Q&A: Tutor David Townsend

Tutor David Townsend has served on both the Annapolis and Santa Fe campuses. 

David Townsend has been a tutor at St. John’s College since 1974. He has moderated seminars for the Aspen Institute, the Federal Executive Institute, and Weidenfeld Scholars at Oxford. A previous member of the board of the Touchstones Discussion Project and the Baltimore City Commission on HIV/AIDS, Mr. Townsend has also coordinated the Corporate Council on Africa’s HIV/AIDS Task Force. He has taught at Jessup Prison and the Baltimore Police Academy. He has been blessed with four wonderful daughters and six grandchildren. Here, he is interviewed by Colloquy. 

Colloquy: What year did you start teaching at St. John’s?

David Townsend: 1974.

And you started at Santa Fe?

I started at Santa Fe—I did come to Annapolis in ‘84. Before then I was a graduate student at Harvard. I was getting my PhD, so I had just completed my coursework. I had just gotten married and I applied for jobs in the west, ‘cause I loved the west. So I only applied for jobs [from the] Rocky Mountains [on] west, and it was a time when you could get jobs.

You’re implying that it’s no longer a time when you can get jobs?

No, very different situation. It was just at the end of that situation—it was already getting difficult. Not quite as difficult as it is now. So I had about five to six offers. And the three that most attracted me were: Occidental, they really wanted me, a small liberal arts college in Los Angeles—that would have been a good choice; University of Montana, Missoula, that would have been really fun, and most of the interview consisted of the head of the English Department telling me how he’d gone out elk hunting, and how difficult it is—he bagged it, a nine-hundred pound elk, and had to cut the thing in half to pack it out—so you know, I listened very eagerly to this and he thought it was terrific; and then St. John’s, where I just visited and I loved it. So I had these really great opportunities. It was hard to choose.

But the person interviewing you at St. John’s did not tell you a story about bagging a nine-hundred-pound elk?

No, but Bob Neidorf was a wonderful guy. He was the dean at the time, a philosopher, just a really wonderful man. And I liked the smallness of the place. I liked the fact that I could—I’d been in college, I went to a Jesuit College, I was an English major, but I took just as many philosophy and theology courses. So when I graduated, I won medals for Theology, Philosophy, English, so I could have gone to graduate school in any of these disciplines. I chose English because the prose was better, but I’ve never been very departmental, so I liked the absence of departments at St. John’s. And I’d known about it because I grew up in Baltimore. And had actually thought about going [to college there], but I didn’t have the money, and I got a scholarship to Loyola, so God wanted me to go there.

Why did you go to graduate school in the first place?

I was very interested in learning. It seemed like a wonderful thing to do and, again, I had a lot of options, really great options, and I ended up at Harvard—they gave me a fellowship. It seemed like a great place.

You say “ended up at Harvard,” like that ever [just] happens to people.

I grew up in a working-class environment, and I was the first kid to go to college. It was a time when they were taking like one Jesuit kid a year. Cause Harvard was kind of blowing up. Loyola, you know, was just—we had two years of compulsory ROTC. My Sophomore Paper was [about] how the greatest cause of war in the twentieth century is the existence of standing armies. They [the ROTC] said, “I don’t think you’re cut out for this program.” And then I got drafted! You really wanna know this much about me?


When I was in high school I wanted to go to West Point. Cause I wanted to fight godless, atheistic communism, right? So I actually got the congressional appointment, but I was so nearsighted that I couldn’t pass the physical. So I was heartbroken, but then I got to go to Loyola. They had Green Beret training. I loved that we ran around in the woods, we threw smoke grenades at each other—it was serious stuff! It was great stuff actually, and I loved it. But then I turned against the war, so I thought, “Well, I’ll go as a medic.”

By the time I got drafted, I’d been at Harvard about three months and it was a very crazy scene. Judge Wyzanski was the Federal Judge in Boston who had declared the war unconstitutional, which, of course, was overturned on appeal. That was the atmosphere in Boston at the time. And there were like three hundred guys who went down to the recruiting station, and it was a madhouse! People had read Tuli Kupferberg’s 1001 Ways to Beat the Draft and painted their bodies blue, stuffed rubber rats in various orifices—it was just a wild scene. Then there were like thirty-five of us that were just regular guys and didn’t know anything about this. So when we got to the very end, the guy looks at my eyes and he goes, “oh no.” I said, “what do you mean ‘oh no’?” I didn’t actually flunk the physical, they delayed it. So if the war got much worse and they needed cannon fodder, they would’ve called me back. It’s funny; when I didn’t get into West Point at sixteen I was heartbroken. Then at twenty-one, I [thought] “What goes around comes around.” So I didn’t end up in Vietnam. I ended up at St. John’s.

