Education and Skills

The most forward-thinking college in America is teaching every student the same thing

A student stands in front of the statue of Chinese leader Mao Zedong after her graduation ceremony at Fudan University in Shanghai, China June 23, 2017. REUTERS/Aly Song - RTS18B06

St. John’s offers only the Program; it’s prix fixe is a higher education world of a la carte. Image: REUTERS/Aly Song

Peter Marber
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A recent Pew Research Center survey of 1,408 technology and education professionals suggested that the most valuable skills in the future will be those that machines can’t yet easily replicate, like creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, adaptability and collaboration. In short, people need to learn how to learn, because the only hedge against a fast-changing world is the ability to think, adapt and collaborate well.

But many American college students may not be learning them at all. In the 2011 book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Jarip Roksa chronicled how few American students really improved cognitively–and learned to learn–during their undergraduate education. Few bachelor’s programs require sufficient amounts of the reading, writing, and discourse needed to develop critical thinking skills. In fact, forty percent of American undergraduates now major in business and management-related subjects, reading mainly textbooks and short articles, and rarely writing a paper longer than three pages. Further, the social bonds and skills formed in college today often center on extracurriculars that have little connection to cognitive development and collaborative problem-solving.

But perhaps instead of reinventing higher education, we can give students what they need for the future by returning to the roots of liberal arts. Consider St. John’s College, America’s third-oldest institution of higher education, founded in 1696. With fewer than 700 students between two campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe, St. John’s is a bit under the radar. But it’s emerged as one of the most distinctive colleges in the country by maintaining a strict focus on the classics of the Western canon.

The Program

Many fine schools in the US organize classes and curriculum around Western classics, and St. John’s two campuses look much like hundreds of small colleges across America. So what makes St. John’s unique? First, as David Brooks of the New York Times recently wrote, the college has the “courage to be distinct” amid a marketplace of more than 5,000 colleges and universities in the US. A big part of that distinction is due to a strict adherence to its own curated curriculum and teaching methods, know simply as “the Program” implemented back in 1937.

In contrast to some liberal arts stalwarts like Brown or Wesleyan that allow students to choose from a vast array of classes with few restrictions, St. John’s offers only the Program; it’s prix fixe is a higher education world of a la carte. Four years of literature, language, philosophy, political science and economy, and math. Three years of laboratory science, and two of music. That’s it. No contemporary social studies. No accounting. No computer classes. No distinct majors or minors.

The Great Books, or “texts” as they are referred to at St. John’s, flow largely in chronological order. Starting with the Greeks and working through the 20th century including some “recent” science readings from the 1950s and 1960s, the curriculum is rarely altered. The college adds only what it believes are seminal works, and often it takes decades to reach consensus on what may be worthy of inclusion. Juniors and seniors have “electives” and can suggest texts for a class or two. The sequencing of classes is very important to the St. John’s method, with knowledge building over the semesters and years.

Another unique feature of St. John’s is a resistance to placing texts in a political, social or historic context for discussion. Context is viewed as ideology, something that St. John’s believes distorts true education and the ability to form one’s own opinion. This is crucial to the school’s philosophy; by freeing texts from context, St. John’s claims it frees students’ minds to ponder the multiple possibilities and meanings that are actually in the text. Those possibilities are then discussed and debated, and discarded when weak or specious, leaving better interpretations space to surface. St. John’s is not a cloister, and of course students and faculty are well aware of the history and social settings of their studies. But an attempt is made to focus on the texts themselves, and understand their content, meaning and merit deeply through debate. This is what creates independent thinking.

Sure, compared to the telephone book size course catalogs most colleges and universities offer in the 21st century, St. John’s curriculum may seem limited. But “Johnnies,” as St. John’s students call themselves, and faculty would argue just the opposite. This curriculum is carefully designed not only to build knowledge, but also to understand how knowledge is ultimately created; it is teaching students how to learn. In this respect, St. John’s students de facto major in epistemology. And for those of us who never studied Ancient Greek (a St. John’s requirement for two years), epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge, or the investigation of what distinguishes substantiated and supportable belief from mere opinion. Now that sounds like it could come in handy these days.

We live in an age when 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every day, with much being intentionally misleading, “fake” or just plain wrong. What could be more valuable than developing an intellectual filter, cultivating the capacity to know what is important to know, distilling enormous amounts of information to form a rational position, or knowing how to listen and respond to—or perhaps integrate—someone else’s point of view? In this vein, St. John’s uses traditional texts taught in ancient methods to impart skills that have never been more crucial.

