I was stunned. I have been teaching college freshmen for about thirty years in big state institutions, elite conservatories, smallish private universities, and Christian colleges, and I’d never seen anything like it.
Like many of us reading these pages, I was in the middle of that spring migration known as “bringing the kid home from college for the summer break” (and, we hope, the summer job). My daughter and I were having breakfast at the local diner with seven of her friends (who had helped us schlep her gear to the caralways a good idea to reward cheap labor), and I was asking them about their first year in college. What did they like about it? What didn’t they? What were the big surprises, how were the roommates? All those kinds of questions I’ve learned are fairly innocuous ways to get to know 19-year-olds and to pick up a little local flavor and some entertaining gossip. After a couple of sentences complaining about the food, they were ignoring me and talking between themselves. Talking about Aristotle. And Plato. About the nature of virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics and how Verdi captured love of country in “Va pensiero” from Nabucco. (“I’m not Italian, but I cry every time I sing it,” one of the girls said.) And what they were most excited about was coming back in the fall and studying the Bible. And the Gospel of John. In Greek. Like I said, I was stunned.
These kids loved ideas. And they spoke knowingly about them, but without arrogance or a pretended sophistication. They weren’t showing off for the visiting daddy professor; they were just doing at breakfast what they had been doing since September: thinking, and thinking about important things seriously but happily, too. (The importance of “fun” was part of the discussion.) The talk hadn’t been pushed in that direction, it happened naturally. These young men and women were truly college students. Studeo , from the Latin, “to be eager or zealous for.” They were eager for understanding. They had just finished their freshman year at St. John’s College in Annapolis and they could hardly wait to get back.
There has been a lot written recently about just how miserable our baccalaureate education has become. Excellence Without a Soul , by Harvard’s Harry R. Lewis, Our Underachieving Colleges by Derek Bok, Declining by Degrees edited by Richard Hersh and John Marrow and Tom Wolfe’s novel I Am Charlotte Simmons (which Yale undergraduates faulted primarily for painting too rosy a view of undergraduate life)and the list just gets longer. Listen to the disappointed distain with which almost any college junior describes the “core” classes he had to take during his first two yearsEnglish 101, Speech 110, Life Sciences 210, etc.and you come to the conclusion that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Matt Damon got it right: The most important thing about college is dropping out.
But St. John’s isn’t the typical college. No electives, no majors, everybody takes the same curriculum and the faculty (called “tutors”) are expected to be as perennially curious as the students. There’s no rating from U.S. News and World Reports (St. John’s refuses to participatewhy should they surrender their data simply to boost the circulation of a magazine?), and while there are sports teams the main athletic/social event is a yearly croquet match against the Naval Academy.
Like most campuses a certain amount of public drunkenness is tolerated but cocaine use does get you expelled. (Yes, I know, now you’re stunned too.) It’s a demanding and largely unique regimen, and I’m told that there’s a fairly high attrition rate both among freshman and new faculty. But what St. John’s is doing is producing young people who are passionate about ideas and confident that they can both grasp ideas and let them shape their lives. This isn’t what we’re doing with our undergraduates in the rest of the country. I think we’d better find out what’s up at St. John’s before all our students figure out that their spiraling tuition bills aren’t being matched by wisdom gained and follow Misters Jobs, Gates, and Damon out of our classrooms.