Colleges That Change Lives

40 Schools You Should Know About Even If You're Not a Straight-A Student

By Loren Pope, 1996
(Used with permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc. Visit the CTCL website for more information on why St. John's College is one of the Colleges that Change Lives.)

Colleges That Change Lives Book Cover

St. John's College is one of the 40 colleges featured in Pope's book; the article about St. John's is reprinted below. Along with most other colleges included in the book, St. John's College sponsors a separate website, Colleges that Change Lives, and participates in a series of college tours. Dates and locations for the tours are listed on the website.

St. John's, one of the two most intellectual (and indispensable) American colleges—along with Reed—has no majors or electives; it has one mission, one curriculum, one catalog; and it has two campuses, two presidents, two faculties, and student bodies that may freely move from one to the other. This unusual duality is the result of the expansionist mood of the '60s when education was a booming industry and the college heads in Annapolis, Maryland decided to install a clone on a Santa Fe, New Mexico, mountain.

Many years ago as education editor of The New York Times I went to Annapolis to do a Sunday article on the coming of age of the St. John's Great Books program in which everyone confronted the greatest minds of Western civilization by discussing 100 great books. They also took four years each of science, mathematics, and language, and two of music. Grades were neither issued nor discussed, only recorded for graduate school purposes, and they depended on total performance, emphasizing contributions in class discussions, rather than exams. The most important form of evaluation was the Don Rag, in which each student met with all his tutors at the end of each semester for a no-holds-barred discussion of him and his work.

St. John's, founded in 1696 as King William's School, became a different kind of college in 1937 with the introduction of this radically classical program. There were no choices and no one could transfer in. All students had to start at the beginning. Even so, nearly a third of the student body were - and are today - transfers who found the ideal college, some after spending three years at another. There are no faculty ranks, and there is no need to publish; their role is to stimulate. All are tutors who may lead discussion in a Greek or literature class this year and in a Ptolemaic geometry class a few years hence. It is a true community of learning, one of only 450 students.

My newspaper story was calmly descriptive but I came away a zealot. This was the kind of education Jefferson had in mind as the sine qua non for American democracy. As democracy's problems grow more complex this kind of education grows more necessary. ...

I recently made my third visit to Annapolis, and my first to Santa Fe, but thought the word would be heard more clearly if it came from someone under 30. She's a former client, Mrs. Virginia Beck, who works and lives in Albuquerque, and she said to me, "I simply couldn't produce an impersonal report of this school, especially not when I spent my whole two days there trying to figure out how I could manage to go there myself. ...

"I first visited St. John's on a clear spring Sunday. The campus was quiet and my visit was brief but two things impressed me. The license plates in the student parking lot came from all over North America, indicating an eclectic mix of students who had traveled far specifically to study at St. John's. The second thing was the atmosphere. St. John's Santa Fe campus is at an altitude of 7,300 feet. The clean, thin air acts as a magnifying glass; pine needles and shadows are distinct from hundreds of feet away. Such clear vision can't help making you feel smarter, more aware, and it was inspiring. Studying at St. John's would be like climbing the mountain to study with Socrates.

"I later went back for a real visit. I spent two days on campus, observing classes and a Thursday night seminar and talking to students. I was there just before oral exams, and while the stress level was high, all the students I met were enthusiastic about their studies and happy to explain what it was like to attend such an unusual school.

"I can testify to many problems with being an undergraduate at a big name university. My main problem was so big I never recognized it while I was there, and it came from not knowing as much as I thought I did. In graduate school and later, out in the working world, I realized that despite all the classes on all the topics that had interested me so much, I had very little idea of the Big Picture. I had read and learned little pieces of history, literature, science, and philosophy, but I had no way of fitting those pieces into any larger order. "The Big Picture means 'everything.' It's what the great modern physicist Stephen Hawking says we would understand if, impossibly, we could comprehend every bit of information in the universe for even a second. The Big Picture shows the connection between, say, mathematical logic, Pablo Picasso, and World War I. No one has ever drawn or been able to describe the Big Picture, but for 2,000 years Western civilization has evolved because certain people needed to know more about it. Those great thinkers have investigated the Big Picture from a million angles and have discovered a lot of new territory. You can follow any of those angles at almost any college or university in the country, but only St. John's will give you a guided tour.

"St. John's students are self-selected. It would be hard to convince most high school seniors that four years of college could be fun without frat parties or varsity sports when attendance is required at Friday night lectures and everyone has to do things like study (and even write) classical music. St. John's is a school for the intellectual explorer, the student who likes math because it makes sense or who reads Dickens because he's a good writer.

"For those students, it's important to emphasize the value of a St. John's education. After four years here, you need not find yourself in the fabled position of the Ph.D. washing dishes for a living. The unusual curriculum, with its complete lack of electives and its seemingly outdated reliance on the ... Great Books, is designed as a tool for each student to use in his own self development. Simply put, at the end of your four years you should know what you like and what you're good at. Without seeing the whole thing, you should be able to find your place in the Big Picture, should know how to conduct your own explorations.

"The experience of my student guides illustrates the success of St. John's in helping its students figure themselves out. My guides were twin sisters who had started college at the same time, one at St. John's in Santa Fe and one at MIT. The difference in their freshman-year experiences was huge. During my first day's tour, the original St. John's sister told me how she had convinced her MIT twin to transfer, 'just in talking on the phone about the discussion we were having in class and about the kinds of things I was starting to think about.' Those telephone calls often became long-distance debates and discussions themselves, and the MIT sister finally decided she wanted to experience them for herself.

"On my second day, I asked the MIT transfer twin whether she missed MIT. She had gone there to study science but found, she said, that her classes taught her certain facts but didn't help her understand why those facts were true. At St. John's she was learning the same facts, but here the facts were by-products of understanding the concepts. Plus, she said, she was always amazed at how much the classes that at MIT would be labeled the 'liberal arts' helped her understand science. (Pythagoras would not have been surprised; he was as much a philosopher as a mathematician.)

"Even with a year's credit from MIT, the transfer twin had to start at St. John's as a freshman. All St. John's graduates study the same four-year program, thus ensuring everyone not only a quality education but the opportunity to talk to almost anyone on campus about almost anything. St. John's is a true intellectual community. As a sophomore, the original St. John's sister found that she and her freshman twin had plenty to talk about and teach each other. 'It was illuminating for both of us. She was taking classes I had already taken, but it was never like I knew more than she did. She was thinking new things, and since I was a year further along, I could help point out where those concepts and ideas were going to be important. We had a really great year.'

"St. John's is proud to point out, especially I think to parents, that 80% of its graduates go on to graduate school or to study medicine or law. I'm interested in knowing about the other 20%. This is a school that inspires self-confidence, that makes its students believe they can do anything. While that one student in five may look like an underachiever, I'm willing to bet that's the one who has chosen not to follow even the road less taken but is exploring a new angle, a new way to glimpse the Big Picture. Those are the thinkers who will boost us past our fuel, pollution, population, and financial crises into the next millennium; you might be one of them."

Mrs. Beck would have seen and heard the same kinds of things had she visited Annapolis. The testimony of the MIT twins recalls one of my favorite comments from an Annapolis student of about ten years ago. At lunch at a table with eight students, I asked two transfers from Berkeley if it didn't bug them that they couldn't have a course in psychology under someone like the late Eric Erickson at Harvard, then at his peak of fame. "Oh no, they said simultaneously, "we can go to the library and read all that." The others at the table agreed; they made it clear they were engaged in a more important search.

Copyright ©1996 by Loren Pope.