Jeff Black, director of the Graduate Institute in Annapolis, remembers the exact moment he fell in love with philosophy. As a junior at the University of Toronto, studying international relations – history, economics, political science, and Japanese – he took an introductory political philosophy class on a dare. “All my other classes began with the professor saying something like ‘well, we’re all here to study Russian history,’ or whatever it was, ‘so let’s get started.’ But my political theory professor began class by saying ‘I’m going to tell you why this is the most important class you will ever take in your life.’ It wasn’t his reasons, so much as the thought that we should have reasons for what we study, and that there are good and bad reasons, that turned me around.”
That first encounter with Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke led Mr. Black to pursue a PhD in political theory, with a minor field in international relations, at Boston College. And despite being so frustrated by his first encounter with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notion of the general will that he dropped his first modern political philosophy class, he ended up writing his doctoral dissertation on Rousseau’s Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts.
By that time, Mr. Black had also discovered St. John’s, where he was first impressed by the energy of the students. “My first visit to the College, I sat in on a seminar. Once everyone had settled down and the bell had rung, one of the tutors asked, ‘what is the infinite, and why does it matter?’ The reading was Aristotle’s Metaphysics, a text that I found difficult and intimidating, and I thought ‘wow – no one is going to have anything to say about that.’ But I was wrong; the students started speaking, what they said was excellent, and they talked at that level for two hours.” He loves the graduate and undergraduate programs too, for how they cross disciplinary boundaries. “I remember in eleventh grade being forced to choose between playing in a jazz band and taking chemistry. I don’t regret my choice, since I’ve loved playing tenor sax through college and grad school, but it seemed arbitrary that if I chose one thing I couldn’t do the other. St. John’s has allowed me to return to studies that interest me, but that would have been closed off by disciplinary boundaries in a more traditional academic setting.”
Mr. Black lives in Annapolis with his wife, Debora Katz, and their son, Zak Stone. Debora is a professor of physics at the United States Naval Academy, which leads to many interesting conversations about the similarities and differences between Johnnies and midshipmen. For the sake of marital harmony, Mr. Black and his wife also make a point of leaving town during the Annapolis Cup, the annual croquet match between St. John’s and the Academy. After becoming a tutor in 1999, Mr. Black was appointed director of the Graduate Institute in 2011. He loves teaching in the graduate program for its intense focus on great books, the interesting juxtapositions the segments make possible, the breadth of choice afforded by the numerous preceptorials, and its motivated students. “Our Graduate Institute students know, perhaps more than our undergraduates, the importance of being thoughtful about the reasons for their studies. This thoughtfulness makes for even more intense and energetic classes, and it is the preparation for philosophy.”