Socratic Society Brings St. John’s, Naval Academy Together for Books and Conversation

November 8, 2021 | By Les Poling

A Johnnie and a midshipman greet one another during a gathering of the Socratic Society. Photo by Ken Aston via United States Naval Academy, Facebook.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Socratic Society—a joint intellectual venture between members of St. John’s College and the neighboring U.S. Naval Academy—began as two friends talking about Great Books.

St. John’s tutor Jason Tipton and Naval Academy Instructor John Childress, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel, have been friends for more than seven years, but never intentionally brought their shared academic interests to the fore of their relationship. That changed last year, when the two decided to read and discuss an assortment of authors and texts—first Emily Dickinson, then several speeches by Abraham Lincoln, then Machiavelli’s The Prince. The dialogue blossomed, and it didn’t take long for the pair to recognize the potential to grow the conversation.

“We were enjoying this together, and we thought it would be an even better opportunity if we could get the St. John’s and Naval Academy students involved,” Childress explains. “We wanted to get them together so they could meet and share their perspectives with each other.”

“It was really organic,” notes Tipton. “Nothing was pre-planned.”

Thus, with an initial set of Zoom gatherings between students, Tipton, and Childress, the Socratic Society was born: a collective project intended to bring Johnnies and midshipmen together in conversation and Aristotelian friendship. This semester—the group’s first opportunity to gather in person—drew 30 Johnnies and 30 midshipmen, with plenty of students from both institutions on the waitlist. For both Tipton and Childress, soliciting enrollment came easily.

“We sent out a notice, I got responses to that, all of the sudden we had 30 [St. John’s] students—which is what we limited it to—and 12 on the waitlist,” Tipton says. “That’s 42 students; almost 10 percent of the college population.”

Childress received a similar response from the Naval Academy. Last year, during the online sessions, participating midshipmen primarily came from one of Childress’ classes. This year, he says, “we just sent out a note and said, here’s what we’re doing, let us know if you’re interested. We were well oversubscribed to.”

This semester’s programming, “Action and Contemplation: Ethics in Practice,” facilitates four meetings: an opening and closing dinner, plus two lunch sessions in between. During each get-together, Johnnies and midshipmen discuss a specific text, three of them excerpts from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War; so far, sessions have covered Pericles’ Funeral Oration and the revolution at Corcyra, with the last two meetings to focus on the Melian Dialogue and Teddy Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena.” During each session, students are divided into approximately seven groups comprised of one faculty member and equal numbers of midshipmen and Johnnies. Then, eating and discussion commence.

While inherently social gatherings—food is certainly not relegated to the lowest tier in the eyes of the Socratic Society—the primary focus for everyone involved is the exchange of ideas that results from civic dialogue.

“Everyone does want to get to know each other as human beings, but we really do end up focusing on the text most of the time,” Childress muses.

“The first reading, Pericles’ Funeral Oration, really appeals to many themes that both schools interact with, but especially the Naval Academy—specifically ideas around honor,” he continues. “The perspectives of the Johnnies and the midshipmen were really complementary. In our discussion group, the midshipmen were bringing up things that, from my perspective, were very different from what the Johnnies perceived. And it’s the exact same exchange going in the opposite direction.”

Maybe it’s slightly unexpected that the Socratic Society has been so successful right off the bat, especially in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. But neither Tipton nor Childress seem surprised, given how naturally the program grew from their own casual conversation.

“In book nine of the Ethics, Aristotle says the highest form of human pleasure is when friends exchange speeches together. The highest form of human pleasure,” Tipton says. “The students appreciate that; they understand that. And at the table, everyone’s enjoying themselves because they’re engaged, over food, in the highest form of human pleasure.”

That being said, Tipton adds, “we didn’t mean for it to be a big deal—we were just two knuckleheads reading Emily Dickinson.”

Tipton and Childress don’t yet have concrete plans for the future of the Socratic Society, partially due to the somewhat spontaneous nature of its existence to date. However, they both agree that it’s something they hope to continue; long term, they see it as a way to develop substantial relationships not just between the two institutions and their respective students, but other members of the faculty. Expanding the great conversation promises more than a wider exchange of ideas—in keeping with the St. John’s ethos of freeing minds, it has the capacity to develop a more robust community of inquisitive thinkers.

And while they don’t know the specifics of the Socratic Society’s next steps, Tipton and Childress feel confident that there won’t be a need to persuade students to join their endeavor.

“What we’re trying to do is open up the realm of the good,” Tipton says. “And when you’re talking about the good, people don’t really have to be compelled to follow it.”