Letter Home for Parents
Fall 2013

“Who is a Johnnie?”
Convocation Remarks
August 29, 2013
President Michael P. Peters

 

Good morning. Welcome class of 2017 and new students in the Graduate Institute. Welcome Johnnies, for that is now who you are!  We are pleased and excited to have you join us at St. John’s College here in the foothills of the beautiful Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  A special welcome to family and friends. Thank you for taking the time to share this moment with your students and for supporting their attending St. John’s. Welcome back to the rest of the college – students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends.

We gather today at an important time in the life of the nation, the college, and certainly in your lives -- incoming students and families.  For the nation, yesterday marked the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, a crucial moment in the nation’s path toward liberty and justice for all.

For the College, 2014 will mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Santa Fe campus.  It was a bold and visionary move to establish this campus, to offer this distinctive and in many ways radical academic program to more students and to demonstrate conclusively that the St. John’s program has no geographic or cultural bounds.   So, you will be with us as we celebrate over the next few years with lectures, a conference and a myriad of other activities for the campus and the Santa Fe communities. 
For you students, it is an important step in your lives and your education.  As such, I especially congratulate you on choosing St. John’s in the face so much misguided, myopic and uninformed rhetoric that questions the importance of higher education and especially the values St. John’s College holds dear.

I know that you have heard much over the past few years from politicians, pundits and others about the purpose, value and yes, cost of higher education, just last week from President Obama.  Almost all of the commentary has focused on the economic imperative of higher education, lamenting how the United States is falling behind other countries and how we need to be able to compete economically with China.  The downturn in the economy has only increased the stridency of this rhetoric, limiting the conversation about and the understanding of the purpose of higher education.  And, as a result it has grossly undervalued an education in the liberal arts, a St. John’s education. Viewing higher education only through an economic prism distorts its broader value and its benefits to the individual and society.  Your being here today, has shown that you and your families recognize the shortsightedness of this view.

Having said this, there can be no doubt that there is an economic benefit to having a college degree.  The data remain clear; college graduates earn more than those without a degree and are employed at much higher rates.    In addition, repeated surveys of CEOs have shown their preference for liberal arts graduates and the broad range of skills and attributes they bring to the workplace, particularly their adaptability and ability to learn.  This completely contradicts the growing emphasis on immediate employment as the single measure of the success of a college education.  Such a focus may prepare graduates for a first, entry level job, but it will not prepare them for a dynamic economy where adaptability, creative thinking, cogent and clear writing, effective speaking and teamwork are essential.  These are the very qualities nurtured at St. John’s.

While acknowledging its economic benefits, the value of a college education, especially a St. John’s education, goes far beyond earning power and the contribution to the economy.  It is more than a simple return on investment.  A St. John’s education is a preparation for life.  After all we don’t spend our entire lives in the economic sector; we spend it with family, in communities, in nations and in the broader world.  Our contributions as family members and as citizens are as important, if not more important, than what we do to earn a living.  And the evidence is also clear in these broader aspects of life.  College graduates have more stable families, volunteer at higher levels, and support charities and other philanthropic endeavors at greater rates and levels.  They participate in public and community affairs and vote at higher rates than those without a college degree.  In short, a college education, and particularly a St. John’s education, prepares graduates for citizenship which requires a deeper and broader education than specific vocational training can or means to provide. 

One of the great strengths of American higher education is its diversity.  It would be a tragedy if narrow thinking and the current economic challenges homogenized and commoditized American higher education, treating students merely as inputs for the economy, cogs in an assembly line.  Of course, there is a place and a need for the vocational training that is essential for some to participate in and contribute to the economy.  But, training alone cannot provide the inspiration, the drive and the skills necessary for a vibrant economy, an engaged citizenry, a dynamic society and an effective democracy.  These come from education and since the early days of our republic, most specifically from liberal arts colleges -- colleges that have helped produce the creative thinkers, innovators and leaders in our economy and our society.  Something St. John’s has done in Santa Fe for almost 50 years and with your participation and support will continue to do in the future. 

With this as a preface, allow me to say a few words about your decision to attend St. John’s and to sign the college register this morning and what it promises. 

