Where pupils take on Plato one-on-one: the Great Books program at St. John's
Plato's ``Republic.'' The Bible. Hegel's ``Phenomenology of Spirit.'' Milton's ``Paradise Lost.'' These and other classic ``Great Books'' represent the core of Western thought. Do you have to be a genius to understand them? ``No,'' say faculty at St. John's College.Skip to next paragraph
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St. John's is a small, nondenominational school of 425 students with one of the earliest charters in the United States (1784). Both of its campuses (here and in Santa Fe, N.M.) are devoted exclusively to teaching the Great Books.
Further, says Edwin Delattre, a former St. John's president, a student familiar with the classics has a solid foundation from which to answer the question ``What is a liberally educated person responsible for knowing?''
This question is not rhetorical, especially today. Much of the debate in higher education carried on by Secretary of Education William Bennett and others over the past several years has been to define a basic ``core curriculum'' of learning for all students in the nation. Such concerns are mainly in response to low secondary school test scores, and to colleges willing to water down their curricula to boost enrollment.
Here, ``diligence counts for more than brilliance in coming to grips with hard questions,'' says Dr. Delattre. ``By the time students leave here, the Great Books are their friends . . . if they are willing to work hard.''
According to Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and Simon's Rock in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., ``The real sense of structure and content in the St. John's curricula -- the unremitting commitment [to it] -- is admirable . . . in contrast to the inchoate logic of many programs.''
At most colleges, students meet Socrates or Thomas Aquinas by reading about them. At St. John's, all reading is done from the original texts. The books themselves are the professors.
Regular professors are called ``tutors.'' Their job is to lead students metaphorically to the feet of such thinkers as Aristotle, Kant, and Einstein, and, through small discussion groups, allow the students to engage in a dialogue with them.
Delattre underscores the need for a core curriculum by pointing to a simple test on the Bible that a professor-friend of his has given to freshmen at a Southwestern college for many years. ``Twenty years ago,'' Delattre says, ``the average score was about 75 percent. Last year, the average was between 15 and 20 percent.''
Popular images of a Great Books program range from the college as a marbled monastic vault, where no sound is heard save the rustle of gilded pages, to an idyllic, pastoral camp where students prostrate themselves on the glade in humanistic reverie.
St. John's debunks the image. The program here is often rigorous and demanding. While much of the learning takes place in the more formal discussion groups and seminars, it often carries over into the lunchroom.
Further, ``liberal arts'' is not another word for ``humanities'': St. John's requires four years of math and three of science.
With the exception of science, the course of study is set up chronologically. Freshmen begin with the Greeks, seniors end with early 20th-century writers and thinkers (T. S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, and others).
``The chronology is important,'' a tutor offered, ``so that we can't stack the deck -- make one thinker seem more important than another.''
Despite this, Plato is the big man on campus. The emphasis on Platonic analysis at St. John's carries over through the four years, and it distinguishes both faculty and students here. ``The kids really do fall in love with Plato,'' one tutor commented.