The Program’s philosophy and practice

You will not find 100-person lectures, teaching assistants or multiple-choice tests at St. John’s. Instead classes are led by “Tutors” who guide students through Socratic inquiry (and yes, students do read about the Socratic practice during freshman year in Plato’s Theaetetus). Despite its reputation as a sadistic exercise in student humiliation, the Socratic method is actually an interactive form of intellectual sandpapering that smooths out hypotheses and eliminates weak ideas through group discourse. Tutors lead St. John’s discussions but rarely dominate; they are more like conversation facilitators, believing that everyone in class is a teacher, everyone a learner. And you won’t find Johnnies texting or surfing social media while in class; there is no place to hide in classrooms that range from small (seminars, 20 students led by two tutors) to smaller (tutorials, 10 to 15 students, one tutor) to smallest (preceptorials, 3 to 8 students, one tutor).

There is a formality in a St. John’s classroom—an un-ironic seriousness—that feels out of another era. Students and Tutors address each other by “Mr.” or “Ms.” (or the gender-inclusive honorific of choice). Classrooms have a retro feel, with rectangular seminar tables and blackboards on surrounding walls, and science labs filled with analog instruments, wood and glass cabinets, old school beakers and test tubes.

You have to observe a few St. John’s classes to get a sense of what’s happening between and among the students and Tutors. Discussions are often free-flowing, with students thinking out loud and talking to the ceiling; you can almost hear the gears turning in their brains. There are many “a-ha” moments in a St. John’s classroom, sometimes coaxed out by Tutors in Socratic fashion. But often they are triggered by students theorizing and responding among themselves.

In one class I attended, students were covering Ptolemy, the second century mathematician. Ptolemy believed that all the celestial bodies and sun revolved around the earth in a circle, and based all his mathematical calculations on this perspective. Students were buzzing at the blackboard, working with a geometry sphere around the table, talking about diameters, meridians and equators, tilts, and horizons. Keep in mind this is all prep for what will be studied in a few months, when these Johnnies will learn that it would be another 1400 years before Copernicus proved Ptolemy’s calculations correct but his conclusion wrong: the earth and planets actually revolve around the sun. These same students will eventually feel the excitement learning of Kepler’s conclusion 150 years later, that Copernicus was also right and wrong: yes, the earth and planets revolved around the sun—but in an elliptical, not circular, orbit. This curricular layering is central to the St. John’s Program. Later texts respond to and build upon previous texts. In essence, students intellectually follow modern thought as it has been built over the last 2000+ years instead of just memorizing the end results.

The cognitive rigor, immersion, and passion so present at St. John’s are rare on American campuses these days. Johnnies read roughly 100-150 books during their four years and write 25 to 30 papers that are more than 10 pages long. Seniors choose a writer or single text and do a deep dive thesis that typically runs 40-50 pages. Here are a few of the senior capstone topics for the class of 2017: 19th century English scientist Michael Faraday’s heuristic description of electromagnetic phenomena; 17th-century mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s treatment of curvature in what’s called the “chain line” problem; the use of Aristotelian terminology by 20th century physicist Werner Heisenberg in describing quantum mechanics; and the possible revision of “space” from Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason into a plurality of “spaces.” Few college-educated outsiders may have a clue what any of these papers are about, but they are not atypical of what’s being studied, discussed, and written about at St. John’s.

After class

Many mainstream college students downshift when the classroom bell rings and don’t revisit course material until they cram for finals. Not at St. John’s. Hallways and dorms are brimming with chatter about Dante, Schubert, Freud, and Watson and Crick. Since everyone takes the same courses, freshman immediately can strike up a cafeteria conversation with a sophomore or senior who’s already taken the class. The Program is what binds the St. John’s community, and what also binds alumni: everybody has studied the same texts, whether they graduated in 1962 or 2015.

Johnnies like to have fun, too, but in a quaint, quirky Big Bang Theory kind of way. Dancing is favorite pastime at St. John’s, but as the college website warns: “Monthly waltz and swing parties are serious business at St. John’s. The year begins with the Convocation Waltz, where students decorate the quad with lights and dance all night. Fortunately, the Waltz Committee offers emergency dance lessons for the heretofore unexperienced.” Many of the students wear fancy dresses or suits. It’s not exactly Undergrads Gone Wild.