Here is how I and others describe a St. John’s graduate:

Resolute: Not awed by complex ideas, but capable of mastering them.

Thoughtful:  Not a repository of facts, but enriched by reflection and knowledge.

Confident:  Not fearful of a changing world, but equipped to put change in perspective and exploit it.

Passionate:  Not indifferent to profound insights and creations, but engaged and inspired by them.

Open-minded:  Not shackled by dogma and received opinion, but inquiring and intellectually nimble.

Inventive:  Not constrained by one academic discipline, but ready to pursue and even create a life path of choice.

Disciplined:  Not superficially familiar with great works, but able to think deeply about and discuss the profound issues they raise.

Fun-loving: Not somber, but joyful in learning and living.

Collaborative:  Not defensive in the face of different views, but ready to reflect upon them and incorporate them as appropriate.

Ready:  Not daunted by the challenges of being a parent, friend, citizen or leader, but prepared to take on life’s opportunities and responsibilities.

Resolute, thoughtful, confident, passionate, open-minded, inventive, disciplined, fun-loving, collaborative and ready.  Does this sound like you now or who you aspire to be?  I both hope and expect it does. 

While you are at the college you will be asked to build on the foundation you have already established.  Here you will confront, analyze, debate and interpret the enduring intellectual and artistic innovations of human history—studying the greatest ideas contained in the greatest works of the greatest thinkers with your fellow students and with tutors who are wholly committed to your learning.  As a result you will be fully prepared to take on the roles you choose – as a family member, as a citizen, as a leader and yes in a career.

Again, you have demonstrated courage and foresight, having rejected the fad, fashion and foreboding of the times, and accepted the opportunity and challenge of St. John’s.

How does St. Johns’ help develop the attributes I outlined?  Let me suggest three principal ways.

First, by encouraging students to ask questions:

Asking questions requires that you think and reflect, not just take views as given.  You don’t need to question to get information, but you must ask questions to gain perspective or knowledge.  And, not just to answer questions, but to question answers.  Asking questions that mankind has grappled with throughout the ages.   Questions of power and politics and questions of war and peace, of course.  Questions of character and virtue, questions of justice, right and wrong; questions of human relations; questions of beauty and truth; questions of inspiration and creativity; questions of what lies beyond, beneath and inside; questions of the divine.  Fundamental, some might say naïve, questions, what kind of world are we making?  What kind of a world should we be making?

Second, by studying the greatest works:

Questions and the reflection upon them that are raised by the greatest thinkers in the greatest works – by Homer, Euclid, Plato, Shakespeare, Newton, Madison, Lincoln, Einstein and more.  For the Eastern Classics students Confucius, Mencius and others in the East and South Asian traditions.  Questions that cut across disciplines.  The greatest texts and thinkers are in conversation with one another. 
As I hope you understand, we have a set curriculum at St. John’s.  Ironically perhaps, because we believe that the independence of thought and wonder we wish to encourage in our students is best achieved by a coherent, integrated and required program.  That a potpourri of courses does not provide the structure necessary to encourage curiosity, wonder and serious reflection.

Third, by providing time and space to reflect on your own and with others:

A true education requires time.  Time to read slowly and deeply.  Time to reflect upon what you read and what you learn from discussions with faculty and fellow students, in and out of class.  Small, discussion-based classes, as at St. John’s, encourage exploration, active participation and profound reflection.  They are the antidote to the passivity frequently encountered in the large lecture hall.  Small, discussion-based classes aid the student to follow his or her sense of wonder and become effective learners and independent thinkers.

The pace and saturation of life, make it difficult to think – to take a step back -- to pause, to reflect.  Thinking is active, but it is patient as well.  This sense of never having enough time to think adequately about what we are doing, to gather ourselves and concentrate our attention, infects our daily lives.  It encourages relentless activity, but in pursuit of what?

The St. John’s education recognizes the need for time, leisure, to think deeply, for at least a period in our lives, in order to more fully to appreciate what is truly worth pursuing.

