The home page of the St. John’s College website reads:
“The following teachers will return to St. John’s College next year: Plato,
Newton, Galileo, Cervantes, Dante, Melville…”
The list of recognizable names continues on and fades into the background.
No, St. John’s doesn’t literally reincarnate history’s greatest minds, but its unique
“Great Books” program means that students spend all four years reading,
studying and discussing the most important books in Western tradition.
St. John’s is a single college with two campuses, one in Annapolis, Maryland,
and another in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The campuses share an identical
curriculum and each campus is limited to under 500 students. There
are no textbooks in the “Great Books” curriculum. Instead, students study
from the classics of literature, philosophy, theology, psychology, political
science, economics, history, mathematics, laboratory sciences, and music.
The course of study is roughly chronological, beginning with the Greeks in
freshman year and continuing to the 21st century in senior year.
You won’t find a St. John’s instructor lecturing to a hall full of
students. Instead, small groups of 6-8 students meet with faculty to
explore the books being read. The faculty members are not called
professors, but “tutors.” St. John’s believes that the title “professor”
refers to someone who lectures to students, while a “tutor” guides students
through a program of study.
Using the “Great Books” as their guide, every student takes four years each of
science, mathematics, and language, and two of music. There are no
majors and no departments, and while grades are recorded for the purpose of
applying to graduate programs, they are not issued to students at St.
John’s. Students don’t take exams, but are instead evaluated based on
their overall contributions to the courses. Each student meets with all
his tutors at the end of each semester for an open, frank discussion of the student’s
It takes a special kind of student to match well with St. John’s, and it’s not
just because you have to forgo fraternities and big-time sports. St.
John’s students are perfectly fine with Friday night lectures. They want
to read Plato and discuss Descartes. They relish the opportunity to try
their hands at writing classical music or decoding works in Latin. Take
these students, and put them together with the dedicated “tutors” and the
“Great Books” program, and you’ve got a school where 80% of the graduates go on
to graduate school or to study medicine or law.
And for the rest of your life, when someone asks, “Read any good books lately?”
you can respond, “Yep. I’ve read all of them.”
Find out more about St. John’s and the “Great Books” program at www.sjca.edu.