St. John’s Co-Sponsors Annual ‘Great Books’ Conference
April 10, 2019 | By Eve Tolpa
Johnnies were front and center at the 25th annual Association for Core Texts and Courses (ACTC) conference. The event, entitled “Logos: Here and There, Now and Then,” was held April 11-13 at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center.
St. John’s was a conference sponsor, underscoring the college’s decades-long relationship with ACTC. Several members of the St. John’s faculty have served on the Association’s board, and the college has consistently sent members of the community to the annual conference.
“This year, there will be about 200 [academics and] faculty from college and universities that are in some ways connected to using what we at St. John’s call the ’great books’ as part of their pedagogy,” said tutor David Carl in a pre-conference interview.
Participating institutions, he continues, strove “to get students reading primary texts in a climate where that has become an increasingly marginalized idea. The main goal is to share with people who attend the conference what we do at St. John’s, [as] they don’t always enjoy the institutional solidarity [with] the great books that we have. St. John’s is often looked up to as the gold standard.”
St. John’s representatives served on many panels at this year’s conference, with tutors speaking on topics from “Civitas Reconsidered” to “Hannah Arendt and the Vita Activa” and leading their own panel, entitled “Technological Ambition and the Human Condition.” One panel featured St. John’s undergraduate students exclusively, with Niko Angell-Gargiulo presenting “The Narrative and Truth of Sancho Panza’s Government in Cervantes’ Don Quixote,” Zachary Baier presenting “‘This is Nothing’: Undressing in King Lear,” Jack Isenberg presenting “‘Happy Are the People of Bensalem’: Interrogating the Rituals of Bacon’s New Atlantis,” and Bridget Wu presenting “Custom is King: Looking for Nature in Herodotus’ Histories.”
St. John’s hosted a reception on the Santa Fe campus, too, on Saturday afternoon, which Carl calls “a great opportunity for 200 [academics from] colleges and universities all over the country to mix with students and faculty.”
The panels and receptions were only part of the conference, which also promoted the accessibility of classic texts.
Bill Donahue, former tutor and recently retired director of laboratories and co-director and technical manager of Santa Fe–based Green Lion Press, ran a vendor table at the conference that makes primary sources on science and the history of science available to attendees, most of whom only have familiarity with the literary, historical, and philosophical great books.
“We’ve published, for example, an edition of selections from Newton,” explains Donahue. “At [a past] conference, we’d then organize a panel, inviting other participants to talk about aspects of the text.”
This year, Green Cat books—one of Green Lion’s imprints—offered a softcover “module” of Antoine Lavoisier’s Oxygen, Acids, and Water: Eight Chapters from the Elementary Treatise on Chemistry. The text was translated to English for the first time since 1790 by Annapolis tutors Chester Burke and Matthew Holtzman and edited with notes by Green Lion colleague and St. John’s tutor emeritus Howard Fisher.
“It’s very much a St. John’s project,” says Donahue. “This is the first time this translation has been launched publicly.”
Green Lion Press also stocked advance copies of a new book from its Kafir Yaroq imprint called The Lion and the Ass: Reading Genesis after Babylon by tutor emeritus Robert D. Sacks (A54).
Sacks, says Donahue, “is viewing the Book of Genesis in connection with the early prophets up to the Second Book of Kings [and] asking ‘Is it possible to read them as a single work?’ There are very interesting connections that can be made.”
The much-anticipated book, with which many involved with the ACTC are familiar, was honored at a Friday afternoon panel entitled “Genesis as a Core Text: Studies in Honor of Robert Sacks.”
Other speakers at the conference included Shaykh Hamsa Yusuf, president of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, Professor Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University, and Professor and Colonel Kathleen Harrington, chair of English and Fine Arts at the United States Air Force Academy.
“We share papers, we share ideas, we share meals,” says Carl of the annual event. “It’s an exciting thing. It’s an opportunity for us to see people from around the country who want to do what we do.”