There's an element of romance to it: a modern meeting of Athens and Sparta -- the legendary Grecian opposites. In this case, the classical idealism of St. John's College meets the immediate realism of the United States Naval Academy. In a further twist of irony, the two colleges happen to be separated only by a narrow, two-lane road in this newly chic, historically rich bayside town. At high noon, the impeccably uniformed midshipmen go into a smart, marching formation -- brass military belt buckles aflame in the sun. Meanwhile, their ``Athenian'' counterparts a mere oar-stroke away disport themselves loosely across their campus, picnicking, most without a belt to buckle.
The two campuses don't like to overplay the Athens-Sparta dichotomy. But it is true that the idea for a sustained mutual exchange between them first came when St. John's Prof. Bill Mullen tutored a class on Plutarch's ``Life of Solon and Lycurgus.'' Solon and Lycurgus happened to be the lawgivers of, yes, Sparta and Athens.
Dr. Mullen found some receptive spirits across the street, and after a dinner between the president of St. John's and the superintendent of the US Naval Academy, the go-ahead was given; in 1981 a volunteer ad hoc Sunday seminar between the two campuses began with 10 students from each school.
As academy liaison Prof. Robert Artigiany said, ``In their ability to really stamp an identity on students, these are two of the most unique institutions in the United States. It's kind of tragic, with such well-defined programs, that [the colleges] wouldn't have something to say to each other.''
During the Vietnam war, the road between the campuses took on proportions more on the scale of the Grand Canyon. In the '70s, some minor exchanges started, but soon petered out.
In the early '80s, however, the time for a St. John's-style open seminar between the ``Middies'' and the ``Johnnies'' was ripe. The academy, which is trying to upgrade its humanities program (next fall it will offer its first honors degrees in English and History) is glad for the exchange. Its Rhodes scholar candidates have been particularly interested. One Middie, Rhodes candidate Randy Hyer, told the Monitor, ``Of all the things I've done here, it [the exchange] is one of the better.''
In the process of meeting each other, longstanding stereotypes are shattered. According to Mr. Hyer, the Middies were often more liberal than their St. John's counterparts. Professor Artigiany said the Middies were more open to unexpected ideas than had been thought.
Mullen feels the Johnnies -- consciously contemplative -- benefit from catching ``a glimpse of people who have made a commitment to a life of action, and the risk of death.''
At the same time, the Middies found that St. John's students were not ``touchy feely'' flakes, but highly trained individuals capable of quickly dissecting new texts and recalling specific details.
St. John's leans heavily on the thinking of Plato, and the platonic dialogue -- which includes an analysis of different types of arguments and how they will work in various conditions; it also includes a study of when and when not to speak. This serves the Johnnies well in the open-table discussions. The Middies, not used to ideas bouncing around from so many different angles, usually have to scramble at first to make their points.
Seminar topics vary. The first was entitled ``History of Battles.'' Since then, ``Chivalry: Ideal and Reality,'' and Jonathan Schell's ``The Fate of the Earth'' have been discussed. Last year, Clausewitz's ``On War'' was compared with Harry Summer's ``On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of Vietnam.''
The biggest criticism of the St. John's approach is the ahistorical nature of Platonism. Too idealistic an interpretation of Plato's writings is likely to leave a student overlooking the historical context of an event. This problem was ``immediately apparent'' during a discussion of ``The Song of Roland'' in the chivalry seminar, says academy professor of history David Abels. ``You simply have to know something about the Middle Ages, about feudalism, about a Christian Europe, to discuss this text,'' he says.
It is agreed that, by far, the Clausewitz-Summer discussion on war (with a focus on Vietnam) was the best -- ``fruitfully complex,'' as Mullen describes it. The two sides didn't, he notes, fall back on a narrow moralism in the exchange on Vietnam, but they discussed the relation of moral and strategic considerations.
``By the time the midshipmen left,'' Mullen determined, ``it was apparent they had been given a lot to think about [in terms of] the nature of their future relationship with political leaders, and the responsibilities involved.''