Celebrating the Graduate Institute

September 22, 2017 | By Eve Tolpa

Tutor Cary Stickney (A75) plays the violin at Homecoming.
Tutor Cary Stickney (A75) plays the violin at Homecoming. Photo By: © 2017 Insightfoto.com

As the Graduate Institute at St. John’s turns 50 years old, the college is featuring a series of stories to highlight the history, students—past and present—and other contributors who have made it what it is today.

Tutor Cary Stickney (A75) stood at the east end of Meem Placita, on the St. John’s Santa Fe campus, drew his bow across the A string of his violin, and invited the Homecoming crowd to sing the resulting note.

“A mere tone can organize the world around itself,” he said as he compared the keynote in a musical composition to an opening question that initiates a conversation on a text.

“What is the keynote of the Graduate Institute?” asked Stickney, who served as the director of the Graduate Institute (GI) in Santa Fe from 1994 to 1997. He then addressed his own question, eventually landing on this answer: adult education.

The tone set by the GI resonated with Tim Whalen (SFGI08). He had never attended a Homecoming event before, but on the evening of September 16 he joined students, faculty and fellow alumni to celebrate the GI’s 50th anniversary.

“I did all five segments,” said Whalen, a retired Special Forces officer who moved to Santa Fe after completing the GI program.

Whalen recalls reading The Iliad while not long out of Afghanistan. With that book, and others, he found himself engaged in “a synergistic relationship,” one that could be revisited over and over.

“The texts change with one’s life and change one’s life,” Whalen said. “(In) the interpersonal relationship of what we do here and the relationships with what we read, I find great challenge and great beauty.”

Caitlin McShea (SFGI12) enrolled in the GI right after college and shares Whalen’s affection for the GI program.

“I came here to get the foundational philosophy,” she said, explaining that her undergraduate double major in biology and philosophy required her to read lot of secondary and tertiary commentary. “Now I’m the secondary. I’m one degree away from the text.”

Particularly memorable for McShea was the experience of demonstrating for her classmates one of Euclid’s proofs.

“You can’t just draw it up there,” she said. “You have to explain, segment by segment.”

As a result, McShea said, she gained confidence in public speaking, a skill she puts to use in her position as an events coordinator at the Santa Fe Institute, the renowned research center for complexity science.

She pointed out the vast difference between reading alone and in the GI’s collaborative context.

“Anyone can go online and get the book list,” she said, “but you really need like-minded peers to push against your exposed idea.”

Across the courtyard, John Behan (EC17) sipped a drink with his friend, student William Tierney, as the sun set behind Meem Library.

Originally from New York, Behan now teaches Latin at a classical high school in Moriarty, New Mexico, not far from his home in Albuquerque.

“I really loved the Mahabharata,” he said. “It’s this long Indian epic, in many ways like The Iliad or The Odyssey.”

He gratefully acknowledged the rare opportunity St. John’s offers to delve into Eastern texts, echoing a point made by David McDonald, associate dean for graduate programs, in an address to the group.

McDonald remarked that encountering the Eastern Classics “is a way of seeing what the human mind does, as it approaches the fundamental questions, without the influence of either the Greeks or the Western religious traditions. It’s therefore not a kind of spectatorship, but a stepping into other traditions in order to better know what it is to be human, simply.”

That aspect of the GI program continued to reverberate for Behan. Even though it had been barely a month since he graduated from St. John’s, he said, “I miss it already. It’s a great, great place.”

Learn more about the history of the Graduate Institute and upcoming festivities on the GI 50th Anniversary page.