Ancient East Meets Modern West in Eastern Classics Program
December 4, 2020 | By Hannah Loomis
The Eastern Classics (EC) master’s program, which has been offered on the Santa Fe campus since 1994, comprises three consecutive semesters of intensive, full-time study, fall through summer. Until this year it was only available in person—anyone wishing to participate in the program needed to be in Santa Fe.
That requirement has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing a welcome silver lining in a difficult time. With all St. John’s College programs shifting temporarily to an online format last spring, learners around the country have jumped at the opportunity to join the Eastern Classics program from wherever they happen to be. Enrollment in Fall 2020 outstripped all expectations, and new students include many alumni from both Annapolis and Santa Fe who have eagerly taken advantage of the online format to participate. And the good news continues: Faculty have approved the continuation of both graduate programs online, even after the pandemic passes. This does not replace the on-campus programs, when in-person study is again deemed safe, but is offered as an additional opportunity.
In a college best known for a liberal arts Program based primarily on the study of great thinkers and writers of the West, a program focused entirely on the East may seem anomalous. However, the idea is as old as the Program itself. In the 1930s Program founders Barr and Buchanan discussed whether St. John’s should be a great books of the West or a great books of the world program. Ultimately, they decided to begin with great books of the West, forming the basis for the reading list that still exists today.
Philosophically, it was important to the founders to create separate programs. It was their view that the books of the East and the West live within their own specific conversations, so rather than creating a combined program, the college chose to focus on the richness of the conversation within each tradition. And practically speaking, English translations of Eastern texts have only been available since about the 1980s (even more recently for language materials), so the Eastern program was not initially feasible. But interest simmered in the background for decades. “How could we not be interested in what the human mind does when it has leisure and letters and it’s free from political persecution—what fundamental questions arise for it...and what form [do] they take, particularly if they’ve not been touched by Greece, or by Jerusalem?” says tutor James Carey (A65), during whose deanship the early development of the EC program occurred.
After widespread English translations of significant texts emerged in the 1980s, Santa Fe faculty study groups began delving into Eastern texts and languages in earnest. And when a faculty seminar on the Bhagavad Gita unearthed the fact that translations of the original Sanskrit could suggest markedly different meanings for the same word, the faculty decided that study of Sanskrit or classical Chinese would be crucial in any potential Eastern Classics program, to allow students to study the original texts without relying on translations. In 1992 the Graduate Institute launched a pilot program, and by 1994, the Eastern Classics program was officially a part of the Santa Fe campus graduate offerings.
The EC program centers on foundational texts of India, China, and Japan. Although the oldest texts are Indian, Chinese texts are the first studied in the program—a change from the initial format, which proceeded chronologically. Tutor Krishnan Venkatesh explains that “the Rg Veda and Upanishads [from India] are among the most difficult things anyone will ever read. The Chinese social and moral thinkers are a much gentler place to start,” thereby providing a more productive entry place for students to find their footing and grow together as a group.
The program consists of three classes per semester: language tutorial (fall and spring), preceptorial, and seminar. All are discussion based, with one tutor and fewer than 20 students; often the number of students is closer to 10. Three of five total preceptorials are required: Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian; the Mahabharata; and The Tale of Genji, representing China, India, and Japan, respectively. The EC’s extensive reading list of more than three dozen works covers more than two millennia worth of thought and artistry, from Confucius to the Bhagavad Gita to Basho’s poetry. In addition to fundamental texts, all EC students are required to study either Sanskrit or classical Chinese. As in the undergraduate Program language tutorials, the EC language study is undertaken with a view to gaining insight into the language itself, as well as the culture it comes from, rather than for the sake of mastery.
This year many alumni of the undergraduate Program and the Liberal Arts master’s program began studying Eastern Classics—and quite a few did so specifically because it is now online. We spoke with several students and tutors about the online experience, and the program generally.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO DO THE EC PROGRAM NOW?
Stevanne Ellis (AGI04), based in Annapolis
It’s always been something I’ve wanted to do. And I never could figure out a way to do it. This has been one of the few blessings of the pandemic for me, being able to come back to St. John’s.
Amy Wilder (SFGI18), based in Missouri
I got an email from admissions this summer saying that they were going to put seminars online, and I was really thrilled about that, because I’ve wanted to do the EC program. But I have an 85-year-old mother and three kids here, so I felt like my focus needed to be here and I didn’t want to move back to Santa Fe to do [the program]. But I thought [participating remotely] was just too good an opportunity to pass up. I had some trepidation about doing it online, adding that on top of kids and work and a hectic life, but it has actually been really wonderful. It’s given me something to focus on that’s beyond my petty concerns and COVID-19.
Kelsey Hennegen (SFGI20), based in Santa Fe
I wasn’t ready to part ways with St. John’s College! In all seriousness, my two years in the Liberal Arts program were such a gift—transformative, engaging, rigorous—and St. John’s has become a home to me. When my post-MALA plans went a bit haywire with coronavirus and shutdowns, I realized that, despite the disappointment of not being able to come to campus and see all the familiar faces, St. John’s was the best place for me.
Marc Wall (AGI17), based in the Washington, DC area
I’ve been interested in doing the EC program for a while, and at one point I thought I’d be able to transplant myself for a year and be in Santa Fe. But I’ve settled back into life here. It’s been my home base for many years, and I have two grown children in the area, and other kinds of commitments have come along. I’ve realized I wasn’t going to be able to transplant myself quite so easily. So the reason I’m able to do the program, frankly, is because we’re doing it online.
WHAT HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH THE EC PROGRAM BEEN LIKE?
It’s really interesting because I thought I already had a relationship with some of these texts. But it’s always been a solo adventure for me to read the books, and I think that close reading with a group of people is such an enriching way to experience a text.
