I’m in a room with twenty-four students and two professors, Douglas Hedley of Cambridge University and James Bryson, formerly of McGill and Cambridge, now at Ralston College in Savannah, Georgia. That’s where we are now, in Cranmer Hall on Gaston Street, near one of Savannah's eighteenth-century squares sheltered by massive live oaks with five-foot-long Spanish moss hanging from the branches. There's statuary in the center, and nineteenth-century mansions all around.
The seminar runs for three hours. The text is Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Students take turns reading short passages, with discussion for five minutes following each one. Hedley and Bryson are distinguished scholars, but students deliver most of the comments, jumping smoothly from Abraham and Isaac to paganism to diverse conceptions of faith (one student brings up Nicholas of Cusa and Anselm, and quotes, “Faith begins where thinking leaves off”). The colloquy centers on the text, intensely so. Students ponder exactly what Kierkegaard says: “From that day on, Abraham became old. He could not forget that God had demanded this of him. Isaac throve as before; but Abraham’s eye was darkened, he saw joy no more.”
Everyone is attentive and involved, ready to question and challenge one another. If you’ve had some teaching experience, you know that every class has a mood, an emotional atmosphere, which a visitor can sense in five minutes of observation. Here, the climate is critical and forensic, smart and disputatious in a nicely collegial way.
The students are the first cohort of Ralston College, in the inaugural year of what is a remarkable creation. I met founder Stephen Blackwood a dozen years ago, when he first told me of his idea of a whole new institution, a college that offers young Americans a classical formation in the old-fashioned Socratic way. It’s been a long haul, a struggle with funding, location, accreditation, and endorsement, requiring lots of labor and adjustment on Blackwood’s part. He has a passion for the project that few could have sustained over the years. I’ve had him on my podcast, and I’ll have him on again, because every state in the country ought to have a Ralston of its own.
The college currently offers a one-year program culminating in a master’s degree. The website announces the depth of the problem that it proposes to solve: “Presented with the politics of identity and boundless choice, many are finding themselves without the resources to understand the world and themselves. Materialism, cynicism, and nihilism abound, courted by alienation, shame, and loneliness.”
Elite kids tend to work their way through this malaise by taking the achievement track, but for all too many intelligent kids, “The channelling of young people towards this vocational utility, through educational and parental pressure, is as oppressive and grey as the university experience itself, that once held so much excitement, expectation, and promise.”
Ralston’s answer is a traditional curriculum of humanistic study—critical and reverent, truth- and beauty-focused—with a strong “fellowship” component, a communal element that turns the students into a united cohort undergoing a common experience. Most of the twenty-four students now enrolled live in the “inn,” old townhouses that have been connected into a single living space. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are provided, plus a two-month stay in Greece. In one of the classes, students have to read Homer in the original, and class discussion itself is conducted in Greek. In the week after my visit, the Kierkegaard class moves on to Nietzsche. Later in my stay, I give students two hours of Walt Whitman seasoned with Emerson, a few Civil War experiences, and Anna Moffo doing an aria from Rossini—followed by twenty minutes of poetry recitation by volunteers in the crowd.
I can hardly imagine a more utopian time for a young intellectual, a reader of Great Books. Blackwood and his colleagues have formed a little heaven on earth, a monastic academic interlude with genius and talent, collegiality in the etymological sense (“reading together”), guided by attentive, learned professors.
Here is where you apply: https://www.ralston.ac/contact.
Mark Bauerlein is contributing editor of First Things.
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