Where pupils take on Plato one-on-one: the Great Books program at St. John's

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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?''

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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.

The college dean, George Doskow, agrees, though he says the love does not always come easily. He remembers one student who -- after wrestling with the Greeks for 10 weeks -- finally blurted, ``If Plato doesn't tell me pretty soon what justice is, I'm gonna scream!''

Proponents of the core curriculum at St. John's say its virtues are:

Integration. Tutors encourage (expect) questions of all kinds. It is not unusual, students say, to have a math question come up during a class translating Aristotle; or to have a language question in a math class. ``Things spill over, and it's nice to be able to bring questions up and talk about them,'' one student said.

Freedom. The discipline of ``learning how to learn'' within a closed system is not necessarily constraining, says Delattre. It can, in fact, open new fields of interest. By the time Philip Maddocks graduated in 1981, he was suprised to find that relativity and projective geometry had become his favorite subjects. It was a matter of finally breaking through the language barrier posed by algebra, he says. In another program, he might not have stayed with the math and science.

Some students find the curriculum ``freeing'' because, one senior said, ``you don't spend years deciding what is important. Instead, you spend that energy studying -- and trusting the wisdom of those who went before you.''

Self-motivation. As senior Marty Marklin put it, this is ``learning for its own sake,'' which he describes as ``something you find within yourself -- the healthy and right way to learn.''

Mr. Marklin, who transferred to St. John's from a large university, is one of two Watson Fellowship winners at St. John's. (The fellowship allows for a year of independent study and travel abroad.) His college study on the natural resonances of the five solids spoken about in Euclid's ``Elements'' -- an acoustics project on the Greek polyhedrons in which Marklin integrates math, music, and the visual arts -- ``never would have happened'' at another school, he says.

About 70 percent of the graduates enter graduate school -- pursuing every kind of study from law to physics or computer science. Coming from a Great Books background, St. John's students often find themselves behind in the first year of graduate work, having to catch up on the latest 20th-century developments. By the end of the second year, however, many ``St. Johnnies'' find themselves ahead of the pack, says Mr. Maddocks.

On the critical side, Bard president Botstein feels the St. John's core curriculum runs the risk ``of being turned into a catechism.'' The ``fixed sense'' of things at St. John's may have to change to keep up with the needs of the 1980s, he says.

An essential component of the St. John's core is the ``tutor.'' Instead of spending time dealing with the ``publish or perish'' syndrome common in many colleges, tutors are expected to channel their energies into the classroom. An argument against the growth of a ``fixed sense'' at the college is the fact that, eventually, each tutor is expected to be able to teach every subject at St. John's: music, language, math, literature, science.

``If we keep the spirit of learning alive,'' said one, ``the students will, too.''

Here's a sampling of the St. John's core curriculum. Literature, philosophy and theology, history and social science, mathematics and natural science, and music constitute the main areas of study. Freshmen study the Greek thinkers all year. Freshmen: Homer, Aeschylus, Plato, Herodotus, Euclid, Nicomachus, Ptolemy.

Sophomores: Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, Augustine, Machiavelli, Copernicus, Bach, Mozart.

Juniors: Cervantes, Melville, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Galileo, Kepler, Maxwell.

Seniors: Goethe, Tolstoy, Twain, Nietzsche, Marx, Lincoln, Faraday, de Broglie, Heisenberg.

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