What did you study as a graduate student at Harvard?

It was called “American Languages and Literatures.” It was basically the English Department.

Sounds interdisciplinary!

It was as interdisciplinary as I could get. And we also had a program called “American Studies,” and I was the Graduate Student Chair of that little program. That was great because it was an honors program at Harvard so you had to apply for it as an undergraduate. We had some really terrific students.

So you were at Santa Fe for how many years?

I started in Santa Fe in ‘74, I came here in ‘84, and I took an interlude and went to law school.

What prompted that?

I was interested in justice. I was interested in social justice and, frankly, my wife wanted me to apply to law school, become a corporate lawyer, and make a lot of money.

I see that didn’t work out.

No, that didn’t work out. I came back to St. John’s. By that time, I had three kids.

Could’ve used the money!

[I] could’ve used the money, but I wasn’t thinking about money. I did a lot of nuts and bolts, hands-on child-rearing, and I couldn’t figure how I was going to do that and be a lawyer. Cause if you’re a lawyer, you have to be in the office at eleven o’clock at night, in case some other lawyer calls you.

What are the distinctions, as you see it, between what we’re doing at the Graduate Institute versus what St. John’s is doing with their undergraduates?

The undergraduate is different in that it is a four-year, intense commitment and you have generally younger people—not all of them, but they’re taking a four-year period of their lives, where they’re doing almost nothing else. Maybe they’re working. And that’s really unusual. They’re never going to get to do that again, most likely. Hardly any of them realize that they’re making friendships, relationships, having conversations—that they’re never going to have that opportunity again.

The graduate students have more experience, more life experience, more appreciation of the values of patience and time. The wonderful thing about the young, adolescent undergraduates is that they have this terrific arrogance where they think they can identify and solve all of the intellectual, political, and social problems, and fix them and that’s great! It’s wonderful. The graduate students have a little more experience and realize that things are a little more intractable than that. But there’s a wonderful joy in the graduate students because they’re making this time for themselves to live the life of the mind, and realizing that there is a wonder and preciousness about it that I don’t think the undergraduates appreciate as much. Because they haven’t have had as much experience of the world and what a harsh place it can be, for the most part. So that’s, I think, the major difference, but they’re both delightful groups of people.

You mentioned that part of what you see the College’s mission as being is to educate for values-based leadership. Do you see the Graduate Institute as participating in this project?

Yes, I do. I think that anybody who can tell you what the world is going to look like in five years is blowing smoke. We’re in such a revolution, a revolution of technology and information and globalization. Nobody knows what’s going to be. Most institutions are going for specialization and more emphasis on job training, and I think that’s unfair. I don’t think it’s going to work, because you don’t know what the jobs are going to be in five years. Some technology could come along that blows out a whole discipline and no one does it anymore. It’s like learning how to make buggy whips—we don’t make them anymore.

The competitive advantage a St. John’s student has [as] an entrepreneurial leader is [that] you’re going to find yourself with a group of people from very different backgrounds, who probably fundamentally disagree on many things, but they’re all going to have to come together and come to some common understanding, and reach a decision that has the utility to move the business forward, to move whatever the goal is forward. This is what we do. In that room, the St. John’s graduate is going to understand how to get people talking, how to get them focused on some outcome that makes sense, based on the information that they have. So it’s the gathering of information, the data, it’s the interpreting of the information, and then it’s trying something out, and then going back to the data and interpreting, and trying something out. That’s what McKinsey [&Company] or one of these leadership organizations teaches you, right? We do it in a better way, in the sense that we do it in terms of ideas and the text as well.

But we’re doing more at St. John’s. There’s something deeper.

Oh, for sure. Yeah, I don’t mean to sell it short. I’m just saying [that] in terms of competitive advantage, I think what you get here—because of the ability to have conversations with one another—what we get good at is conversations with other people. We live in a time where you don’t have a conversation, you figure out whether you agree with someone first and then you make the conversation. That’s a real tragedy. Democracy will not work that way. I think we recognize that, no, we don’t have to agree with someone to talk with them, we can talk with anybody. So we have that competitive advantage. I think that’s a real advantage in business and in the world.

