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St. John's College

St. John's College, with campus sites in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is the most enduring example of the Great Books program of study in American liberal education. The four-year program at St. John's is aimed at producing "liberally educated human beings" who acquire "a lifelong commitment to the pursuit of fundamental knowledge and to the search for unifying ideas" (St. John's College, p. 6). Approximately 450 students on each campus attend seminars, tutorials, laboratory sessions, and lectures, which support their reading and discussion of ancient and modern classical texts in science, mathematics, literature, philosophy, history, economics, psychology, political science, theology, languages, and music.

Founded as King William's School in 1696, the St. John's Annapolis campus is among the oldest continuing American institutions of higher education. It was chartered as St. John's, a nondenominational school, in 1784. The buildings on the thirty-six-acre site in downtown Annapolis include a number of eighteenth-century homes now used as classroom and office space. The school was nearly bankrupt in 1937 when the trustees invited noted educators Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan to come from the University of Chicago and oversee a wholly new curriculum at St. John's. Buchanan had earlier pioneered a Great Books lecture series at the People's Institute outreach program in New York City. He and Barr first met when both were Rhodes scholars at Oxford University and renewed their friendship as faculty colleagues at the University of Virginia. There they tried unsuccessfully to spark interest in a liberal arts curriculum based on classical texts, and in 1935 they joined University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins in his determination to design an undergraduate liberal education program around the classical texts of Western literature.

With Barr as president and Buchanan as dean, St. John's quickly became widely known for its commitment to the liberal arts, to student-faculty community, and to classical texts featuring Greek and Roman philosophers. Proponents of its curriculum inspired debate about the nature of the liberal arts at a time of expanding vocational and professional higher education and about the place of lockstep course requirements at a time of widespread regard for individuality in subject selection and learning pace. Other college experiments of the time (e.g., Black Mountain, Bennington, and Bard) garnered attention for the progressive nature of curriculums that encouraged students to design customized courses of study. St. John's, however, held fast to the notion that the essence of liberal education occurred when community-wide dialogue, largely supported by Socratic teaching, inspired diverse individual meanings from the enduring ideas offered in classical texts.

Committed to the idea of a community of scholars, St. John's administrators decided to create a second campus rather than expand the Annapolis campus beyond 450 students. The New Mexico campus opened in 1964 with new buildings erected on 250 acres just outside downtown Santa Fe. Although student athletics, newspapers, literary magazines, concerts, and other extracurricular activities vary on the two campuses, the academic program remains the same. The two campuses share a common curriculum and a single governing board. The required readings of the freshman and sophomore year emphasize classical texts from those of the Greek poet Homer and the Greek playwright Sophocles to the English dramatist and poet William Shakespeare and the French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes, as well as the musical works of notable composers. By the senior year, required reading includes works by the American authors William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and William James. All students study ancient Greek, French, and English composition, and graduates earn a bachelor of arts in liberal education. Seniors write a final essay and successfully complete an oral examination before graduating.

The liberal arts curriculum and community of dialogue inherent in the St. John's approach to undergraduate education is, according to the 2000 Statement of the St. John's Program, aimed at encouraging students to examine assumptions they hold and to "acquire a new perspective which enables them to recognize both the sameness of a recurrent problem and the variety of its historical manifestations." The long-term objective is "to help the students make reasonable decisions in whatever circumstances they face" (St. John's College, p. 7).


GRANT, GERALD, and RIESMAN, DAVID. 1978. The Perpetual Dream: Reform and Experiment in the American College. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

NELSON, CHARLES A., ed. 1995. Scott Buchanan: A Centennial Appreciation of His Life and Work. Annapolis, MD: St. John's College Press.

ST. JOHN'S COLLEGE. 2000. Statement of the St. John's Program. Annapolis, MD: St. John's College Press.

WOFFORD, HARRIS, JR., ed. 1969. Embers of the World: Scott Buchanan's Conversations with Harris Wofford Jr. Santa Barbara, CA: Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.


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