College cultivates human beings

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By Harold Morgan

Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr did not cause the revolution in college education they desired when, 75 years ago, they brought what is called “The New Program” to St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md.
Overall, though, they did well. Their efforts saved the nearly bankrupt Annapolis St. John’s, led to a second St. John’s – the one in Santa Fe, now nearly 50 years old – and their “New Program” is the gold standard for those favoring reading books, sometimes difficult books. The full disclosure is that I attended the Santa Fe St. John’s the first three semesters it was open, did far too little of the work and decamped for the University of New Mexico.
While the Santa Fe St. John’s status as a significant New Mexico business is beside the point here, it should be mentioned. The numbers are about 175 employees, 450 students, an operating budget of around $30 million, plus being a draw for visitors from around the country, especially during summer.
Saying what St. John’s really does isn’t easy.
The program structure is four years of language, math, and seminars discussing the books (which the college website strangely calls “interdisciplinary study”); three years of science, a year of music theory, two short elective programs and a weekly lecture.    The books start with Homer (The Iliad) and end with Virginia Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway). All this list does is outline a student’s class schedule, which is pretty much required for the four years.
A panel of seven distinguished “Johnnies,” as St. John’s people call themselves, considered the bigger question of what St. John’s does during the mid-September homecoming. As a rule St. John’s considers the bigger questions.
In many respects the St. John’s education is process, one of cultivating human beings, as former dean Victoria Mora put it. The cultivation is about producing free men and women with intellectual training providing the ability to examine society and therefore to be free. The cultivation is via considering questions posed about readings. “Thoughtful” starts the list of words the panelists used to describe the discussions. Other descriptive words were “reflective, rational, civil.”
Cultural no-nos are ranting and raving, and snarky, sarcastic, smart-alecky, generally nasty and unsupported comments.
This stuff works.
“In the classroom, day to day, we see human beings being improved,” said current dean Walter Sterling. (“Dean” is the title of the academic boss.) I saw it when two graduates, both lawyers, one from the West Coast, one from the East, were considering a complex policy matter in manner of tossing comments back and forth.
 Then they dropped into “seminar mode.” The discussion became disciplined, careful and beautiful.
If this sounds ambiguous, it is. Maybe the ambiguity is the point, observed George Bingham, a Santa Fe attorney. The education brings the ability to consider situations and make choices.
These days, said Santa Fe St. John’s president Mike Peters, “All of higher education has been tainted by the economic brush.”
This “workforce” focus, as opposed to education, may be fine and rational, but Mora suggested it is short term. The training may produce people able to do one thing. “You might not be educating people for a world that changes as quickly as ours does.” Education is not a simple means to an end.
Phelosha Collaros of Albuquerque, incoming alumni president, said that communications today bring “relentless activity.” But in pursuit of what? Why are we doing this?
Early in freshman science, measurement—the idea of measurement—is the topic. Measure what? How? Considering measurement seems to me immensely practical in the world that had just added the Higgs boson to the fermions, quarks, and leptons of immensely tiny Standard Model of quantum physics.
Harold Morgan
New Mexico Progress