The seminar spans all four years of the St. John's curriculum. It is the central occasion at the college for the reading and sustained discussion of the great books; with its shared inquiry and far-ranging conversation, the seminar allows for a particularly powerful encounter with these books and the vital questions they raise for us as human beings. It also anchors, enlivens, and thoughtfully brings together the work of the curriculum as a whole.
Seminar classes have 17 to 19 students and meet on Monday and Thursday evenings. They are co-led by two tutors: this unique feature of the St. John's seminar not only enriches the conversation, but encourages diverse approaches to the books, and consideration of a variety of views. Students prepare a substantial reading in advance of each class. One of the tutors opens the seminar with a question inviting probing conversation that can lead in unexpected directions and that may continue well after the two-hour period is over. Seminar develops attentive reading habits, elicits clarity of thought and generosity of spirit, and encourages a willingness to embrace unfamiliar territory. As the part of the curriculum in which students take greatest responsibility for their own learning, seminar embodies the college’s mission in its purest form.
A seminar essay—on a theme suggested by the readings—is the major piece of written work in each year at the college, and provides the focus for an oral examination (In Santa Fe, an essay is submitted each semester; in Annapolis, each year).
Rich, and comprehensive in its scope, Freshman Seminar begins with the Iliad and the Odyssey and explores the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Freshmen read the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides and many of the seminal works of western philosophy, including Plato's Republic and the Apology of Socrates, as well as Aristotle’s Physics, Ethics, and Politics. These foundational books also establish the groundwork for the years of study that are to follow. In Freshman Seminar, students establish habits of serious reading, inquiry, and conversation.
The readings of Sophomore Seminar span the longest chronological period of all four years—from the ancient biblical world to the dawning of early modernity. After the Hebrew Bible and the classical Roman poetry and history with which the year begins, many of the readings that follow attempt to bring these two very different worlds together and to find ways to assimilate and judge them. The seminar’s diverse readings are thus unified by common classical and biblical roots and by the accumulating record of responses to them. Augustine's Confessions, Dante's Divine Comedy, and the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas are given sustained readings. In the second semester, students encounter the first stirrings of the early modern enlightenment, with its humanist, political, and scientific revolutions, as expressed in the writings of Montaigne, Machiavelli, Descartes, and Bacon. The great tragedies and comedies of Shakespeare round out the year.
Junior Seminar draws from a much smaller chronological period (principally the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries) and comprehends a sustained examination of enlightenment and modern thought. (Cervantes' Don Quixote leads the charge.) In the fall semester and beyond, ethical and political inquiries are mingled with inquiries into metaphysics: Descartes, Pascal, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The spring semester has a metaphysical emphasis, with Hume's Treatise of Human Nature, and an extended study of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Literary texts include Milton, Austen, and Swift. The year extends to a study of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, and culminates in a substantial consideration of American founding documents, political thinkers, and novelists, allowing for reflection upon our own way of life and its particular beginnings (the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Federalist Papers; works by Hawthorne and Twain).
The readings of the senior year include great works of literature such as War and Peace, Faust, and The Brothers Karamazov. Seniors also rise to the task of reading some of the most challenging philosophy of the curriculum: Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Kierkegaard, Marx, and Freud receive careful consideration as seniors explore various articulations of, and responses to, more contemporary human problems. Senior Seminar also includes works central to American democracy and citizenship, including Alexis de Tocqueville's commentary on the radical nature of the American experiment, the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, and key Supreme Court decisions.