You wrote an article for the Capital Gazette that was part of a series that they had commissioned from community members on what Annapolis could mean. And you said something that seems very relevant to what you’re saying now—about seeing St. John’s and the way that St. John’s could be incorporated into the city of Annapolis as a way of showing America how to be citizens again.


Do you still feel that could be true?

I think that’s what our founders were after. In Stringfellow Barr’s words, “how do you become citizens of the world?” What’s your responsibility as a citizen? I think America is an experiment and it’s a metanation. It’s beyond national boundaries. It’s a new vision of the way human beings can be, and [the way] communities can be. I think the founders understood that—Barr, Buchanan, Adler, Hutchins, and other people very interested in St. John’s were interested in this project. So let’s train real citizens.

Are there ways that we’re obstructing ourselves in this project?

It’s hard to say. I think one could get diverted from it by—there’s a lot of pressure to become an academic institution like other academic institutions, so that’s the market and how do you get your market share? I think we’re doing something bigger than that, but if we lose energy or get scared then we might revert back to the tried and true academic traditions, which in fact are not working very well in these small institutions which are all under economic threat. It’s the belief in the capacity of the soul—the power of the human soul to come forth—and I think that’s what we do. It goes back to Book VII of the Republic: the power and capacity of learning exist in the soul already. It’s believing that that really is true about human beings, and that the difference between freedom and slavery is allowing that to emerge, or enabling it to emerge, or getting out of the way. Yeah, I think that’s what we’re really doing. And the more we recognize that and just own it, the better [of an] institution we become.

I have found at the Graduate Institute that there’s a startling diversity in terms of the kinds of students there are here. I’ve been around a lot of graduate students and for most traditional kinds of graduate programs, you get a much more typical kind of student body. There might be a diversity in age range, but here it’s really significant. We have older students, much older students, we have students who have already found a career and then they’re doing this in addition. So, in a way, it feels like the Graduate Institute is a very democratic institution, pulling people from all these different areas of life. Are there ways in which that affects the conversation in the classroom that you think are important to note?

I certainly think that having life experience makes a difference—and I don’t mean just bringing personal anecdotes into the classroom, because I don’t think that works particularly well. But I think awareness of the real effects and the utility of ideas, and the consequences of ideas—I think graduate students understand better that ideas have consequences and that you’re going to be living what you believe, what you think is true. And the diversity is great. I’m all for diversity, but it’s instrumental and can’t suffice as the goal, the telos, or end we’re aiming at. I mean it’s not the be-all and end-all—we’ve got to figure out where we’re going with our diversity, but I think it’s a good thing.

You’ve been involved in quite a few non-profit organizations or institutions. Would you speak to the programs or institutions you feel tied most closely to, and what the work you’re doing there is and why you’re doing it.

I guess the Aspen Institute would be the one that I was involved with the longest—over two decades. I was recruited to run seminars there, they were looking for a seminar person. Again, these were very fortunate things that happened to me—and I got to do some of those with Mortimer Adler while he was still alive. Adler founded the Aspen Institute and he was instrumental in founding St. John’s. He never taught here, but he did give lectures every year. It was Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan who became the officers, but he was very much one of the intellectual fathers of the college and he was very much for outreach. The college itself was an outreach—it was a way of trying to reach out and change [things].

So I’d be thinking about how that’s going to happen. What is the way that pulls us all together, rather than thinks about how we’re divided and divides us into different groups? Again, I’m all for diversity, but you can’t build a nation or a citizenship based on what particular politically correct group you’re a member of—it’s just not going to work. So I think that’s where we are, I think we’re in a huge technological revolution and this goes back to the earlier conversation about job training. I mean it’s true about government and politics. And that’s where St. John’s has the advantage because we have the long view and we know what ideas are in competition, and [which] are really working. So we know about values like equality and liberty and community and prosperity.

There’s also a risk inherent there, that the college—however relevant it might continue to be—might no longer be desired, as an institution, by the society it exists within. Do you feel optimistic that that’s not going to happen? That there will always be enough people who want to receive the kind of education they can receive at St. John’s, that we won’t go out of business, as it were?

Yeah, you gotta pay the bills. But I think the college has untapped opportunities. People are dying to understand what’s going on. They’re dying for a liberal education, as it were. And we have such a national platform to talk about that right now that I think we should do that. We should just get ourselves out there, which we’ve been doing some of in the last couple of years. I think that’s a good thing.


Previously published in the Fall 2018 issue of Colloquy.