Meet the Santa Fe Director

“As interesting as it is to read the Great Books with college students, it’s equally exciting to read them with people who have had entire careers and have come to feel that there’s something really important that these books have to say to them...” - Graduate Institute Director David Carl


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The Bhagavadgita and Milton’s Paradise Lost are David Carl’s favorite poems. “The combination of vivid poetic imagery, philosophic themes and powerful spiritual questioning make these works endlessly compelling,” he says. “For me, the greatest books are stories that combine poetry and philosophy; the Gita and Paradise Lost are perfect examples of all three: compelling stories written in beautiful poetry that explore profound philosophic and spiritual themes.” It is the daily encounter with this triumvirate that makes the St. John’s community an ideal place for Mr. Carl. “For me, the opportunity to spend my days talking with people who care about encounters with the questions and ideas these books present us with, both in the classroom and beyond it, is the best part about being at St. John’s.”

Mr. Carl’s passion for reading began as a young child with comic books, which evolved into an interest in mysteries and Western novels. Between the ages of nine and 16, he read every book in those genres available at the Eugene Public Library. “Every Louis L’amour novel, every Agatha Christie novel, every Robert Heinlein novel. I was a voracious reader, with the attendant awkwardness that comes with being that kind of kid.” From there, it was a short step to studying philosophy and literature in college.

Mr. Carl spent his college years, as well as his twenties and early thirties, in California. He earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in philosophy at Pomona College and the Claremont Graduate School. He taught for a few years at California State University, San Bernardino, before moving to Germany for a year. He then taught at several community colleges in the Bay Area and entered the doctoral program at University of California, Davis, to pursue a PhD in comparative literature. For six months, he lived in France, across the street from Notre Dame Cathedral, as the poet in residence at the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop. After finishing his PhD he discovered St. John’s. “I was frustrated by the intellectual narrowness of academic departments at the other schools where I taught. I was excited to discover a college that still thought the intellectual life could be pursued without the constraint of departmental boundaries and that refused to bow to the artificial divisions between subjects like science and philosophy, history and literature.”

Mr. Carl came to St. John’s as a tutor in 2000 and began directing the Graduate Institute in 2012.
“When I came to St. John’s I learned to read more carefully, more thoughtfully, and more provocatively than at any earlier stage of my education. My education as a reader took a quantum leap forward when I began my work at the college and it’s been 14 years of renewed opportunities for deeper and further learning about favorite works and previously undiscovered ones.”

He theorizes that many graduate students are drawn to St. John’s because the college provides the kind of experience many people thought they were going to get as undergraduates, but didn’t, or weren’t able to seek out at that age due to life circumstances. “As interesting as it is to read the Great Books with college students,” he says, “it’s equally exciting to read them with people who have had entire careers and have come to feel that there’s something really important that these books have to say to them, something they want to learn from, rather than about these great works.”

Mr. Carl lives outside Santa Fe in the Sunlit Hills area with his wife, Melissa, a high-school chemistry and physics teacher who recently spent two years teaching in Iraq, and their two dogs. Mr. Carl appreciates the solitude that his home in the dusty Southwest provides, “The environment is so austere and yet so beautiful; one can’t help but consider the profundity of things when faced with the green mountains, the blood-red dirt, the startlingly clear sky.” Nevertheless, Mr. Carl is always glad to escape to greener parts of the world. “I was raised in Oregon and my wife is from Michigan and New Zealand. We both crave wet, verdant, humid places after unbroken stretches in New Mexico.”


"Masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice."
- Virginia Woolf