Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘St. John’s College

The Order of St. John’s

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When I think back on my personal experience with the great books, as I did here the other day, I have to start with the six weeks that I spent as a high school junior at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. As I’ve discussed in greater detail before, I had applied to the Telluride Associate Summer Program on the advice of my guidance counselor. It was an impulsive decision, but I was accepted, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call it one of the three or four most significant turning points in my entire life. I was more than primed for a program like this—I had just bought my own set of the Great Books of the Western World at a church book sale—and I left with my head full of the values embodied by the college, which still structures its curriculum around a similar notion of the Western Canon. Throughout the summer, I attended seminars with seventeen other bright teenagers, and as we worked our way from Plato’s Cratylus through Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, it all seemed somehow normal. I more or less assumed that this was how college would be, which wasn’t entirely true, although I did my best to replicate the experience. Looking back, in fact, I suspect that my time at St. John’s was more responsible than any other factor for allowing me to attend the college of my choice, and it certainly played a role in my decision to major in classics. But it’s only now that I can fully appreciate how much privilege went into each stage in that process. It came down to a series of choices, which I was able to make freely, and while I don’t think I always acted correctly, I’m amazed at how lucky I was, and how the elements of a liberal education itself managed to obscure that crucial point.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because of an article by Frank Bruni in the New York Times, who paid a visit to the sister campus of St. John’s College in Santa Fe. He opens with a description that certainly would have appealed to my adolescent self, although probably not to most other teenagers:

Have I got a college for you. For your first two years, your regimen includes ancient Greek. And I do mean Greek, the language, not Greece, the civilization, though you’ll also hang with Aristotle, Aeschylus, Thucydides and the rest of the gang. There’s no choice in the matter. There’s little choice, period…You have no major, only “the program,” an exploration of the Western canon that was implemented in 1937 and has barely changed…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.

More than twenty years after I spent the summer there, the basic pitch for the college doesn’t seem to have changed. Its fans still draw a pointed comparison between the curriculum at St. John’s and the supposedly more “consumerist” approach of most undergraduate programs, and it tends to define itself in sharp contrast to the touchy-feely world around it. “Let your collegiate peers elsewhere design their own majors and frolic with Kerouac,” Bruni writes. “For you it’s Kant.”

Yet it isn’t hard to turn this argument on its head, or to recognize that there’s a real sense in which St. John’s might be one of the most individualistic and consumerist colleges in the entire country. (The article itself is headlined “The Most Contrarian College in America,” while Bruni writes that he was drawn to it “out of respect for its orneriness.” And a school for ornery contrarians sounds pretty individualistic to me.) We can start with the obvious point that “the stress on vocational training” at other colleges is the result of economic anxiety at a time of rising tuitions and crippling student loans. There’s tremendous pressure to turn students away from the humanities, and it isn’t completely unjustified. The ability to major in classics or philosophy reflects a kind of privilege in itself, at least in the form of the absence of some of those pressures, and it isn’t always about money. For better or worse, reading the great books is just about the most individualistic gesture imaginable, and its supposed benefits—what the dean of the Santa Fe campus characterizes as the creation of “a more thoughtful, reflective, self-possessed and authentic citizen, lover, partner, parent and member of the global economy”—are obsessively focused on the self. The students at St. John’s may not have the chance to shop around for classes once they get there, but they made a vastly more important choice as a consumer long before they even arrived. A choice of college amounts to a lot of things, but it’s certainly an act with financial consequences. In many cases, it’s the largest purchase that any of us will ever make. The option of spending one’s college years reading Hobbes and Spinoza at considerable cost doesn’t even factor into the practical or economic universe of most families, and it would be ridiculous to claim otherwise.

In other words, every student at St. John’s exercised his or her power in the academic marketplace when it mattered most. By comparison, the ability to tailor one’s class schedule seems like a fairly minor form of consumerism—which doesn’t detract from the quality of the product, which is excellent, as it should be at such prices. (Bruni notes approvingly that the college recently cut its annual tuition from $52,000 to $35,000, which I applaud, although it doesn’t change my underlying point.) But it’s difficult to separate the value of such an education from the existing qualities required for a high schooler to choose it in the first place. It’s hard for me to imagine a freshman at St. John’s who wasn’t intelligent, motivated, and individualistic, none of which would suffer from four years of immersion in the classics. They’re already lucky, which is a lesson that the great books won’t teach on their own. The Great Conversation tends to take place within a circle of authors who have been chosen for their resemblance to one another, or for how well they fit into a cultural narrative imposed on them after the fact, as Robert Maynard Hutchins writes in the introduction to Great Books of the Western World: “The set is almost self-selected, in the sense that one book leads to another, amplifying, modifying, or contradicting it.” And that’s fine. But it means that you rarely see these authors marveling over their own special status, which they take for granted. For a canon that consists entirely of books written by white men, there’s remarkably little discussion of privilege, because they live in it like fish in water—which is as good an argument for diversity as any I can imagine. The students at St. John’s may ask these hard questions about themselves, but if they do, it’s despite what they read, not because of it. Believe me, I should know.

