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St. Johns College

“Extreme” activities have come into fashion in recent years. Extreme sports, extreme travel, extreme survival expeditions now seem to be a fixture of the cultural landscape. Few know, however, that there is such a thing as extreme liberal education, or that St. John’s College has been practicing it for more than seventy-five years.

What is extreme liberal education? It is an education that aims at helping students learn to transform themselves throughout their lives. The distinguishing feature of this extreme form of learning is that it bends all its efforts—not just a portion of them—toward helping students to change their lives. It hopes that students will be significantly different after they “graduate,” and not just the same people with more “knowledge” stuffed into them.

Stringfellow Barr, who instituted the curriculum in extreme liberal education at St. John’s and was the first president to lead the college under its so-called “New Program,” gave an account of the aims of this form of education in 1939. He tried to communicate these aims by describing the “ideal graduate” of such a program. (Anachronism alert: Since there were no women at most colleges at the time, it was assumed that any graduate would be male. This assumption was rejected by the College some fifteen years later, a decade or two before most other colleges did so.) What will the ideal graduate be like?

He will be able to think clearly and imaginatively, to read even difficult material with understanding and delight, to write well and to the purpose. For four years he will have consorted with great minds and shared their problems with growing understanding. He will be able to distinguish sharply between what he knows and what is merely his opinion. From his constant association with the first-rate, he will have acquired a distaste for the second-rate, the intellectually cheap and tawdry; but he will have learned to discover meaning in things that most people write off as vulgar. He will get genuine pleasure from using his mind on difficult problems. He is likely to be humorous; he will certainly not be literal-minded…

He will not be a trained specialist in anything; but he will be in a better position to acquire such specialized training, whether in law, medicine, engineering, business or elsewhere, more quickly than it can be acquired by even the best American college graduates today. For he will know how to apply his mind to whatever he wishes to master…

He will be eminently practical, not because he “took” practical courses in college, but because he will have acquired the rare intellectual capacity to distinguish means from end. He will have learned to locate the problem, resolve it into its parts, and find a relevant solution. He will, in short, be resourceful.

He will be concerned to exercise a responsible citizenship and he will be as much concerned with his political duties as with his political rights. He will cherish freedom, for himself and others…[together with] freedom from ignorance and passion and prejudice as well. For, in a quite genuine sense, he will himself be a free man.

He will know something of the world he graduates into, not in the sense merely of a current events contest; but because he will know the background and development of the political institutions and economic practices he confronts. He will even have means of understanding the movements in contemporary thought. And he will be familiar with the basic scientific concepts that underlie modern technology.

Not only will he be better prepared than his contemporaries to enter business or a professional school. Not only will he be better prepared to fulfill his obligations as a citizen. He should make a better friend, a better [spouse], a better [parent]; free men do. He will in short be better prepared to live; and when his hour comes, whether through illness or civil disaster or in an army trench, he will know better how to die; free men do.

This sort of education teaches the arts of freedom. Is it for everyone? Insofar as every human being has the right to be free, it certainly is for everyone. But perhaps it is not suited to every time in a person’s life. The time is right when you finally get serious about life, when you finally need to confront the questions of who you really are, what you really know, and what is really the best way to live. Whether you are 18 or 80 when that happens, that will be the right time to embark on a voyage of extreme liberal education.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays by Christopher Nelson may be found here.

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5 replies to this post
  1. St. John’s College sounds quite appealing except for this: “From his constant association with the first-rate, he will have acquired a distaste for the second-rate, the intellectually cheap and tawdry.”

    That can easily lead to snobbery and a refusal to take the time to explain issues to ‘second-rate’ people not blessed with a St. John’s education. There’s much to be said for the idea that, if you can’t explain something to a small child, you don’t really understand it yourself.

    Has St. John’s College thought of spreading its benefits globally, for instance by participating in Apple’s iTunes U or by releasing podcasts of its some of those life-changing courses?

    I just checked iTunes and the only apps and courses that came up in a search for “St John’s” were for a St. John’s College at Oxford and a St. John’s University in NYC.

    Perhaps there are alumni who’d be delighted to fund such an outreach. It’d also help to make your school better known and the details of recording and producing could be handled by students, providing them with valuable experience.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

  2. I’d have to say if I were starting over again, I’d probably go to St Johns. Of course I’m a trustfunder, and don’t have to worry about the job thing, but trustfunders especially need an extreme liberal education, because they often specialize in philanthropy.

  3. Producing “podcasts” would contradict the St. John’s ethic, which recognizes the value in face-to-face dialogue in which students and tutors seek the truth in a mutually edifying way. This cannot be done through electronic technology. “Sharing the benefits” of a St. John’s education through iTunes suggests that those “benefits” are merely information that can be transferred as a commodity. I am a first generation immigrant to the United States raised in a lower-to-middle middle class family, and I can be as democratically-minded as anyone, but let us not delude ourselves: studying the liberal arts is an elite endeavor. It is not necessary to do so at St. John’s, however. If you would like to create a similar experience, read the Great Books and discuss them with others who appreciate the true, the good, and the beautiful.

  4. Uh, this sounds like a slight variation of a good old classical education to me, either the Greek/Latin or traditional Christian version. Don’t underestimate the power of Good Books and a good history of ideas. We need people who can independently critically discern and are intellectually and morally attuned to tradition and the common good, while also recognizing the value of the individual. For that matter, just getting every kid in America to read and understand Walden again would be a first step…then Huck Finn, then Homer, then Plato…and so on. Throw in some math, science, music, physical ed, and you’re set.

  5. But… if you miss this when you are young…

    Mortimer Adler and the much maligned Great Books program sought to enable those who had not the benefit of a classical education to attain to an approximation of it in later life.

    This effort was soundly derided as “middlebrow” by the elitists who had to find some area other than Greek and Latin scholarship to justify their “eliteness”. They settled on extoling a smarmy decadence as proof that they were superior persons. And the education which formerly was the heritage of all literate folk was abandoned and despised.

    We see its effects today, as decadence has filtered down to the bottom rungs of society, without even the normal (former) tribute of hypocrisy which vice once paid to virtue.

    Now retired, having experienced a “liberal arts education” in the 1960s, I spent the last 40 years attempting to rectify my egregious error of youth and inexperience. Using the Great Books recommendations as a base, it has been a fun trip. And, it isn’t over yet.

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