Q&A: John Gray, Former Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
September 4, 2018 | By Eve Tolpa
John Gray completed two semesters of the Graduate Institute’s Eastern Classics program in 2012. He was then granted leave from the college to serve as the Elizabeth MacMillan Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, a position he held until May 2018. He plans to complete the program’s final semester in summer 2019.
What did your pre–St. John’s education entail?
I went to college and did undergraduate in economics, political science, and history. I ended up getting a master's in business administration, and I totally loved business school. I then had a career in banking, and during that time I attended many schools in very specific areas, like finance and accounting and organizational behavior.
What drew you to the Graduate Institute?
I tried to come to St. John’s for the graduate program several times. Every time I changed careers I hoped to go to St. John’s, and I just got another job. I’ve always had a deep interest in Eastern thought, and I’ve traveled extensively in Asia, trying to understand and learn more about that area. There was never any question about whether I would do Eastern or Western [Classics]. So when I finally came to St. John’s to work in the Eastern Classics, it was a wonderful opportunity.
How did your background inform the perspective you initially brought to the program?
In business and in most leadership roles, you are taught [to] speak in short, declarative thoughts that leave very little room for disagreement or questioning. The whole intent is to say something that carries the day, particularly in ways that make the ideas complete and makes the person who is delivering the information [seem] knowledgeable. You’re in essence packaging an argument very quickly and thoroughly and, hopefully, very effectively. The better you are at that, the more successful you often are in business and in government and in any other setting. We as a society live on that kind of declaration. It’s more intense today than it was 50 years ago.
What was different about the St. John’s approach?
The experience of seminar or preceptorials—in which you had to both understand the text, present your ideas in a way that opened them up to others to respond to that—is an extraordinary learning experience, and that’s very challenging, because it’s absolutely counter to how you normally present and address people. I didn’t understand how profound, and also for me how difficult, the experience was of conversation and exploring ways in which you could have a better understanding of texts with participants. It’s a much more rich and effective way to read, to think, and to have conversations.
What most surprised you about your experience as a student of Eastern Classics?
I had two extraordinary tutors who were hypercritical of my writing ability and my organization ability. I do believe they were right, and they were lovely, as all St. John’s tutors are lovely when they are telling you you could be a lot better and more clear. I think that was the biggest shock to me, because you have to reflect on actually what you are producing, and this was mostly in the written word, and it was a really instructive and wonderful experience for me with those tutors.
I have some learning disabilities, and I’m quite dyslexic. I managed to get through all of that in business and in government, but it’s a very different issue at a college. One of the things that was fascinating to me was how hard it was for me to learn Sanskrit, and it wasn’t until I got out of the classroom and had tutors helping me [that I did it]. It wasn’t that I was sloppy, but that they forced me to be much more precise and careful.
You completed two semesters before essentially taking a leave of absence in May 2012. What were the circumstances surrounding that decision?
[I was] doing well in some areas and not so well in some areas, but totally immersed and loving it. I got a call to see if I would be interested in going to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. I went to Eastern Classics with the idea of learning, not with the idea of getting the degree. At this point in my life, it wouldn’t help me get a job, but it’s important to note that the college was wonderfully flexible and supportive during the process of getting that job. Next summer I will complete the degree.
What role did your St. John’s education play in your approach to that opportunity from the Smithsonian?
My experience at St. John’s prepared me for a very different way of presenting both myself and what I believed in. In the process of interviewing with over 85 people, I used conversation and questions and posed a very different way of looking at American history [and] its complexity, trying to elicit what other people wanted to have happen, as opposed to what I thought should happen. It was that process that informed so much of what I came to understand about the museum and its needs and its opportunities—by intensely questioning and listening to people who obviously knew more than I did.
When I got the job at the Smithsonian, the person who hired me was a Sanskrit scholar. So immediately he felt I was unbelievably smart and well-positioned, even though he didn’t realize I basically failed Sanskrit. It was very funny—very wonderful and a real connection.
What is your relationship to the Summer Classics program?
I think it’s been ten years that I’ve gone, in many different subjects. This last year, one of the highlights of Summer Classics was studying Aristotle with [Santa Fe tutor] Judith Adams and Warren Winiarski (A52). I gained insights and understanding and reflections that really were profound and wonderful. I love St. John’s, and obviously it makes a big difference in my life.