Written by nevalalee

September 20, 2018 at 9:02 am

The good life

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St. John's College

Seventeen years—or exactly half of my lifetime—ago, I spent six weeks at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, as a high school junior in the Telluride Associate Summer Program. It was structured around daily seminars and an extensive reading list in language and literature, with selections ranging from Plato’s Cratylus to Jane Austen’s Emma to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The books themselves were often wonderful, but for me, and I suspect for most of the seventeen other students who found themselves there that summer, they were really just an excuse to take part in what felt like an act of sustained intellectual liberation. We were all smart kids from a wide variety of backgrounds, but what I remember most clearly from that summer is the hunger we shared to talk about everything under the sun, especially what we saw as life’s big subjects: philosophy, religion, art, the question of what it meant to be a complete human being. And like most teenagers, we were convinced that we had figured out many of the answers already, if only we had the chance to put them into practice.

In short, it was an intense, highly idealized version of what we thought college would be, and if some of our subsequent experiences at college itself failed to live up to those expectations, it’s only because Telluride set a very high bar. At the time, I was in a perfect position to be influenced by St. John’s and the philosophy of education it afforded: I’d just picked up my own set of the Great Books of the Western World, which remain at the heart of the school’s curriculum even today, and I was primed for a life spent in the company of great authors and ideas. Ultimately, when the summer was over, I decided to apply to college elsewhere, mostly because I sensed that I’d be happier carving out a liberal arts education for myself in the heart of a larger university, and I still think it was the right choice. It’s one thing to bury yourself in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas in a tiny school where everyone else is doing the same thing, and quite another to stick to your guns when you’re surrounded by students who, for perfectly good reasons, came to college for other experiences.

Great Books of the Western World, First Edition

Yet I’m still haunted by my six weeks there, which shaped me in ways that I’m only starting to appreciate now, when that summer lies at the midpoint of my life. These days, I see it less as a transformative moment in itself than as the first in a series of lucky breaks or decisions that led me to where I am now. On my return home, I kept reading the great books—although my resolution to get through all fifty-four volumes before I graduated from high school went unfulfilled, which was probably for the best. In college, I majored in classics, which came pretty close to that ideal of an intellectual sanctuary embedded within an international university with a lot of other things on its mind. (That was true, at least, of my undergraduate experience; it’s a little different when you try to make a career of it, and despite occasional regrets, I’m glad I escaped with just a bachelor’s degree.) Ever since, I’ve kept a little corner of my mind reserved for St. John’s and the life it exemplified, even as the years have taken me in other directions. And I still intend to get to Plotinus and Lavoisier one of these days.

Of course, I’m still left with the question of what it means to be a complete human being, and I don’t think I’m any closer to the answer than I was at seventeen. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since Telluride, though, it’s that books and ideas get you only part of the way there, and, if anything, can serve as a distraction from more difficult problems. I discovered early on that the solutions to life’s dilemmas aren’t particularly complicated: simplicity, detachment, and perspective get you ninety percent of the way, a lesson we find clearly stated in Socrates, Jesus, and most worthwhile thinkers since. Understanding this on the page and putting it into practice are two very different things, however, and a philosophical precept only comes alive after it’s been learned through hard experience. That means wrong turns, bad choices, and long stretches of life in which those basic principles have been buried or forgotten. A full life consists of alternating periods of neglect and rediscovery; otherwise, it hardens into its own kind of dogmatism. But it helps if you have a touchstone, like those six weeks at St. John’s were for me, that reminds you of what ought to matter.

Written by nevalalee

July 1, 2014 at 9:26 am

Me and the Great Books

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It’s no exaggeration to say that one of the most exciting moments of my life occurred at a church book sale in my hometown of Castro Valley, California, when I bought a set of the Great Books of the Western World for only thirty-five dollars. At the age of seventeen, I’d long been fascinated by the Great Books set in my high school library, with their uniform spines and the names of their authors enticingly lettered in gold: Homer, Lucretius, Plotinus, Augustine, not to mention Fourier, Faraday and two volumes of Gibbon. (Later, upon reviewing my own set, I noticed that the volumes for Darwin and Marx were missing, an omission that I note here without comment.) I’d always been a sucker for canons and reading lists, so I rashly vowed, in a column published in my high school newspaper, to read all fifty-four volumes in the two years before graduation. And indeed, for a while, I may have been the only high school junior in the country who was furtively reading Gibbon behind a textbook in calculus class.

More recently, it has become fashionable, in such books as Alex Beam’s A Great Idea at the Time, to dismiss the Great Books project as an inexplicable manifestation of mid-fifties middlebrow Americana. Certainly the set, with its rather prissy air of righteousness, is easy to mock, and there’s no denying the various ways in which it falls short: the complete lack of women; the poor translations of such authors as Virgil and Goethe, chosen mostly because they were in the public domain; the omission of such obvious choices as Martin Luther or Voltaire; the somewhat uninviting format, with its small type and double columns. (“It’s like reading the Bible!” one of my high school friends exclaimed.) There’s the curious Syntopicon, a compendium of what co-editor Mortimer J. Adler deemed to be the greatest ideas in history, from Angel to World, with its comically exhaustive subsections and page references to each of the set’s authors. And there’s the unfortunate fact, over which the editors had little control, that the sets were mostly hawked by traveling encyclopedia salesmen to families that probably never had much of an inclination to read Epictetus or Huygens.

