About a year and a half ago, I walked out of my first graduate seminar at St. John’s College feeling absolutely flustered. The class consisted of a large group of students, some right out of college and others much older, struggling to make sense of Genesis. We read no secondary literature and heard no lectures. The two professors, called tutors, gave no answers or guiding interpretations in the conversation; they asked questions and commented thoughtfully, but not in an authoritative way. I left with my head swarming with more questions than answers. This odd mixture of elation and frustration was the norm for my graduate classes, even until my graduation this past May. Yet I can confidently say that it was the most important education of my life.
People have a hard time believing that, especially when they discover that I attended an Ivy League university. My undergraduate education was certainly exciting and challenging, and I learned many wonderful things. But, even before graduating, I became acutely aware of the fact that something was missing. I lacked a coherent education that could speak to the kind of person I wanted to be and the kind of intellectual life I longed to have.
When I arrived at St. John’s, I discovered that I was not alone: many adults, including successful ones, have found their education insufficient for the questions and aspirations of mature adult life. Unfortunately, the conversation about higher education today is so focused on the present and future of education for eighteen-through-twenty-two-year-olds, it does not stop to address the already graduated adults whom that educational system failed to truly educate.
Those who care about the future of the liberal arts ought to recognize and reach out to this population of college-educated adults. Great change could be wrought in the culture by offering an education to the “already educated.” Unlike many eighteen-year-olds (and their parents), this adult population might be more receptive to and enriched by a liberal education—one that is pursued for its own sake. The St. John’s Graduate Institute, as one of the only graduate programs that answers that need, furnishes an invaluable model not only of the content but also of the methods for a flowering of liberal arts programs for adults.
The Point of Education
I read in a recent book, The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith, that 86% of college freshmen in the late 1960s identified “developing a meaningful life philosophy” as an “essential” or “very important” life goal. This was according to data from the American Freshman survey, which later reported in the 2000s that the majority of freshmen viewed college as a means of achieving financial success, rather than a meaningful life. This crisis of meaning may not be felt by many college students, but I have known and observed many graduates who, sooner or later, begin to realize that their education provided no material for real intellectual, creative, or spiritual life. They have little firsthand exposure to the tradition that informs Western culture or the nation of which they are a part, and no intellectual habits or intellectual community in which to rectify their ignorance.
I have heard such complaints from many of my classmates, from ages twenty-two to eighty years old, from all political and religious leanings, and from professions as wide-ranging as artists, pharmacists, military officers, carpenters, and homemakers.
The crisis these adults have experienced was anticipated by Scott Buchanan, the architect of the current St. John’s program, famous for its single degree offering in liberal arts and for its Great Books curriculum. In an article Buchanan published in the Amherst College alumni journal in 1938 (the year the new program was instituted), he compares the end or good of a liberal arts education with that of the newer system of elective specialization. According to Buchanan, “The ends of liberal education are the virtues which make human thought and action good enough to be critical, free, and heroic.”
On the other hand, the newer system of elective specialization, which fragmented traditional disciplines, has as its end “characters, personalities, and trainings” chosen according to “interest, ingenuity, and fitness to the modern world.” He describes the “freely electing student” as not free at all:
He has been supplied with glue pots to fix things up, orientation courses, honors courses, comprehensive examinations, majors, and concentrations, but these have turned out to be trade names for unsynthesized products of his intellectual arts. His choices have not been decisions, because there have been no true alternatives, and his freedom has been empty, because his tools will not stick together long enough for him to use them.
Buchanan’s diagnosis of the situation is just as true—if not truer—of today’s sickly liberal arts programs, out of which many people like me emerge with interesting résumés and many opportunities, but without the rootedness of a deep and coherent education.
I suspect and hope that if liberal education were made more available at the graduate level and publicly promoted, people would recognize in it what they had been missing all along. Many of my classmates were not conscious of their own desires for a liberal education until they heard about the St. John’s program, and it struck a chord with them. If such programs became more widespread, more people might consider them as viable and worthwhile options.
The Great Books: Apt for Educating the Adult
Such a shift of focus to older students would need to adapt to the lifestyle demands of working adults and parents. Perhaps more importantly, any curriculum for adult liberal education must be suited to students whose goals are non-professional and life-informing rather than training- or research-oriented. In both regards, St. John’s offers a compelling model in its fixed curriculum that emphasizes primary texts and discussion-based learning.
Unlike other graduate programs in the liberal arts, the St. John’s Graduate Institute has a set curriculum rather than a changing menu of elective courses, requiring that all students work through—and tutors teach—almost all of the same texts in philosophy, theology, literature, politics, mathematics, science, and history. After four semesters, these busy working students have read the likes of Homer, Aristotle, Euclid, Aquinas, Bacon, Rousseau, and Eliot.
