Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Last Great American Colleges

In his New York Times column today Frank Bruni sings the praises of St. John’s College, a contrarian place with campuses in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Annapolis, Maryland. Along with Hillsdale College, it is one of the last great American colleges.

St. John's is a liberal arts college, one of the precious few that have resisted the trend toward multiculturalism, indoctrination and diversity. In short, St. John’s still teaches the canon, the great works of Western civilization. It does so unashamedly and unabashedly. In short, it has not dumbed down the Humanities and Social Science curricula. It does not aim at trendy. It does not coddle the minds of American students.

The sad part is that it is practically alone in its pedagogical philosophy.

Bruni explains the curriculum:

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’s conclusions. You pore over his actual words. You’re not simply introduced to the theory of relativity. You read “Relativity,” the book that Albert Einstein wrote.

St. John’s does not offer vocational training. It does not treat students as consumers. It does not disparage the heritage of Western civilization:

I’m talking about St. John’s College, which was founded in 1696 in Annapolis, Md., 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. It’s a necessary tug back in the other direction.

What were the consequences? Academically, Bruni found the results highly encouraging.

Bruni begins by noting:

The first was how articulate the students were. Something wonderful happens when you read this ambitiously and wallow in this many words. You become agile with them.

One should add that dealing with the greatest writers and thinkers makes you a better writer and thinker. If you eliminate the great minds of Western civilization in order to introduce mediocrities who fulfill diversity quotas you end up with students who are mediocre thinkers and writers... at best.

Obviously, we are no longer allowed to rate thinkers and writers as great, near great, good and mediocre. Failing to do so has exacted a price.

Second, Bruni notes, students are more focused on more engaging questions:

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.” If digital devices and social media yank people from one trumpet blast to the next, St. John’s trains them to hold a note — to caress it, pull at it, see what it can withstand and what it’s worth.

Focus means engagement. When students engage with the greats, it brings out their best. It challenges them. They concentrate on the issues and actively learn.

Best of all, St. John's is not an indoctrination mill. It does not impose politically correct opinions. Students are more open minded and more free thinking than their counterparts in other American universities. There is no room for identity politics and much room for humility:

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. In the “Iliad” and in life, is there any catharsis in revenge? Any resolution in death? Does grief end or just pause? Do wars?

It’s a great story. Sadly, it’s increasingly rare in today’s world. Kudos to Frank Bruni for giving this school the attention and the praise that it deserves.


Anonymous said...

Nobody at the NYT can digest Bruni's observation.
His tenure is secure.

- shoe

Sam L. said...

I am amazed. Bruni? In the NYT? They actually printed it?

Anonymous said...

My nephew (by marriage) graduated from St. Johns.

He's now a Childrens' Clinical Psychologist in Denver. Colleagues call him "The Child Whisperer".

We have an incredibly strong bond. Wish I could see him more. - Rich Lara