Saint John's College (NM)

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Intellectual Beauty

Jun 3, 2000 (Updated Nov 25, 2000)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Most intellectual college in U.S.

Cons:Not good for careerists

St. John's is arguably the most intellectual college in the U.S. I have also attended Harvard, U. of Chicago, and the Claremont Graduate School. Based on my own experience, together with conversations with alumni from other institutions, I am convinced that few undergraduate programs come close in terms of the non-stop intensity of the intellectual atmosphere (The atmosphere at Reed College may be comparable). St. John's is ideal for anyone with a profound interest in thinking and talking about ideas.

When I was in high school I loathed lecture courses. It has always struck me as a colossal waste of time for someone to talk at me when I could read the content in one-tenth the time it took for them to talk at me. I found lectures at Harvard to be just as offensive as the lectures in high school: a waste of my time. At St. John's all classes are discussion-based; the college has a deep commitment to learning by means of conversation.

The curriculum, the great books of the western world, is unusual in that it includes great works in mathematics, science, music, and art as well as texts in literature, philosophy, and religion. The science and mathematics curricula are especially valuable. Although at face value nothing would seem to be more irrelevant than studying Ptolemaic astronomy for a year, the cumulative effect of studying the original works of Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, Einstein, etc. is an unbelievably intimate acquaintance with the construction of knowledge and rationality that provides the foundation for contemporary western thought.

St. John's made me a capable reader, thinker, and learner. After graduating from SJC, I scored 800 on the GRE analytical without studying at all. Later, when I sought alternative teacher certification, I scored the highest on a state-wide pedagogy test, without having taken a course on pedagogy, by means of reading a book the night before. On one occasion a biochemistry professor asked me to advise him on classroom conversation for one of his graduate biochemistry classes; with no biochemistry background I read a technical journal article and understood it better than did his graduate students. His classroom conversations were failing because the articles he gave them were too difficult for them to understand.

After having worked through difficult original texts with little or no support for four years, most students who manage to succeed at St. John's necessarily learn how to read quite well. By contrast, I know very bright Harvard grads who are curiously timid about reading outside their areas of academic expertise. The subtext of most conventional academic programs is that students ought to submit their judgment to the superior judgment of their professors, the experts. If anything, St. John's graduates young people who are a bit brazen in their willingness to disregard the opinion of experts.

St. John's exposed me to unique bits of intellectual beauty which are almost entirely unknown to most educated adults: Joseph Black's analysis of the concept of heat, Stevinus' analysis of the law of the lever and Ernst Mach's critique of Stevinus' analysis, Albert Einstein's definition of "simultaneity" in the original 1905 paper on special relativity, J.S. Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, Soren Kierkegaard's reflections on Isaac and Abraham, etc. Plato, Montaigne, and Shakespeare all have an exquisite beauty for me which would not have been so keen had I not attended SJC.

Although Johnnies have an extraordinary diversity of intellectual interests, as a whole the students develop an unusual devotion to Greece. The study of Greek ideas is not antiquarian at St. John's; at every conversation at every meal or at every party, there is always a personalized element: "What do _you_ really believe to be the True, the Good, and the Beautiful?" Someone once asked a black Johnnie about race relations at St. John's and his reply was: "Johnnies care more about whether you are a Platonist or an Aristotilian than if you are black or white." By senior year, after having read Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and Wittgenstein, often Johnnies return their attention to Homer, the pre-Socratics, or the Greek tragedies, often with a sense of profound longing. Something very, very important occurred in the origin of rationality in Greece, and we are still trying to understand it in the deepest portions of our spirit.

Being a Johnnie is a lifetime event. St. John's is undoubtedly one of the great loves of my life. As I grow older and am aware of the importance of connections in getting ahead, I have gradually realized how much easier my career might have been had I focused on networking for four years at Harvard instead of thinking for four years at St. John's, but I cannot possibly regret having graduated from St. John's instead of Harvard.





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