St John’s 2

Like I mentioned before, I’m going to be taking graduate classes this summer at Saint John’s College in Santa Fe, NM.

“Classes in what?” you may ask.

“Liberal Arts,” I would reply.

“Ccongratylations,” you say, while thinking within yourself: Umm… isn’t that the most useless major one could possibly have? And as a masters too!?

Well, ok, you have a point there. It probably won’t help me very much to get a job. Personally, I tend to class a masters in liberal arts in the same  category with, say, a trip to Europe or buying a boat. If more people thought about masters in the humanities like that, there would probably be less disappointed graduates out there. So with that in mind, allow me to enthuse about their curriculum. I;m not sure what you would want to know about it – so I’m going to think of what I would be most interested in knowing about a friend’s degree, and go from there. 

St John’s is very small – less than 500 students on each campus. That number is, I believe, both undergraduate and graduate students. They only offer one undergraduate major, and two graduate ones; they aren’t much for allowing electives in either program. The graduate majors are Master of Liberal Arts or Master of Eastern Classics. I’m doing the former. You know how students would usually be given a catalogue showing when their classes are, and then asked to choose which ones they want and which section/time they’re planning on taking? Well, it’s not much like that. There are five sections to choose from: history, literature, science and math, philosophy and theology, and politics and society. Each section is composed of three courses: a tutorial, a preceptorial, and a seminar. Students are expected to take all the classes in a given section together as a block. I don’t think there’s much choice in the matter (undergraduates don’t even have that much choice: there’s one curriculum, one order, and that’s pretty much that).

Here, for instance, is the literature section:


Literature Seminar

Literature Tutorial

Literature Preceptorial (samples)

What’s the difference between the three classes? I don’t get it, so I’ll quote the St John’s website:


Often described as the heart of the St. John’s program, the seminar is central to the life of the college. Co-led by two tutors, seminar classes have 17 to 20 students and meet Monday and Thursday from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Seminars begin with a question meant to invite and provoke inquisitive conversation, with one’s self and with others, that may continue long after the two-hour period is over. The seminar draws on the students’ wonder, attentiveness, judgment, imagination, openness to new ideas, willingness to be refuted, patience, courage, collegiality, leadership, and general resourcefulness. Seminar is intended to develop attentive reading habits, elicit clarity of thought and generosity of spirit, and encourage a willingness to embrace unfamiliar territory. As the part of the Program in which students most take responsibility for their own learning, seminar embodies the college’s mission in its purest form.


The desire to follow more deeply the work of a particular author or to pursue a question of philosophy to another level is afforded by the preceptorial, the closest offering the college has to an elective. For about seven or eight weeks in the middle of the year, seminars are suspended for juniors and seniors as they meet in smaller groups to study one book or explore a subject through reading and discussion of several books. Tutors of junior and senior seminar propose topics for preceptorials, and juniors and seniors submit their requests to the dean. Generally not more than 10 students meet with one tutor.


A tutorial consists either of a one-on-one course or a small seminar. Such a setting provides the type of individualized attention and academic challenge capable of stimulating the intellectual growth of talented and creative students. A tutorial is meant to be an ongoing conversation in which the tutor and tutee(s) move through the academic landscape of a particular discipline. (from Ohio University, not St John’s)

So that’s pretty much that. I still don’t quite understand it. I’ll write a full report when I get there, if there’s time. But the main thing is that the whole program is aimed at being a solid foundation, without a lot of free choice.



4 thoughts on “St John’s 2

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