The residential setting of St. John’s in the tranquility of the New Mexico high desert provides the opportunity in both time and space for this kind of reflection and exploration.  Yet, it is located just minutes from the center of a vibrant community.  And, you will have an opportunity to experience one aspect of the vibrant city of Santa Fe this Sunday afternoon right here on campus.  When on the grassy knoll just to your right, the local Shakespeare Company will present a series of short vignettes from a number of Shakespeare’s plays entitled “All for Your Delight”.  Please come and take advantage of this opportunity.
 
Asking questions, studying the greatest works, and providing time and space to reflect, these are the fundamental ways St. John’s helps to transform its students and helps to develop and to nurture the Johnnie attributes I mentioned previously.

But, right now, you probably have other more immediate things on your mind as you settle into your dorm, meet roommates and classmates, begin your classes and find a place for yourself at the college.  Let me mention a few other aspects of what you will find at St. John’s and what the college values in campus life.

First, a community.  A community that includes not only your fellow students, but the faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the college.  We treat this sense of community very seriously.  It is a community founded on respect.  Respect for our common enterprise – learning.  But also respect for ourselves and respect for one another.  The nature of the college demands this respect and suffers when it breaks down. 

Second, a commitment to liberal education.  Liberal in the sense of liberating or freeing.  This is an education that calls upon each of us, student and tutor, to take responsibility for his or her own learning. 

Third, an examination of your social and moral obligations.  The fundamental elements of this moral consciousness are contained in the works we read, discuss and write about.  But, these ideas will remain very sterile, if you don’t try to take the questions they pose and the choices they demand beyond the classroom and into your daily life and the life of the college. 

You will be presented with an array of choices while at the college.  Choices about your engagement with the program; choices about your participation in the college outside the classroom; choices about your social life; and so many more.  Choices which will either enhance or impede your growth as a student and a person.  Since you have made the choice to attend St. John’s use your time wisely. 

Fourth, an opportunity for service, to give back.  The program is demanding and must, of course, be your first priority.  But, there are tremendous needs in the local community.  Imagine what a difference we could make if each of us found some way to serve others.
 
Your fellow students in Project Politae are dedicated to serving the community on and off campus. They have many possibilities that can work within your schedule. You can contact them through the Director of Residential Life, Matt Johnston, in the assistant dean’s office. If you get involved, you will benefit both yourself and others.

You can begin Saturday morning at the on-campus community service day.  If you get to the dining hall on time you can get a good start on the day by sampling my Presidential pancakes.  Believe me, they are worth it.

Finally, look out for yourself physically and emotionally.  You can’t help others if you don’t take care of yourself.  Maintain your health and mind your habits.  If you don’t smoke, don’t start; if you do smoke, give it up.  Smoking won’t improve your looks, your personality or your intellect.

Exercise your body as well as your mind.  Don’t hang out in your dorm room or for the GI’s the Darkey Common Room in Levan Hall.  Get involved in some of the many student activities. Go to the gym. Throw a pot in the pottery studio. Work on a play. Go whitewater rafting.  Join the search and rescue team. Write for The Moon, the student publication. Serve on Polity, student government.  This is just a sample.  If you can’t find an organization that responds to your passion, start one. The college will be glad to help you. 

I want especially to call your attention to the Community and Career Fair that will be held next Wednesday, September 4th, on the placita adjacent to Levan and Peterson Halls and the Fine Art Building.  Please come out and see the many opportunities there are on campus and in Santa Fe.

On behalf of the faculty and staff I again welcome and congratulate you on joining us at St. John’s College.  We are pleased to have you with us and we look forward to celebrating your learning and the 50th anniversary of the Santa Fe campus with you in the months and years ahead. 

I can assure you that since you have come to St. John’s, the college will never be the same, and I am equally certain that since you have come to St. John’s College, you will never be the same.  You will join those who came before you in reflecting the distinctive attributes of a Johnnie – someone who is resolute, thoughtful, confident, passionate, inventive, open-minded, disciplined, fun-loving, collaborative, and finally and most importantly ready for today and tomorrow.

So with this in mind, let me repeat my question to you of last evening, Class of 2017, and the graduate students, are you ready?  Yes!

With this, I declare the college in session.  Convocatum Est! 

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