Meet the Johnnies: Jim Phillips (AGI19)

September 26, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin

Jim Phillips (AGI19) is pursuing postgraduate studies in philosophy and theology at Oxford.

Graduate Institute alumnus Jim Phillips (AGI19) has a marketing suggestion for St. John’s: “I think they should put a neon sign above St. John’s College that says ‘Something Special Happening Here.’”

While it might clash with the colonial architecture, his point is well-taken.

“What goes on there is something our entire nation and culture could relearn, and that is how to have civil conversations,” he explains. “Because I was delighted to discover I was in a room full of people who had different views, different backgrounds, different presuppositions, different political parties and yet we could discuss very deep topics civilly and learn to respect one another while we did.”

Philips, who attended the Graduate Institute after a long career in I.T., had long suspected this “something special.” As the leader of the C.S. Lewis Institute in Annapolis, he has hosted a men’s Christian fellowship for members of the St. John’s community for the last decade. When the attendees would bring what they were reading at St. John’s into the discussion, Phillips says he was always very interested—but never fully able to understand their references.

“I just had this longing to fill that gap in,” he says. “I retired from my job two years ago, and the minute my retirement was looming, I [said] ‘I have an opportunity right now to do something that I have always wanted: to experience the Great Books. So I did.”

Two years later, he’s preparing to begin his postgraduate studies in theology and religion at Oxford in the first year of what could become a four-year doctorate in philosophy.

“I wasn’t thinking about Oxford when I went to St. John’s,” Phillips says. “I was thinking about St. John’s and what the young men in the fellowship had shared with me. But at St. John’s, I was back in the academic groove, learning about thinking critically, writing well, and began to think ‘I can do this again.’ When I said to my wife more than halfway though the program, ‘I really am enjoying this. I don’t want to see this end,’ she said ‘Well, let’s go to Oxford.’”

It had been a lifelong dream of Phillips’s, but just didn’t seem possible before he entered into the Graduate Institute. With a recent, relevant transcript and the support of his tutors, he was accepted and begins his studies this month. The program is similar to St. John’s, he says, with small seminar-style classes and one-on-one meetings with tutors—faculty members are called tutors at Oxford as well.

It was his tutors, in fact, that most enriched his St. John’s experience. Phillips recalls with affection an instance when a tutor very kindly told him his paper just wasn’t that good, which was a surprisingly influential moment in his education.

“He said to me ‘Well, this is interesting and I commend you for trying to be creative, but this is not your best work. You’ve left what you do well trying to either impress me or impress yourself,” he remembers. “That was a watershed moment—to stay within the gifts I’ve been given to communicate what’s on my mind. I can’t thank the tutors enough. When I mentioned I might want to go to Oxford, I was expecting a possible chuckle—really, at your age?—but every one of them, without hesitation, said ‘Yes, how can I help you?’”

Since then, he’s successfully discussed Socrates in his fellowship and has packed his bags for the next adventure—but he wants to make sure everyone knows how important St. John’s has been to the journey … and that’s where the neon sign comes in.

“I don’t think the students of St. John’s have any idea what a good thing they have going. The more life experience they get, I believe they’ll come to appreciate even more what is happening in their education. I hope they all become journalists, politicians, and writers of the future because they leave here knowing how to have civil discourse, and boy, do we need it. Something special is happening at St. John’s.”