| Lament for my College
I love the idea of St. John’s College. I read the admissions brochure with joy and applied nowhere else. My disappointments are grounded in love for the college. In the spirit of hope for the future improvement of my college, I will take the first step and point out some glaring problems. To echo a memorable Don Rags, though I state my appreciation for St. John’s very briefly, and dwell in greater length on my criticisms, I mean for the appreciation to be given the most weight. Having spent three years in Annapolis and one in Santa Fe, I shall critique both campuses as though they were one. The choice of drug is not particularly interesting.
Is St. John’s College the place where children are made into free men and free women? Why do a pathetic number of alumni give annual gifts to their beloved college? We talk of virtue and the good, yet why do both campuses share the most typical problems of the mainstream American soul, even as seniors? If we seek to be healthy in body and soul, why does the college administration undermine us with a cafeteria system that serves the average American grub?
All too many graduates from St. John’s College are not men, are not women, are not free, and are not even noble in their childishness. Many will be distinguished in their careers like the graduates of most expensive colleges. But I do not foretell greatness. Great men and women, such as the authors we read, were nurtured in environments where the agon within the soul is nurtured under great tensions and where there are high standards of discipline. I would argue that so few alumni give to the college because of two reasons, 1) they are cynical about their education, or 2) they lack discipline. That the numbers are improving only as a result of fundraising efforts is disappointing.
The stringent aroma of pot wafting down a hallway or across a quad was a daily occurrence in Santa Fe. Pot weakens the will and dulls the minds of some of our most brilliant Johnnies. This lowering of potential greatness to a lazy mean is all too common in the Southwest. It disappoints me that St. John’s has failed to be an island isolated from the worst seductions of Southwest culture. Such telling clichés of “take it easy,” and “chill out” confirm a prognosis for democracy even more chilling than de Tocqueville describes, and borders on Nietzsche’s last man. Pot should not be tolerated on campus. This would not eliminate the problem, but at least it would be conducive to a culture of shame and danger around what is currently flaunted shamelessly. For those of you who continue to mindlessly repeat your pseudo-intellectual reasons for this drug, I recommend the punishment of translating Baudelaire’s The Poem of Hashish.
As for the recently exposed secret of cocaine on the Annapolis campus? There are honest and noble ways to merit inclusion into an aristocratic elite. Cocaine is not one of them. The endurance of noble feelings is admirable, not their brief stolen intensity. Those who shame our college with cocaine provide just one more testimony to a liberal education that has failed to take root in their souls.
Given what I have just said, perhaps I contradict myself by supporting a wet campus. Although I remain disappointed by the many individual failures, I would not for this reason wish for the rest of us to be denied the opportunity to learn how to drink responsibly and openly among friends, loudly discussing Euclid’s first definition. Our many discussions as RA’s persuaded me that we will have fewer problems if alcohol does not have to be consumed in a secret corner of a dorm room or off campus among strangers (although a dry campus might result in more Darwin Award nominations among Johnnies). I am glad that the administration has so far had the courage to work with students to organize parties, rather than taking the path of least legal risk by outright prohibition.
Drugs, alcohol… oh yes, hip hop… There is occasionally a student that reads Plato’s Republic, takes seriously the idea that regularly listening to music with the beat of sexual intercourse might make their souls more trivial and bestial, and has the courage to experiment with changing their received musical habits. I admired these classmates, and was disillusioned by the indignant jeers of the Johnny majority. Of course, this is one of the ironic instances when a rare soul might be made better for having to walk alone and overcome much. Yet I cannot help but be sorry for those who shamelessly hold their membership in the mainstream American herd, especially at a liberal institution which boasts of rising above the indignations of received opinion.
How would Plato judge the gamers who spend their leisure time in virtual reality fantasies rather than doing their seminar readings, or testing their bodies against other men and women in real contests? Is there a possible reasoned defense for gamers?
As for sex? I insist that those smooth tongued Johnnies who practice rhetoric for selfish and shortsighted sexual gratification or business success have not paid close attention to Plato’s Georgias. What is the state of one’s conscience who reads the Phaedrus and yet refuses the beautiful challenge of doing what is best for their beloved? I blame a Johnnie for reading the Phaedrus and yet charging confidently forward with the unbridled passion of their black horse. I also blame a Johnny who did not read the Phaedrus. Such Johnnies should not be called liberally educated, nor ladies and gentlemen. Such souls remain petty and nurture a culture that is typical and uninteresting.
I’m sorry to bring up the distasteful topic of our cafeteria food, especially following the topic of sex. I mean no offence to the people who work in the cafeteria. I blame two groups for the unhealth forced upon all of us who value the on-campus mealtime conversations: 1) the stubborn opinions of “liberal arts” students who insist on white bread and french fries; and 2) the administrators who ignore the problem and fails to guide the college community in a better way. Food habits perpetuated at St. Johns College are largely to blame for the unexceptional physique of the average alum. Typically we are pale and either as flabby or as gaunt as the average American. Too often we are the sophists of Aristophanes, not the philosophers of Plato.
Being liberally educated by great books in a place of weakness, unhealth, and stubborn indignation might be ideal. A rare and great soul might be nurtured at St. John’s College without changing anything. Exceptional human beings overcome much. the contradictions between word and deed, and the evident lack of distress over these contradictions allow phenomenal insight into the state of American souls. The predominance of psychiatric medications among Johnnies proves much to the astute observer. And the predominance of cigarette smokers gives evidence for collective nihilistic despair about the future. No doubt many Johnnies will be “successful.” We learn how to use words to influence or rule in politics and education. But are we better human beings, living fuller and healthier lives? When I read the admissions literature, I hoped that the answer was yes. My experience has too often taught me otherwise.
I hope that this article contributes meaningfully to dialogue about what can be done to address the problem of St. John’s College, and of liberal education in general. And I want more than an endless conversation of whether or not virtue is teachable. Dante’s Limbo is not a place of hope. My ambition is to, eventually, create a liberal arts college of my own that will attract students who are both eminently critical and courageously hopeful. If you are serious about liberal education please email me, email@example.com.