Our Pedagogy

“It doesn’t matter what our backgrounds are, or how old we are, or what our previous education has been: When we sit around the table together, we’re simply human beings grappling with ideas, posing questions, and responding to the material. The collective bond we form around the great books is profound. St. John’s isn’t about competing, it’s about students and tutors becoming comrades on a remarkable journey.” — Shelley Mason, MALA & MAEC

Why great books?

Because they express most originally and most deeply the ideas that have shaped civilization. These books are both timeless and timely; they illuminate the persisting questions of human existence that bear directly on the problems we face today. Although they span many subjects, these books transcend genres. Plato’s Republic, for example, is both a profound work of philosophy and a brilliant literary work. Euclid’s Elements is a mathematical text with deep philosophical implications. Emily Dickinson’s poems are both great literature and a way of looking into the deepest philosophical, theological, and experiential questions. These authors change our minds, move our hearts, and touch our spirits.

Why great conversations?

Every class has fewer than 20 students, and every class begins with a question—a question formulated to foster a genuine investigation into the meaning of a text, not to elicit a ready-made answer. Where that discussion may travel during the class is unpredictable. It all depends on the moment-to-moment dynamism of human conversation in an encounter with a text of inexhaustible richness. The classroom experience is an adventure—and the graduate students a genuine intellectual community.

Becoming educated is a process of becoming intellectually free so as to be capable of thinking for oneself, engaging in ongoing learning and inquiry, and achieving inner freedom. Our students are professionals enhancing their careers, academics seeking a rigorous immersion in interdisciplinary thought, and adults interested in investigating the roots of current issues through thoughtful inquiry and conversation. At St. John’s, we believe that the life of the mind is crucial to full human flourishing.

The Faculty and Assessment

Students are assisted in their understanding of the great books by faculty members that are referred to as “tutors” rather than “professors.” The title “tutor” is used to signify that our faculty’s chief role is not to profess or lecture in their area of expertise, but to guide the students through the program of study. The tutors guide discussions by asking questions, supplying helpful examples, and encouraging students to explore the implications of their statements. During class, a tutor spends a great deal of time actively listening as students work through the difficulties of a particular text. Tutors raise issues or objections along the way but always encourage the students to find answers for themselves.

Students regularly meet with faculty in and out of the classroom; in addition, first and second semester students have a formal conference at which they discuss their work with all their tutors. The conference takes the form of a conversation about the student’s work in which the tutors present their perceptions of the student’s progress and the student says how he or she thinks the work is going, how the tutors might provide additional help, or how the classes might be made more useful. Although the college does create a transcript with letter grades, students are encouraged not to work for grades but for the intrinsic satisfaction of learning.

There are regular written assignments in addition to reading and discussion. Students who wish to undertake a more extensive piece of written work may submit a proposal to write a Master’s Essay. Upon completion, the essay is read by a committee of three tutors, who also conduct a public oral examination of the student.

Meet Your Tutors