Panel Asks What Role Politics Plays in St. John’s Santa Fe Community

November 16, 2018 | By Kimberly Uslin

Politics panel
Tutors and staff on the Santa Fe campus considered the St. John's community's involvement in politics during a recent panel discussion.  

The students at St. John’s College are known talkers. They discuss Great Books at the seminar table and at lunch, over coffee or at a Reality party. They’re opinionated, informed, and just generally a little different from your average college student.

According to several members of the Sante Fe campus community, however, one of the most commonly discussed topics in America is not frequently broached on campus: politics. To explore why that could be, a panel was recently held entitled “To What Extent Should the Members of Our College Community Be Politically Active?”

The event, conceived of and hosted by the recently revamped Student Committee on Instruction, was timely—held the day after Election Day on November 7—and included a panel of college faculty, students, and staff: moderator Bridget Wu (SF20), tutors Ned Walpin, Grant Franks, and Janet Dougherty, and Presidential Fellow for Academic Support Ken Baumann (SF17).

As an alumnus, Baumann was particularly excited that the panel had come to fruition. He says there is often a surprising hesitancy for students, faculty, and staff to be open about their politics or engage in political discussion on the Santa Fe campus, and a prevailing sense that personal politics be largely left out of—or at least minimized in—the seminar classroom.

“When I was attending, your politics did enter the room, but they were typically clothed in a generalized argument,” he says. “I think this question [of the proper extent of political activism on campus] is one of the most commonly asked that tends to get answered least. It just doesn’t get formally addressed.”

Two hours of discussion, consisting of opening statements from the panelists and a Q&A session, certainly addressed it—though, as is the Johnnie way, perhaps raised more questions than answers.

“The biggest thing for me was the students’ hunger to gain some guidance about how to use what we’re learning to think about politics and also a hunger for them to inquire how we as a community could start talking about politics,” says Walpin, who admits he wasn’t sure what to expect from the event. “There’s a hunger to be able to talk about [politics] in a collegial way, and—needless to say—that desire is probably hungrier now than it’s ever been just because of the current political environment in the United States.”

According to Walpin, the oft-discussed ‘Johnnie bubble,’ which purports that students lose touch with the world and current events while enmeshed in the Program, is a myth—though there are those students in Santa Fe who would prefer to stay out of political discussion. Baumann agrees.

“It was actually the majority of students who knew what was happening in the world,” he recalls of his time as an undergraduate. “It was a small group of students who were just eating, breathing, and sleeping the curriculum.”

The 40-plus students who went to take part in the discussion were more likely to have political interests than their counterparts by sheer attendance, naturally, but the Q&A session revealed them to be as engaged as Baumann indicated. Questions varied from ‘How feasible is a ‘national conversation about politics, and how does it happen?’ to ‘What constitutes a political question? What is a political action?’ and ‘How do we discuss sensitive and uncomfortable topics at St. John’s more often?’

According to Baumann, panelists provided some practical, concrete solutions for students, such as joining democratically run interest groups or political organizations, starting a study group on contemporary politics, and the student body organizing itself. Walpin says he was glad the students had an opportunity to raise their questions and concerns.

“I think it was a useful conversation,” he says. “I think the students felt energized by it. Having panels and discussions that are on subjects that aren’t within the normal purview of the Program is a good thing.”

As for the central question, the extent to which Santa Fe campus community members should be politically active?

“I don’t think people can help it,” says Baumann. “I think that how we treat the people we love, how we treat ourselves, and how we think about ourselves—all of these habits are products of political ideology and suppositions we’re carrying around in our heads, maybe without knowing it. But I think politics is not just who you vote for at the ballot box and what one word you use to describe yourself.”

“I think [people] have a responsibility to figure out what it means to be an engaged and thoughtful citizen,” adds Walpin. “I don’t know whether it follows necessarily that it’s their responsibility to be politically active. But I think they have to understand their roles and figure out what’s the best, most appropriate way for them [to act]. Each individual has to navigate that for him- or herself.”