Freshmen at St. John's participate in intensive Greek studies. Freshman Seminar establishes a foundation for the following years of study. It begins with the Iliad and the Odyssey, continues with the dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles, the works of Plato, and concludes with Aristotle.
In laboratory, students learn the arts of careful observation, dissection, measurement, and experimentation, as well as how to record what they observe in drawings, symbols, graphs, and mathematical expressions. The year is divided into biology, physics, and chemistry sequences, but the natural sciences are conceived as parts of a whole. Students begin with the observation and understanding of plants and animals, reading texts such as Aristotle's Parts of Animals and On the Soul, and observing and dissecting animals. In a segment on measurement and equilibrium, students inquire into the foundations of a mathematical comprehension of nature. A study of the constitution of bodies begins with Lavoisier's Elements of Chemistry and moves into a study of atomic theory by Dalton, Thomson, Gay-Lussac, Avogadro, Cannizzaro and Mendeleev.
The study of mathematics begins with Euclid's Elements, concentrating on the geometrical books, with some attention to Euclid's treatment of number and to the relation between number and magnitude. The study of Euclid introduces students to a reasoned account that articulates its presuppositions and proceeds by demonstration. The last seven to eight weeks of the year are devoted to Ptolemy's Almagest and primarily cover his account of the motion of the sun. Ptolemy's Almagest uses the geometrical understanding gained from Euclid and begins a new inquiry: how do heavenly bodies move? Reading the Almagest also raises questions that will recur over the four years, such as: what is meant by "giving an account" of how such bodies move?
Language class involves the thoughtful study of ancient Greek grammar, along with an ongoing examination of English grammar and reflection on more general questions of how language works. The year culminates in the translation of a substantial portion of Plato's Meno, but passages from other Freshman Seminar readings are read as well, such as the Republic and Aristotle's Ethics and Physics. By the end of the freshman year, students are expected to have enough Greek to be able to translate with the help of a lexicon and notes to the texts. An important goal of the class is the improvement of student writing. At least five papers are required during the course of the year, and students meet with their language teacher to discuss problems in syntax, thought, organization, and style.
The readings of Sophomore Seminar span the longest chronological period of the four years. Beginning with selections from the Bible and from classical Roman poetry and history, the readings that follow (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 seminars' diverse readings are unified by the common classical and biblical roots and by the accumulating record of responses to them.
The sophomore music class aims to provide an understanding of music through attentive listening and through close study of musical theory and analysis of works of music, including Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Palestrina, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg. Students investigate the diatonic system, a study of melody, counterpoint, and harmony, as well as rhythm in words and notes. Each music class has one teacher and 13–16 students and meets three times per week. Two shorter sessions are for discussion, and one longer session combines two classes and brings students together to sing.
In mathematics class, students examine two of the most seminal movements in the tradition of astronomy and mathematics. Much of the first semester continues the study of Ptolemy begun in the freshman year, and moves to Copernicus's revision of Ptolemy. The rest of the year is devoted to studying the conic sections as presented by Apollonius, followed by the study of Descartes' Geometry. By the end of sophomore year, students must demonstrate proficiency in basic algebra as a prerequisite for the more advanced junior mathematics class.
In the first semester, students translate selections from a Sophocles tragedy or Homer's epics, and selections from the Septuagint or the Greek New Testament. In the second, they study logic, at least one Shakespeare play, and English lyric poetry. Through careful translation, students learn to see the subtleties and intricacies of the text. They inquire into the meaning of the work and examine details of grammar and syntax, meter, and imagery. They also reflect on the activity of translation itself.
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 merged 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. Significant investigation 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.
Laboratory class combines reading and discussion with practical experiments: dynamics and optics in the fall, and waves and electricity in the spring. The texts range chronologically from Galileo to Maxwell. The main thread of the fall sequence is motion, its character and causes. Students and their teachers follow attempts to replace the Aristotelian efficient cause with concepts such as Descartes' quantity of motion, Leibniz's "living force," Newton's force, Mayer's Causa, and Maxwell's treatment of work, kinetic and potential energy, and heat. In the spring sequence the thread is electricity with readings from Benjamin Franklin, Faraday, and Maxwell.
Mathematics class focuses on questions about the continuity of motion, the infinite, and the infinitesimal, which lead to a new form of mathematics: calculus. The initial sequence of readings (Zeno, Aristotle, Galileo) leads to the primary text, Newton's Principia and a sweeping vision of the mechanical motions of the universe. The year concludes with Dedekind's Essays on the Theory of Numbers.
In language class, students turn to French. As with ancient Greek, students acquire enough French to read distinguished texts in the original, thereby continuing the inquiry into language that began in the freshman year. After a few weeks of concentrated effort they are able to translate, and discuss intelligently, writings of unsurpassed rhetorical, dramatic, and philosophic power. Among the variety of works studied in the first semester are maxims of La Rochefoucauld, fables of La Fontaine, and the Pensées of Pascal. In addition, students give close attention to passages by such modern masters of prose as Claudel and Ponge, with an eye to improving the clarity and precision of their own writing. Most of the second semester is devoted to masterpieces of the theater, Racine's Phèdre and Molière's Misanthrope or Tartuffe.
The readings of the senior year are the most contemporary in the Program. 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 a mission to turn out educated citizens, Senior Seminar 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.
The work of the senior year is a return to questions students first confronted as freshmen. During the first semester, the senior laboratory reinvestigates atomic theory, where the atom itself becomes the object of study. Prepared by work with electrical phenomena in junior year, students can focus on the questions of atomic stability that led to the revolutionary quantum hypothesis of Bohr and the wave mechanics of de Broglie and Schrödinger. Through a sequence of historic scientific papers and related experiments, the concepts of particle and wave, of discreteness and continuity, gain new meaning. The Laboratory program ends with a study of living organisms. In the spring of the senior year, students confront the evidence and arguments for their modern views of evolution and genetics. The semester begins with Darwin and Mendel, proceeds to a synthesis, and then traces developments in cellular and molecular biology which are thought to undergird this synthesis, as presented in seminal papers by twentieth-century biologists. In addition, this work raises questions about whether there is purpose in nature, whether there are natural kinds, what distinguishes living from non-living, whether living things have a wholeness, and if so, what is responsible for it.
The first term of senior mathematics begins with non-Euclidean geometry and Lobachevsky's Geometrical Researches on the Theory of Parallels. In the second semester, seniors begin a study of mathematics more tied to physical concerns by working through Einstein's special relativity and energy-mass papers, followed by excerpts from Minkowski's Space and Time. At the end of the second semester, as at the end of the first, there is a range of possibilities pursued by the faculty of each campus. Some classes explore general relativity; some read Poincaré some re-read Kant on space and time; some read Einstein's Geometry and Experience or Lightman's Einstein's Dreams.
In language class rhetoric is given priority, and the texts are always literary and usually poetic. While readings vary between campuses and from year to year, a typical schedule of readings may include Rimbaud, Valéry, or Baudelaire; English and American poetry of the 19th and 20th century; or a lyrical prose writer such as Proust. Some teachers assign one or more modern novels. During the course of the year, each student usually writes five or six medium-length papers on topics assigned from the class materials.
"The generation of mankind is like the generation of leaves. The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the living tree burgeons with leaves again in the spring."