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Tutors Talk Books: John Cornell

October 9, 2017 | By Samantha Ardoin (SF16)

John Cornell has taught at St. John’s since 1985.

Tutors Talk Books is a series of interviews with St. John’s College tutors. In this installment, we caught up with Santa Fe tutor John Cornell, who has taught at St. John’s since 1985. His full bio can be found at the bottom of this article.

What do you think it means to be liberally educated?

I like Nietzsche’s expression about becoming “untimely.” What a serious education, including the encounter with important books, should do is make one “untimely,” develop one’s acquaintance with the big questions and human problems that stretch beyond one’s own time. Simultaneously, one is initiated into the art of conversation framed by questions about what is important for a fully human life—justice, friendship, love, meaningful work, anxiety, freedom from tyranny of every kind, internal and external.

Can curiosity be taught?

No, but it can be learned. Yet only a very superficial kind is learned online, where, I admit, curiosity has gotten spectacular free reign: more like what St. Augustine called vana curiositas. I think genuine curiosity about a well-lived life requires the presence of actual embodied people in conversation without the mediation of technology. The energy of living, the inspiration to the growth of our whole soul—these are only conveyed in immediate exchange, where you’re sharing your life with teachers and friends, and discovering how important mutual intellectual challenge might be to your own well-being. Online we all become Descartes’s “thinking things”—we abstract from the role bodies have in grounding our existence and making us feel at home in the world.

You recently went to Aix-en-Provence as part of the study abroad program. What were you teaching there and what was your experience of France like?

In France, I taught Junior Language and Junior Lab. It’s partly because of the context, but reading Racine’s Phedre and Moliere in France really did increase the impact. We had some very bold readings out of the books. I’ve never pulled it together like I did this year. Even the lab was a more synthetic experience than I’ve had, with the Faraday and Maxwell. Ms. Adam and I co-taught the lab, which was novel. We were able to feed off of each other in intellectual energy. I’m a francophile, and I engage a lot in the French. I get a lot of good feedback and conversation since my French is decent enough. St. John’s and France have actually been the two biggest contributors to my reeducation, if I can put it that way.

For years, I gave a number of lectures on Gospel of Matthew. This could have happened nowhere else but St. John’s. So, when in France, I had the opportunity to attend a few Easter sermons and the sermons are very high quality in the French Catholic Church—they’re intellectual and artistic. The way they fold in music and art is very impressive and you don’t see that in the United States. It’s part of what the French call vulgarisation. It means that you always help the nation become more educated. It’s a positive word—it doesn’t mean making more vulgar, but means bringing the people into liberal education.

You have a lot of concerns about the saturation of images and ideology. I think most people are aware of how we are saturated with imagery (TV, internet, posters/billboards), but how are we saturated with ideology, and when does this phenomenon become an issue?

First of all, I don’t think most people are aware of what all this imagery is doing to them, how it sets before them a horizon of false expectations, how over-stimulated and constantly manipulated they are by the image makers. The puppeteers of Plato’s cave have gotten ever more skillful and invasive; everyone seems to be a viewer and a producer simultaneously, running nonstop between the front rows and the projection gallery. The glimmer of sunlight from the mouth of the cave is that much less noticeable. But, again, the Image is only two-dimensional—it is not real presence. It works by a metonymic logic, a logic of substituting parts for any genuine, acting people with integrity—skinny jeans, a certain hairstyle, the latest slang, one or another symbol of authority. It constantly plays on the stuff of the Unconscious, as if that should regulate our rational life rather the reverse. The Image trains us to conform to what is least critical in the psyche. I don’t pretend to any originality here. My point is that we forget, with the decline of liberal education, what all the wisest writers warned us about. The dizzying speed of our technology, where everyone’s opinion might be registered and recorded somewhere every nanosecond, is now a cultural pathology of distraction. All this digital memory feeds into our inability to remember—to Recollect. It’s exactly as Plato said when he considered the dangers of the first arts of writing in the Phaedrus.

How can those not currently enveloped in the St. John’s community integrate “the practice of the possibility of essential truth” (as you phrase it in your lecture) into their daily lives?

Having said so many ominous things about technology, I should say that the wonderful thing about it is how useful it is once one has a few clear ideas of one’s own, ideas about what one wants out of life, what is worth thinking about, and with whom. A speaker at SJC SF’s conference on the liberal arts a few years ago pointed out the paradox that today relatively fewer people are reading good books than 50 years ago, but also that more people than ever before are reading good books. Of course, that’s because there are so many more people in the world than 50 years ago! What this paradox stands for in my mind is that there are a lot of aids to a vigorous life-of-the-mind now, even when one is separated from one’s college friends and mentors. Those whom I consider my closest friends are flung far across the globe; but we consult one another constantly about what we’re thinking about and who we’re reading; and we discover interesting web pages all the time that we share through links. The sheer availability of thoughtful new books is incredibly accelerated over the days when I used to have to travel to this or that big city to cruise the bookstores. I do love the pace at which my own personal intellectual revolutions come nowadays. Again, paradoxically, I think it’s the people who are least intellectually dependent on the web who can benefit from it most.

But I do worry about the way recent generations of curious and capable young minds are being harassed into pursuing higher education strictly as an economic investment. If our public high schools introduced people effectively and widely to serious authors—great poets and writers that my parents (having only high school degrees) knew well enough to quote—I would worry less. But many young people have no idea of what delights of the mind—the best forms of guidance to the good life—are on offer to them in the classics.

The Liberal Arts College has been essential, historically, for American youth to discover their own souls—maybe more essential in these last few decades, the very decades when college has become absurdly more costly according to every metric. I resort to the hope that St. John’s, for example, will continue to find a way to make it financially possible for those who really want to be here, just as I expect that those who seek the liberation that books can give (quite apart from SJC) will find their own way, whether encouraged by friends they make or by the anonymous voices in the ether. The social configuration, the economic conditions can change, but the longing for personal enlightenment seems permanent. I find inspiration in how that longing shows itself in our well-prepared and appreciative students from China or Korea, Zimbabwe or Nepal, and in the devoted following of older adults—late-life Johnnies—that we have acquired in the Summer Classics Program on the SF campus. These are experiences of non-traditional students that the college affords me, and I get the sense from them that all sorts of new connections and venues are possible, practically anywhere on the planet. It takes a certain resolve. “Seek and ye shall find”—I believe that’s true for the world of philosophical learning, which I associate with the liberal arts and great books.

I also find that good but not-obviously-great authors can give me intellectual traction, for my own thinking as well as my re-reading of the masters. Here are a few modest suggestions for modest but thoughtful reading, stuff that happens to be on my current shelf:

  • Susan Wolf’s Meaning in Life and Why It Matters
  • Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten—a novella made into an art film, Institute Benjamenta
  • Peter Sloterdijk’s Stress and Freedom
  • Boris Cyrulnik’s The Whispering of Ghosts: Trauma and Resilience (Cyrulnik may be the most important psychologist in France today.)

John Cornell has taught at St. Johns since 1985. Initially, he studied History and Philosophy of Science at McGill University in Montreal, and later studied at the University of Chicago, where he met Leon Kass and learned of St. John’s. Cornell has given several lectures over the years, all of which have been published in the St. Johns Review and other academic journals. In 2007, he explored musical composition, collaborating on a project that involved several St. Johns tutors and students, and living out a dream of becoming a composer. He is a self-described francophile, and has also served on the Committee on Instruction.