Sports are important at St. John’s too—if you consider croquet a sport. Yes, croquet. It’s one of only four NCAA teams St. John’s fields (including sailing, fencing and rowing). About 35 years ago, St. John’s and the Naval Academy organized the Annapolis Cup, the first NCAA croquet match, which has grown into one of the sport’s great events. The Johnnies have beaten the crosstown rival Midshipmen 28 out of 35 times (this year narrowly 3-2 in the rain). The Cup routinely brings 8000 people to St. John’s classic campus, with Midshipmen wearing traditional croquet whites while the Johnnies don some creative costumes. Johnny spectators often wear Gatsby-era clothes and a good time, as they say, is had by all.

The Santa Fe campus is purportedly more laid back than Annapolis and offers outdoorsy-types 250-acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Students there hike, bike, and tend to get off campus more than their Maryland counterparts. Walking on either campus, you hardly see any Johnnies glued to their phones; this is so unusual compared with most campuses, you may wonder if cell and WiFi signals have been blocked (they haven’t). Solitary reflection is encouraged and indulged at St. John’s. You’ll often see students sitting alone under a tree, on a bench, lying on the grass. They may be thinking big thoughts or just relaxing; either way it evidences a culture of contemplation rarely witnessed among today’s college students.

Warning label

Clearly St. John’s is not for everyone. First, you need to be a voracious reader to cover the Program texts at a brisk pace. You also need the capacity for and love of writing because St. John’s requires a lot of it. It helps to feel comfortable speaking in public, since so much of St. John’s learning occurs out loud around a table with your classmates and tutors.

Geek. Nerd. Dork. These words come to mind when thinking about what kind of high schooler would choose St. John’s from among the myriad colleges available. But not only straight-A achievers choose the Program (though there are plenty of them at St. John’s). Many Johnnies were outsiders who didn’t necessarily fit into traditional high school cultures, nor did particularly well academically by typical high school metrics. There are a decent number of legacy students with parents or grandparents who’ve attended. Regardless of how they got there, successful Johnnies all share a sincere love of learning and a willingness to think really hard.

Most graduating students told me they had found their lost tribe at St. John’s, but a not-insignificant number of students (about 15%) wind up leaving after the freshman year. Some find the curriculum too rigid and want to explore different things. Some complain of cabin fever after a year or two; there’s only 80 to 125 students per graduating class in Santa Fe and Annapolis, and you get to know everyone–students, faculty, staff–pretty quickly. Because of the staged coursework, students from each campus can escape for a semester or two on the other campus without interrupting the Program. But that same curriculum makes things like study abroad very difficult without taking off a full year from St. John’s—adding time and expense to an already costly bachelor’s degree. There are no fraternities (though plenty of parties); no rah-rah football games (unless you walk to the nearby Naval Academy in Annapolis or drive to Albuquerque from Santa Fe); no food courts or swanky dorms. But the Johnnies who stay express heartfelt pleasure and pride in the idiosyncrasies of St. John’s.

The Program vs. programming?

While it’s fair to say most liberal arts students live in a “bubble” cut off from reality, St. John’s is unapologetic about, and in fact encourages, a four-year respite from the pressures and distractions of the outside world. The college focuses on the intellectual growth of students while they attend, not necessarily on what comes after graduation. Although there is little vocational discussion and modest career guidance at the school, Johnnies seem to do just fine after graduation. About two-thirds eventually go on for further degrees—including law school (a favorite), master’s and doctoral programs (the school produces more students who go on to earn PhDs per capita than almost any other US college), and some to medical and business schools.

Perhaps because of the independent thinking cultivated by the Program, many Johnnies wind-up with interesting life paths. In my research of St. John’s alumni I discovered an editorial board member at a major New York newspaper; a research psychiatrist investigating the neurochemistry of drug addiction; several celebrated winemakers; and an assistant district attorney in Alaska.

Josh Rogers, Annapolis class of 1998, told me St. John’s boosted his “why not me?” personality trait, and explained how it freed him to believe he could think up novel ideas like those that he read about. And he did. Within a few years of graduating St. John’s, Rogers – with no formal coding or computer training—filed 16 patentable applications embedded in many popular websites. He then founded his own financial services company with more than 150 employees.

A fourth-generation portrait painter, 1992 alumna Anastasia Egeli has built a successful career connecting with clients through talking. “A St. John’s education focuses on the importance of dialogue and ideas…I’ve found myself painting a historian and discussing the Federalist papers. During my sittings with private equity managers, we examined whether serving in a political office was the responsibility of a man who had benefited so much from that society.”

