Panic at the Great Books School?

Feature: Barbarians aren't at the gates of St. John's College just yet

St. John's College in Annapolis, Md. / Photo courtesy of St. John’s College

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This week, a small, nerdy corner of the internet was dismayed by news of an "impending coup" at St. John’s College, an institution dedicated to the study of the great books of the Western Canon.

I’d like to inform them that reports of the college’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Every St. John’s student commits to an all-required four year program of philosophy, languages (two years of Greek and two of French), literature, mathematics, science, and music. St. John’s emphasizes primary texts over commentaries and secondary sources, and the classes are primarily discussion based.

Earlier this week Roger Kimball, the editor of The New Criterion, wrote an op-ed in RealClearPolitics warning against recently-announced changes in the leadership of the college. Mr. Kimball's piece incorrectly frames the controversy in terms of the campus culture wars. He assumes that the proposed changes are a left-wing assault on the great books program, a move to make our reading list more politically correct, sending the college flying "into the engorging maw of politically correct mediocrity."

Mr. Kimball appears to have based his accusations largely on the fact that the phrase "social justice" appears on the Wikipedia page of Mark Roosevelt, the president of St. John’s campus in Sante Fe, New Mexico. This is not sufficient evidence. Mr. Roosevelt was involved in reopening Antioch College, which has a "social justice" mission; his work allowed that college to stay true to its mission.

The proposed changes do not have anything to do with left- or right-wing politics. The college president, even under the new model, has no power to amend or alter the reading list of the program, even if he wanted to. St. John’s is a genuinely apolitical institution that exists for the sake of education, not to advance a partisan agenda.

There are, however, changes afoot at the college that many find disturbing. St. John’s describes itself as "One College, Two Campuses." The campuses are in Sante Fe and Annapolis, Maryland. They are equal campuses, each with its own president. On May 6, the St. John’s College Board of Visitors and Governors announced a proposal to reorganize the leadership of the college, giving executive authority to the president in Santa Fe and taking it away from the Annapolis campus.

Interviews with several faculty members on both campuses indicate that, while members of the Santa Fe faculty were not particularly surprised by the announcement, the Annapolis faculty were not really aware that the proposal was imminent until shortly before it was announced. This prompted the campus controversy that caught Mr. Kimball’s attention.

But the changes are not about trigger warnings and "safe spaces."

They do, however, reflect a trend in liberal arts colleges across the country (my fellow alumna, B.D. McClay, has an excellent analysis of the situation here). The changes are about the pressure on liberal arts institutions to emphasize the utilitarian, job-based benefits of the education they provide rather than preserving the longstanding, essential belief that liberal education is good in itself and that the role of liberal arts institutions is not merely to attract customers but to create free men out of children.

This problem manifests itself on campuses in aggressive boards imposing unilateral "reforms" on liberal arts colleges that are, in essence and in implementation, at odds with the mission of institutions based on discourse, debate, and the Socratic Method.

The decision to consolidate the presidency at St. John’s may, in fact, be benign (the college has had one president before, and it wasn’t a disaster). It created such a furor at St. John’s because it appears to fit a pattern of other moves the board has imposed over the last few years.

For example, in 2013 the board hired consultants to design an elaborate "rebranding" campaign for St. John’s. The result was a proposed website redesign that avoided using the word "book," not seeming to understand that if a student is turned off by the notion of having to read books, they would not have a good time at St. Johns.

This year, under heavy pressure from the board, St. John’s is also introducing an expensive study abroad element to the program under the assumption that, because most colleges offer study abroad, we must too. Perhaps students do demand these things now, and perhaps allowing the students to spend one part of their junior year in France will improve enrollment.

But, as one tutor noted on a St. John’s discussion group, the St. John's program isn't just a list of books. It is also a way of conducting oneself in class, of structuring a community, of referring to classmates and tutors by last names, of standing up for speakers at the beginning of Friday lecture. If the nature of the program ever were threatened, it wouldn’t start by changing the list of books we read, it would start by changing our institutions and norms to make us more like other schools. Introducing a study abroad program that splits up the community and making changes to the college's executive leadership without proper discussion doesn't constitute a "coup," but it could come with serious costs.

The latest move to consolidate the presidency was controversial because of how it was done, not because it necessarily represented a dramatic change to the books we read at St. John's. Based on numerous interviews, my sense is that tutors at Santa Fe had the advantage of discussing the move with Roosevelt, their president, the past few months. Annapolis faculty and tutors, meanwhile, were essentially blindsided by the May 6th announcement.

It’s not clear whether this information gap was deliberate. Perhaps Santa Fe tutors were better informed because Roosevelt simply has a better relationship with the board, received better information, was more communicative with the faculty, and assumed the same discussion was taking place in Annapolis.

The board bears responsibility for this tumult. It has not done a good job apprising both campuses of its plans. Based on leaked letters and several interviews, it’s reasonable to think the board thought unilateral action would be easier than a long, deliberative process. But the St. John's ethos of thoughtful discussion and rigorous questioning must be preserved in the college's governance if it is going to be preserved in the classroom.

Great books programs are more than just their reading lists, and their methods as well as their texts must be respected in order for these sorts of institutions to flourish in the future.

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