All of these criticisms are fair enough. Yet when I look at my own set of the Great Books, which I recently had shipped from my parents’ garage to my new house in Oak Park, I’m struck above all else by the grandeur of the enterprise. Perhaps it’s because the idea of a publisher printing any set of fifty-four hardcover books, much less a collection like this, seems increasingly laughable these days. Or because the books themselves, now that the political and social circumstances of their origins have fallen away, seem nothing less than beautiful. Speaking from my own experience, I can say what while these books, in practice, may have seemed daunting to a casual reader, this is less important than what they promised to me in high school, and what they still promise today: a gateway into a world of ideas accessible to anyone with the patience to enter. It’s true that in many homes and libraries, these books may have been nothing but furniture, but for all their flaws, it’s hard for me to see them as anything less than what their editors meant them to be: a treasure hoard for the serious reader.

Needless to say, I didn’t end up reading all fifty-four volumes in the two years before I graduated. But over time, the Great Books, in their supposedly unreadable volumes, provided me with my first—and in some cases only—encounters with books and authors like Dante, Sophocles, Herodotus, Marcus Aurelius, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Gilbert’s On the Loadstone, William Harvey’s De Motu Cordis, Gulliver’s Travels, Tom Jones, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and Moby-Dick. (I still haven’t read all of Gibbon.) More importantly, the books set me on a path that eventually led to a summer program at St. John’s College, one of the few liberal arts institutions that still put the great books at the core of their curriculum, and ultimately to majoring in Classics. My experience has taught me that while the great books, in any form, have their limitations as the heart of one’s education, I haven’t found anything better. And now that these books are back in my life, I’m looking forward to discovering their riches again—as soon as I find Darwin and Marx.

Written by nevalalee

January 20, 2012 at 10:42 am

The Anatomy of Harold Bloom’s Influence

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The release of Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence, a grand summation of a life in letters by a major critic at the age of eighty, gives me a welcome excuse to reflect on the legacy of our leading reader, canonical champion, and defender of the great books. As I’ll point out below, Bloom has severe limitations as a critic of contemporary literature, and he’s often made himself into a figure of fun. His evolution from serious academic into something close to a brand name hasn’t been entirely painless. But there’s no doubt that he’s one of our greatest living intellectuals—his omission from both editions of the Prospect public intellectuals poll is a crime—and his impact on my own life and reading has been surprisingly substantial.

First, the bad news. Bloom has various minor shortcomings as a writer—notably his tendency to repeat himself endlessly, with slight variations, which makes me suspect that his books lack a strong editorial hand—but his real problem is that he no longer seems capable of discussing authors with anything other than unqualified praise or sweeping condemnation. When he’s talking about Shakespeare or Tolstoy, no one is more eloquent or insightful, but he seems incapable of performing nuanced readings of lesser writers. This leads him to brusquely dismiss certain authors of unquestioned canonicity, such as Poe, and into such travesties as his attack on the National Book Awards Medal for Stephen King, in which his only evidence was a critique, also completely nonfactual, of J.K. Rowling. (As I pointed out at the time, this is sort of like saying that Steven Spielberg can’t be a good director because Attack of the Clones was a lousy movie.)

It’s clear, then, that we shouldn’t turn to the current Bloom for credible opinions on contemporary culture, but for deep, almost aspirational readings on authors whose canonical eminence is undisputed. And he remains unmatched in this regard, both for his passion and his readability. At times, it isn’t clear what his point is, except to create in us a state of mind receptive to being changed by literature—which is a worthwhile goal in itself. And his isolated insights are often exceptional. His thoughts on the strangeness of the Yahwist—as in the uncanny moment in Exodus 4:24, for instance, when God tries to kill Moses—and his writings on Joseph Smith, whom he considers a great American prophet, have deeply influenced the novel I’m writing now. And his observations on sexual jealousy in Othello have shaped my understanding not only of that play, but of Eyes Wide Shut:

Shakespeare’s greatest insight into male sexual jealousy  is that it is a mask for the fear of being castrated by death. Men imagine that there can never be enough time and space for themselves, and they find in cuckoldry, real or imagined, the image of their own vanishing, the realization that the world will go on without them.

In recent years, Bloom has become less a literary critic than a sort of affable cheerleader, moving past his old polemics on “the age of resentment” to simply extoll the cause of close reading of great books for the pleasure they provide. It’s a simple message, but a necessary one, and one that he is qualified above all other living critics to convey, with his prodigious reading, infinite memory, and nervous, expansive prose. I’ve always been a sucker for canons—I tried to read all fifty-four volumes of the Britannica Great Books series in high school, came close to applying to a similar program at St. John’s College, and finally ended up in the Classics—and Bloom remains my primary gateway into the great books, as he is for many of us. For that, his influence has been incalculable, and I’m glad we still have him around.

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