Meg Covington (SF16), based in Texas
I really enjoy the perspective that my older classmates bring to the discussion. I’m also impressed by the way that the EC tutors bring a very open-minded approach to these texts and help open them up for all of us. It’s very hard sometimes when you’re grounded in the West.
I’ve given some talks to students at the St. John’s campus in Annapolis about working in the Foreign Service. And I make a point that a St. John’s education is actually very good preparation for being a diplomat because you’re constantly in a state of culture shock. Whether you’re trying to figure out a new text or you’ve landed in a new country and you’re having to figure your way around, it’s very much a similar process. It’s learning a new culture, a new way of thinking, sometimes almost a new vocabulary, a new language. That went for the Liberal Arts program, and it’s certainly true now for the EC program. So I think the experiences have a lot more in common than not.
Patrick Anderson (SFGI20), based in New Jersey
Many of the texts in the EC are so strange, and so surprising. My expectations are bucked so often by what I actually find in the texts. [The authors] are not going to say what you think they’re going to say. Maybe sometimes they will, but you should be surprised by that.
The whole first semester of seminar takes place in an axial age of world history. You’re reading texts that are written during the same period of time as the Bible and Greek tragedy and Homer—so even in the West, the texts are weird and hard to interpret. But many of the Eastern texts are first attempts at articulating a way of thinking. Ideas are not hardened, they’re very vague. That makes for some very odd reading and some very confused moments in seminar. There are a lot of extended silences of head scratching—more so than I think I ever had in the Liberal Arts program. That has been a defining part of the experience so far, which is great. It’s both frustrating and invigorating at the same time.
IS THERE ANYTHING FROM THE EC TEXTS THAT ESPECIALLY SPEAKS TO YOU RIGHT NOW?
It was fascinating to encounter ancient Chinese philosophical and political texts as the U.S. approached the election. The EC reading list invited me to step out of the immediate moment to contemplate questions of civic duty, the role of the state, virtue, and self-determination from a different vantage point. It can be thrilling to find texts that so wholly resonate with me today, and humbling to recognize something essentially human in that. If an ancient Chinese philosopher, like Zhuangzi from the 4th century BC, can invigorate and inspire me, can challenge my assumptions and open new avenues of contemplation—well, how could I not feel hopeful and utterly connected to humanity?
I lived for almost nine years in several different East Asian countries—China, Taiwan, and Japan. Even though I spent a lot of time learning Chinese back in the day, I never really studied the texts we’ve just completed going through. I’m finding that subtexts of things I encountered during my time in East Asia are articulated in some of the texts we’ve read. You don’t want to go too far in extrapolating your understanding of what’s going on today based on those ancient texts, but nonetheless, there are some seeds that were starting to germinate back then.
I think the thing that’s striking to me—and after I thought about it for a while I’m not really surprised—is that we’re not much different now than we were several thousand years ago. We’re still struggling with what is good and what’s virtuous. We’re still trying to figure out how leaders should behave or not behave. We’re still trying to figure out what makes a good government. Some of these texts are 2,000 or 3,000 years old. But if you just close your eyes, it could be now.
WHAT’S THE ONLINE EXPERIENCE LIKE?
Philip Bartok, Tutor, based in Santa Fe
Our online seminar conversations this fall have been vibrant and energetic. I quickly forget that we are online as soon as the class gets going—I get so thoroughly absorbed into the intricacies of the conversation. I’m finding that everyone’s personality shines through even on the screen, and we’ve all gotten to know each other and have grown comfortable doing real work together. Being able to attend seminar from home has opened up this experience to many who would not otherwise have been able to attend. There’s an excitement and gratitude that everyone is feeling to be able to get to do this right now. Some students have even described seminar as “therapeutic” in that it has helped direct them away from our current challenges and has opened up for them a world of thought and conversation that they have been craving. Being online has made it possible for many alumni to attend, and they have raised the level of discussion. Our conversations this fall have been as deep and probing as any I have had around a physical seminar table at the college.
When you’re in person, the friendships are almost instantaneous. It’s remarkable how fast Johnnies become friends, and not surprising either. It’s almost immediate, those spontaneous conversations before or after class, especially if you’re on campus, those late-night dorm conversations that go four or five hours longer than you had intended, but you just can’t stop. It’s so bizarre to be this far into a program at St. John’s without those spontaneous conversations and friendships. I’m trying to think of ways to facilitate that. I’m corresponding by email with a few of my classmates, and that has led to what feels similar to a budding friendship. But that’s probably been the hardest part. I think people are starting to gain that classic Johnnie respect for each other—slowly, but surely.
I find that the experience of having class itself over Zoom really can approach the in-person experience. But the difference is that you have to do some work to make your room setting as much as possible like a seminar room. When we’re in person, the seminar room is a kind of cocoon where you’re protected from the outside world—lighting is good, you’re all separated by the table—and that automatically imposes an appropriate setting to have seminar in. The responsibility for creating that now is on us individually as students.
David Carl, Tutor, based in Santa Fe
This semester, the real gift of teaching in the EC—in addition to the opportunity to read and discuss these amazing works of literature, philosophy, and history—has been the opportunity to connect with students from literally across the country (from California to New England) who would not have been able to participate in the Eastern Classics program had it required them to move to Santa Fe for a year. Many of these students—some alumni of the college, others new to our community—have waited for years to do the EC program, but family, personal, and professional commitments prevented them from uprooting their lives to move to Santa Fe. Now we are able to come together twice a week, no matter where our bodies are located in time and space, to discuss these classic works written millennia ago and continents away which, as we read and discuss them in 21st-century North America, consistently remind me how transitory these illusory categories of “time and space” really are.