After giving it some thought, I am reasonably confident that St. John’s College (SJC) is doing things right in its undergraduate curricula, and because no other school even achieves relative verisimilitude in its curricula, I guess I’m committed to saying that everyone else is doing it wrong.
So what the hell is SJC teaching those kids? Why do I, fully aware that Harvard and Princeton are getting snubbed in my lofty conjecture, praise this school so highly? It is for this simple reason: a student who graduates from SJC will have had to read more classic texts in the Western and Eastern intellectual traditions than were he to have gone anywhere else. The curriculum at SJC is premised by the ‘Great Books’ approach to education. The idea is that an education should be broad, covering a wide variety of thought. Secondly, the best way to achieve this broad education is to read the classics, all the way from the pre-Socratics, to the Medievals to the Enlightenment thinkers, all the way up to the present day. Key to the SJC approach is the idea that the classical literature should be experienced through the original texts, as opposed to secondary sources.
Against this background, let us consider this thought experiment. Take an incoming college freshman, whom we shall call Stephen. Stephen attends St. John’s, and his friend Peter attends a traditional state school. Fast forward four years. Stephen has under his belt a good chunk of the great books that an educated man should read in his lifetime. He is capable of drawing comparisons and thinking critically about areas of thought across discipline and across geographical area, and across temporal periods. From Greek philosophy to classical mathematics to French Poetry, Stephen has read it, and this is the frame of reference through which he will be experiencing and thinking about the world thereafter. Now consider Peter. Peter has taken his needed electives, after having read mostly secondary sources. He has chosen a major, taken the desired number of credits, and walks away with a diploma.
Regardless of how much money Peter might make, Peter is in a far worse position. Stephen, by virtue of having the classics under his belt, is better suited to examine life rather than to just live in it.
Sure, I am speaking with somewhat maudlin metaphor here, but I acknowledge my bias. I was Peter, and wish I were Stephen! Unfortunately, I’m not, and will now have to spend years catching up on the lifetime reading plan.