Often described as the heart of the St. John’s program, the seminar is central to the life of the college. Co-led by two tutors, seminar classes have 18 to 20 students and meet Monday and Thursday from 8 to 10 p.m.
Seminars begin with a question meant to invite and provoke inquisitive conversation that may continue long after the two-hour period is over. The seminar draws on the students’ wonder, attentiveness, judgment, imagination, openness to new ideas, willingness to be refuted, patience, courage, collegiality, leadership, and general resourcefulness. Seminar is intended to develop attentive reading habits, elicit clarity of thought and generosity of spirit, and encourage a willingness to embrace unfamiliar territory. As the part of the Program in which students must take responsibility for their own learning, seminar embodies the college’s mission in its purest form.
Freshman year at St. John’s is the “Greek” year. Just as the writings of Homer, Plato, and Aristotle represent the foundation of Western thought, freshman seminar establishes a foundation for the following years of study. Seminar begins with the Iliad and the Odyssey, continues with the dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles, allows much time for the works of Plato, and concludes with Aristotle. In freshman year, students learn the habits of serious reading, inquiry, and conversation.
The readings of sophomore seminar span the longest chronological period of all four years. After the selections from the Hebrew Bible and from classical Roman poetry and history with which the year begins, the rest of the readings (beginning with the Gospels) are by authors who in various ways brought these two very different worlds together and tried to find ways to assimilate and judge them. Even for the Roman writers, the question of how to deal with a partly alien tradition (that of ancient Greece) was a central theme. The seminar’s diverse readings are thus unified by the common classical and biblical roots and by the accumulating record of responses to them.
The junior seminar draws from a much smaller chronological period (principally the 17th and 18th centuries). In the fall semester, ethical and political inquiries are mingled with inquiries into metaphysics; in the spring semester, readings in these two inquiries are segregated, with metaphysics falling before spring break, and ethical-political readings falling mostly after. Lengthy inquiry into ethics and politics leads to the first encounter with American authors (Madison, Hamilton, Mark Twain) and a reflection upon our own way of life.
The readings of the senior year are the most contemporary. Great works such as War and Peace, Faust, and The Brothers Karamazov are on the reading list. Students also plunge into the works of some of the most challenging authors on the program: Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. In keeping with the college’s mission to turn out educated citizens, the senior year also includes works central to American democracy, such as the Federalist Papers, the speeches of Lincoln, key Supreme Court decisions, and Tocqueville’s commentary on the radical nature of the American experiment.
"If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants."
- Isaac Newton