This curriculum is the main reason why the graduate students are at St. John’s. Why? Because these students desire a truly literate intellectual life, characterized by an ongoing engagement with challenging books that grant them access to our great tradition of thought and imagination. The fixed curriculum ensures that they will have to read books (and poems) that have been tested by time and carefully chosen as representatives of that tradition. They don’t want an education that caters to their interests; they desire an education that shapes them.
Aporia: On the Importance of Getting Lost
Just as important as which texts are taught, though, is how they are taught. While other programs might offer courses on these texts, few accept or imitate the most controversial element of the St. John’s approach: an avoidance of contextualization, scholarly interpretation, or professorial explanation. This method has its limitations and drawbacks, of course. Yet, I have come to see real wisdom behind it, especially when it comes to educating adults with non-professional goals.
The college’s main justification for this mode of direct engagement is that the books chosen for reading are exceptionally clear, imaginative, and self-sufficient expressions of thought—which is not to say easy. Nonetheless, if they needed to be decoded or explained for intelligent readers, they probably would not be as influential as they have been. The college thinks it is better to expect the students to be intelligent readers, and to guide them to meet that standard, than to assume the opposite. For the intellectual layman like myself, this kind of reading is a more realistic preparation for my life of the mind: great works are open to my inquiry, interpretation, and enjoyment, not always needing the assistance of tutored opinions or scholarly research.
Without a doubt, this mode of direct engagement can be very difficult and can lead to confusion and discomfort. Often, it was in my own moments of disorientation that I most desired my tutors to step in and explain things for me. Yet they rarely did, fundamentally trusting that the confusion was actually good for me. Based on texts like Plato’s Meno, the pedagogy of the college embraces aporia—meaning something like “being without passage,” “lack of resources,” or “perplexity”—as necessary for learning. According to Socrates, aporia is the means to realizing what you do not know, so that you can eventually arrive at knowledge. Likewise Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, emphasizes the role of aporia in inquiry, asserting that those who do not come to an impassable question are like those “who are ignorant of which way they need to walk.”
The college deliberately brings the students to the texts without resources, so that they will experience the disorientation of not knowing or understanding. The tutors help the students identify their questions—the directions that they need to walk—and often accompany them along the way to seeking answers, but they do not make the journey for them.
I see at least two meaningful, lifelong habits that these experiences of aporia help to develop. One is contemplation, in which a person can give sustained attention to deep mysteries—questions beyond utility, immediate relevance, scientific proof, or quick answers. The second is an intellectual curiosity and openness that does not balk at things that are unknown or challenge what one already knows.
Reading and Listening Empathetically
Another reason for the focus on the “text itself” is the desire not to dismiss the timeless truths or the challenge of texts by overly historicizing them. If this education is genuinely to answer people’s search for truth and meaning, then the texts must be allowed to be relevant to the present as well as the past. This principle requires empathy—that is, a genuine desire to understand these texts from within the thought expressed in them. In my classes, cynicism or unreasoned criticism was always quickly nipped in the bud by tutors or other students. The genuineness of the conversation that resulted set aside the self-awareness of contemporary buzzwords, ideologies, and political correctness. Rather than respond with outrage or dismissiveness to ideas that in most other academic settings would immediately be labeled as some form of bigotry or treated as historical artifacts, we tried to understand them and give them the attention they deserved.
The same rules of empathy apply to the conversation among the students. Respect is shown by listening, thoughtful questioning, and a lack of cynicism or rudeness. It is reinforced by keeping comments limited to the material we have all read in class or in the program generally, so that the intellectual posturing in the form of scholarly name-dropping, text-referencing, and professor-parroting that is typical in many academic environments is generally absent. For students coming from a broad range of academic and professional backgrounds, this kind of “leveling” is crucial.
When these conditions are met, a good discussion at St. John’s is truly wonderful. The students, under the guidance of a tutor, genuinely help one another elucidate the text in a way that is personally challenging and invigorating. These discussions are informed by a vision of lifelong learning that fundamentally requires the involvement of other people. They foster an ability and a preference to open one’s own intellectual pursuits to the input of others, as students learn to appreciate even those with whom they do not agree as pushing them further along the road to truth. These habits are conducive not only to a healthy intellectual life, but to fruitful and enduring friendships.
Thus, the Graduate Institute improves its students as people, not merely as scholars or professionals. This education helps them to flourish in ways that educated, adult maturity ought to involve: reasonableness and articulateness, real literacy rooted in tradition, and lifelong and meaningful intellectual habits that enrich and are enriched by friendship. These are benefits not only to the individual, but to the culture at large. Yet our society seems sadly lacking in them, and their loss seems to coincide with the fading of true liberal education. Rather than mourn many adults’ lost opportunity for such an education during their undergraduate years, let us support more programs like the Graduate Institute that provide another chance for them later in life. And, having experienced the fruits of the liberal arts, these adults can help preserve them for future generations, especially their own children.
Eva Marie Haine received her MA from St. John’s College in May 2017 and was the 2016-2017 Junior Bradley Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. She writes at www.outoflivingbooks.com