weeks you will discover Odysseus who struggles to begin a new life after the Trojan Wars. Next year you will read portions of the Hebrew Bible: the ultimate beginning in the book of Genesis, for example, and continue with Exodus and the Israelites’ flight from Egypt and journey to the “promised land”. Then it will be Livy’s history of the founding of Rome and Virgil’s description of Aeneas’ new life following the fall of Troy. At the outset of junior year, it will be Don Quixote’s quest to transform himself into a knight errant. Later, in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and the Federalist Papers, you will find descriptions of the new foundation of American society and government. Early in senior year you will read and discuss Faust. Faust strives to escape from the boredom of his current existence into a new more exciting life and the costs these strivings impose on him and those around him.
These examples from seminar will be accompanied by your studies of discoveries in science and mathematics. Discoveries that literally changed the world. From Ptolemy to Copernicus to Newton to Einstein. From Lucretius to Aristotle to Darwin. From Euclid to Apollonius to Lobachevski. And these discoveries in math and science go along with the revelations and joy that come from the study of language and music.
But, the idea of new beginnings is obviously only a small part of the program at St. John’s. We study original texts, Great Books, precisely because they raise a broad range of the most fundamental, important and eternal questions. Questions 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 for insights to guide us today in our personal lives and in our lives as citizens and members of society.
But let’s return to your new beginning at St. John’s College. What are the implications of your decision to sign the College register this evening?
In coming to St. John’s you have joined a new community. You are now an integral part of a community that includes not only your fellow students, but also the faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the College. You graduate students should see tangible evidence of this regard for community as construction begins later this year on the new Graduate Institute building, Levan Hall.
At St. John’s 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 great deal 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 St. John’s community also extends beyond the classroom and beyond the campus itself. We are also a part of the larger communities of Santa Fe and New Mexico. Santa Fe and New Mexico are rich with history, art, culture and natural beauty. I encourage you to learn about your new city and state 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 become part of a community that is committed to liberal education. Liberal in the sense of liberating or freeing. An education that calls upon each of us to take responsibility for his or her 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.
At St. John’s we believe that the purpose of liberal education is the “pursuit of fundamental knowledge” and the “search for unifying ideas.” The undergraduate and graduate curriculums are structured to facilitate this purpose. We don’t aim to be current, reacting to the latest whims in education or attempting to anticipate the fashions of the future. Our education is intended to extend, not limit, your discoveries, your horizons and your opportunities. To make learning fresh and new.
In addition, you are beginning a serious commitment to a lifetime of learning. If there is one thing that defines alumni and friends of St. John’s College, it is a love of learning, lifelong learning. This love is equally shared by our alumni and friends whether they are journalists 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 came to campus to participate in seminars on Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Indeed, every month in cities across the country and around the world, alumni and friends gather in seminars seeking to continue their learning. We hope that you too will gather with others after your time at St. John’s. And, seminar tonight is the new beginning for your lifetime of learning.
You also begin a program that seeks to be intelligently and critically appreciative of our common heritage. The programs you are embarking upon, both graduate and undergraduate, 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.
This approach does not reject the value or significance of other traditions. 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. But it is also clear that the ideas that most influence our lives in the 21st century emerge from the Western tradition. President Obama’s inauguration tomorrow is a legacy of 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 begun 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 do not take the questions they pose and the choices they offer beyond the classroom and into your daily life and the life of the college.
You will be presented with an array of choices during your time 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 many more. Choices that will either build on your promising beginning or squander this promise. Since you have made the decision to begin anew at St. John’s, use your time wisely.
The program of instruction is demanding and must, of course, be your first priority. But, I hope you will respond to the example of Martin Luther King and 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.
But, you can’t help others if you don’t take care of yourself. So look out for yourself physically and emotionally. Watch out for your roommates and your classmates as well. Practice healthy habits. Exercise your body as well as your mind. Get involved in some of the myriad of student activities. Get to the gym. Throw a pot in the pottery studio. Work on a play. Write for The Moon, the student publication. Serve on Student Polity.
In conclusion and before sending you off to seminar and Homer, let me turn to another author in our curriculum, Plutarch. The sophomores read Plutarch’s Lives of Cato, Caesar, Antony and Brutus. But, Plutarch also recorded the lives of many other notable Greeks and Romans. Among them is Solon, one of the most noble of the Greeks. In his life of Solon, Plutarch records a conversation between Solon and the fabulously rich king Croesus. Croesus, feeling incredibly self-satisfied and self-important, inquires whether Solon has ever known anyone happier than he. Solon mentions several Greeks who have died, but does not recognize Croesus among those he believes to be happy. Croesus is both flabbergasted and angry that Solon does not acknowledge him as the “happiest man in the world.” Solon replies, “. . . only to whom divinity has continued happiness unto the end, (that is until death), we call happy.” Solon’s view may be a bit extreme, but it is a profound reminder that a beginning, no matter how promising, is insufficient. It represents only an opportunity, a possibility. Where the beginning ultimately leads, or what you do with the opportunity, the beginning, is what really counts.
This is your challenge: to make the most of your new beginning at St. John’s College. Having done so, upon graduation you will have the means to become free and responsible members of society. Only you can determine whether you have the will. It is ultimately up to you, but I speak for the entire College when I say we stand ready to help you make the most of your new beginning.
I pray, therefore, that your new beginning at St. John’s this evening will lead to great things for you, just as I pray that the new beginning in Washington tomorrow will lead to great things for our country.
So, again, on behalf of the faculty and staff, I welcome you to 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.
I declare the college in session. Convocatum Est!