November 13, 2018

The Last Stand of St. John’s College

“Let your collegiate peers elsewhere design their own majors and frolic with Kerouac. For you it’s Kant. You have no major, only “the program,” an exploration of the Western canon that was implemented in 1937 and has barely changed.

It’s intense. Learning astronomy and math, you don’t merely encounter Copernicus’s conclusions. You pore over his actual words. You’re not simply introduced to the theory of relativity. You read “Relativity,” the book that Albert Einstein wrote.

Diversions are limited. There’s no swimming team. No pool. The dorms are functional; same goes for the dining. You’re not here for banh mi. You’re here for Baudelaire.

I’m talking about St. John’s College, which was founded in 1696 in Annapolis, Md., is the third-oldest college in America and, between its campus there and the one here, has about 775 undergraduates. And I’m drawing attention to it because it’s an increasingly exotic and important holdout against so many developments in higher education — the stress on vocational training, the treatment of students as fickle consumers, the elevation of individualism over a shared heritage — that have gone too far. It’s a necessary tug back in the other direction.”

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