SANTA FE – Have I got a college for you. For your first two years, your regimen includes ancient Greek. And I do mean Greek, the language, not Greece, the civilization, though you’ll also hang with Aristotle, Aeschylus, Thucydides and the rest of the gang. There’s no choice in the matter. There’s little choice, period.
Let your collegiate peers elsewhere design their own majors and frolic with Kerouac. For you, it’s Kant. You have no major, only “the program,” an exploration of the Western canon that was implemented in 1937 and has barely changed.
It’s intense. Learning astronomy and math, you don’t merely encounter Copernicus’ conclusions. You pore over his actual words. You’re not simply introduced to the theory of relativity. You read “Relativity,” the book Albert Einstein wrote.
Diversions are limited. The dorms are functional; same goes for the dining. You’re not here for banh mi. You’re here for Baudelaire.
I’m talking about St. John’s College, which was founded in 1696 in Annapolis, Maryland. It is the third-oldest college in America and, between its campus there and the one here, has about 775 undergraduates. And I’m drawing attention to it because it’s an increasingly exotic and important holdout against so many developments in higher education – the stress on vocational training, the treatment of students as fickle consumers, the elevation of individualism over a shared heritage – that have gone too far.
I’m not saying that most students would take to it or that other schools should mimic it. The degree to which “the program” omits the intellectual contributions of women and people of color troubles me. But many schools would be wise to consider and better integrate its philosophy, which Walter Sterling, the dean of the Santa Fe campus, recently explained to me.
“Your work and career are a part of your life,” he said when I met with him and the Santa Fe president, Mark Roosevelt. “Education should prepare you for all of your life. It should make you a more thoughtful, reflective, self-possessed and authentic citizen, lover, partner, parent and member of the global economy.”
I visited St. John’s because it made an announcement last week that is consistent with its mission of pushing back against the fashionable norm. For the academic year that begins in fall 2019, it is lowering its yearly tuition to $35,000 from $52,000, a change that recognizes how wildly the cost of college has risen and how few students pay the sticker price anyway.
St. John’s wants more comers than it gets; this price cut may help. But the college also means to be a model of financial accessibility as well as of rigorous intellectualism. To stay flush, it is conducting a major fundraising campaign, begun without any announcement two years ago, to raise $300 million by 2023.
The St. John’s method isn’t cheap. No class is larger than 20 students; even so, some have two “tutors,” which is what professors are called. They steer winding, soulful discussions that demand engagement. I eavesdropped on several. Three dynamics stood out.
The first was how articulate the students were. The second was the students’ focus. A group discussing Homer’s “Iliad” spent more than 10 minutes on the phrase – the idea – of someone having his “fill of weeping.”
The third dynamic was their humility. They weren’t wedded to their initial opinions. They weren’t allowed to be. And they moved not toward the best answer but toward better questions.
Jack Isenberg, a senior, told me St. John’s had taught him how much is unknowable. “We have to be comfortable in ambiguity,” he said.
What a gift. What an education.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times. © 2018 New York Times News Service