2020 Spring Symposium

Democracy, Liberal Education, and the Common Good
Hosted by St. John’s College in Santa Fe

April 24-26, 2020

As part of our response to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, the college has been compelled to cancel this event. We hope to plan a similar event in the next academic year. For a full account of our campus’ response to the coronavirus, click here.

From classical antiquity to the present, the liberal arts and the tradition of liberal education have a particular significance for democratic life, the health of which depends on the broad cultivation of thoughtful citizens capable of deliberating well and exercising their birthright of political liberty. The liberally educated citizen should be prepared to engage in political life—a life of “words and deeds”—and, at the same time, should be best prepared to understand the nature and limits of politics and of all forms of government.

These are permanent goals of liberal education. However, the current moment, in America and abroad, appears to raise the stakes still higher, if that is possible. Globalization and the various forms of backlash against it (nationalist and populist). Hyper-partisanship and the erosion of civility and moderation in our political discourse. Technological disruption in the digital age—e.g., the power of social media and AI—and its various consequences for journalism and a free press, for our perception of a shared world of facts and truth, for our discourse with others, and for what we consider to be public and private spheres. Income and wealth inequality, and related fragmentations along lines of education, class, race, gender, and geography. The tension between the long arc of secularization in the modern West and trenchant or resurgent traditional religious beliefs.

All of these present concerns and others, further electrified in a presidential election year, heighten the need for thoughtful, educated, prepared citizens and leaders. Accordingly, we are moved to come together and share reflections, both “timeless and timely”, on the nature and practice of political life, as well as “democracy in America” and in the world.

We invite faculty, students, and others to join us for our 2020 Spring Symposium, organized around plenary speakers and panels of short papers by academics, students, journalists, and others. Our goal is shared reflection and conversation, hosted on our beautiful campus in the Sangre de Christo mountains, near the heart of our historic state capital: Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Themes of papers may include a broad array of reflections on classic texts and traditional inquiries into politics, democracy, and citizenship, covering, for example, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Plutarch, Livy, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, American founding documents, Lincoln, Douglass, Kant, Hegel, Mill, Tocqueville, Marx, DuBois, Rawls, Arendt, and so on, as well as literary works that explore related themes. We also invite reflection directly on present concerns: the impact of technology on journalism and media, as well as our social and political life; the role of civility in politics, including academic politics; the current global challenges to the post-Cold War international liberal order; the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and related movements; the impact of emerging technologies on privacy and on freedom; the role of architecture and design in framing our public and civic spaces; the role of educators in preparing our students for responsible citizenship; the ongoing vitality of the liberal arts and fine arts as ends in themselves, in a time of increasing economic, vocational, and cultural challenges; the role of religion in the public square; and so on. We intend this to be an expansive and open conversation, welcoming a wide range of paper proposals, but with a recognizable coherence and concentration around thoughtful engagement with political life—past, present, and future.