Ted Merz, an alumnus from the late 1980’s, was one of the first fifteen employees at Bloomberg News. Starting there in 1990, Merz went on to oversee news operations in the Americas before moving into the Product division where he works on strategic projects ranging from building news analytics to piping Twitter into Wall Street trading platforms. “Not a day goes by, “Merz told me, “that I don’t rely on the thought processes I developed at St. John’s.”

The creative and critical thinking that develops in the St. John’s bubble may be just what the future will require. While most college students have been rushing to study computer science and other technical skills for better employment outcomes, these fields may be less lucrative over time with machine learning and artificial intelligence.

As the vociferous Shark Tank host and entrepreneur Marc Cuban has recently observed about business careers: “I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. [You need] someone who is more of a freer thinker.”

Even further afield, recently, former Google and Microsoft executive Kai-Fu Lee, an expert in AI, told Quartz that, “Given AI is more objective, analytical, data driven, maybe it’s time for some of us to switch to the humanities, liberal arts, and beauty.”

The crossroads

Like other US liberal arts colleges since the Great Recession, St. John’s has been dealing with two common headwinds: rising costs and declining traditional student enrollment. The college has a relatively low endowment per capita, making it tuition dependent like many small schools. While the sticker price of St. John’s seems expensive (about $50,000 per annum just for tuition), the school has been extremely generous with financial aid, bringing the effective cost down more than 50% (Note: An earlier version of this article said the reduction was 30-40%.) Still, some may question whether a St. John’s degree is worth it. To paraphrase Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, why waste $200,000 on an education you could get for $1.50 in late fees at the public library? True. Every text studied at St. John’s can be found at a public library. But that’s missing the point. As one alumni, Columbia Law School professor Shawn Watts, said, “St. John’s is less about the books than the process and the community. It trains your mind and frees it at the same time. This allows you to truly follow your own passions and interest in life without the subconscious impositions and prodding of our wired world.” In the face of a very uncertain future, a St. John’s education may be money very well spent.

And St. John’s is on the move, preparing for the next 300 years. In the last 18 months the college hired new presidents at each campus. With fresh leadership in place, the school is gearing-up for a major $250 million capital campaign. St. John’s is strengthening its enrollment pipeline, too. New admission director Ben Baum and his team have boosted applications to more than 1100 this year (up 35% from post-recession lows), with some 250 freshman expected to enroll in Annapolis and Sante Fe this fall. A seasoned admissions professional, Baum was drawn to the school in 2015 because of its unique educational offering. “Most colleges and universities struggle for a special identity in the crowded higher education marketplace,” he says, “That’s not an issue with St. John’s.”

The college offers a summer program for high school juniors that has been a good source of recruits, as has the international marketplace. The growing demand around the world for liberal arts education, as I’ve recently chronicled, has boosted overseas applications to St. John’s unique program. In recent years, between 20-25% of classes have been filled by international students (often paying full tuition), adding a nice mix of cultural and racial diversity to the student body.

Then there is the issue of rankings. For years, St. John’s resisted even filling out survey data requested by US News and World Reports. Culturally, some faculty and staff were (and still are) incensed by the rankings fetish that has gripped most of higher education. But determined to continue its mission into the future without sacrificing the curriculum and culture that makes it unique, St. John’s realized it needed to boost its profile and applications. Ranking surveys were filled. The number of admission application essays was reduced. US News now ranks St. John’s as the 53rd best national liberal arts college. In recent years, Forbes ranked the Santa Fe campus as the “Most Rigorous” in the US (with Annapolis ranked eighth, odd given the same Program), way ahead of the big Ivies like Harvard (17th), Princeton (20th), Yale (23rd), and Stanford (25th). The school’s tutors are often cited as among the best teachers in the country. Application numbers are rising and acceptance rates falling, all of which contribute to positive ratings momentum.

The future

Life in the 21st century is remarkably different than the late 20th century; it has been “disrupted,” to borrow an overused word from Silicon Valley, on many levels in the blink of an eye. A college degree is an indisputable asset in today’s world, but the uncertain and rapidly changing job market raises questions about whether college is really worth the investment of four years and a lot of money. But perhaps that question is too broad. Maybe we should be asking not whether college will adequately educate tomorrow’s citizens, but what kind of college will prepare them for an unimagined and even unimaginable future. St. John’s is facing the unknown by holding steady with the same approach to intellectual development, discourse, collaboration and rigor it has pursued for over 80 years. Maybe the “old school” way will produce the kind of innovative thinkers we will need in the brave new world.

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