Readers of DP will know of our affection for the radically conservative (in the best sense of both words) St. John’s College, and the uncompromising commitment found there for the liberal arts, understood as the arts of freedom. With so many of the nation’s formerly distinguished colleges tied up in knots of self-censorship and pseudo-tolerance, complete with puppy video rooms and trigger warnings, St. John’s continues to mark out a different path, for those brave enough to follow it.
Knowing of our interest in such matters, a DP reader and matriculating SJC student sent me a link to a post by a Johnnie alum, the novelist William Kowalski, excerpted below.
St. John’s is a discussion-based education. We are never lectured to. Instead, we engage each other in conversation on every one of the hundred or so books we read over the course of four years, in every subject. Our professors, whom we call tutors, are not there to lecture. Their job is to guide us along as best as possible, and to gently correct the conversation if it goes off the rails. It often did go off the rails in the first couple of years, but it happened less and less, until, after four years of intensive practice, most of us were able–wonder of wonders–to hold a coherent, focused, two-hour conversation on topics such as what makes a good person, what is a just state, and what Kant meant by a priori knowledge (to name just three of an infinite number of topics).
The purpose of this was to get us to form our own understanding of complex subjects–the most complex of which was ultimately our own selves. It was a lot of reading and a lot of talking. When you spoke, you were guaranteed a respectful audience. If you said something that was poorly thought out, you were going to be challenged on it immediately. Not by the administration, or by the faculty, but by your peers. Furthermore, you were expected to listen respectfully to other viewpoints, some of which you might have found odious at first, but which you might have found yourself agreeing with after a while, to your great surprise–which was, after all, the point of the whole undertaking: not to reinforce the things you already believed, but to find the holes in your system, and either make the necessary repairs or tear the whole rickety structure down and begin again.
For me, the latter was the necessary course, and for that reason St. John’s was a perilous undertaking. The hardest part about this process for me was the act of tearing down the false edifice of my persona, which I had spent years trying to construct simply because I had no understanding of who I was and knew no other way of being. I did not understand that all the things I had sought so desperately as a youth–understanding, knowledge, wisdom, experience, inner peace, even success–were to be mine for the taking as soon as I stopped looking for them outside myself, and accepted that the potential for these things already lay within me.
That may sound like an ideal outcome, but the tearing-down part was painful beyond words, and it led to a sort of breakdown in my junior year, during which I became convinced that there was really nothing about me, or my existence, or existence in general, that was true. This wasn’t actually nihilism, but a kind of spiritual rebirth. Upon that foundation–the understanding that I am just a jot in the universe, that we are each of us equally as important as the other, that the notions of right and just and good are almost entirely relative and have no real meaning, and yet there is nothing more important than seeking answers, learning acceptance, and fighting as hard as you can for what you believe in–I allowed a new notion of my self to begin to form. This is not a solid, unchanging self, but a consciousness who accepts that the Self is fluid, ever-changing, and imperfect, and who has the courage to accept it– on most days, anyway. It was very painful, it was frightening, and it was the greatest gift I’ve ever accepted. None of this would have happened for me if I had been ensconced in a safe space, protected from ideas I found threatening.
The notion of a space in which university children need to be protected from ideas they don’t like is abhorrent to many of us for many reasons. For me, it’s upsetting because it makes a joke of our national method of education, which is not now, and has not been for a very long time, a truly educational system. Education has the same root as the word edifice, which means a building. To educate means to build up. It also means to discipline the mind to recognize bullshit from truth, to have the courage to speak truth to power, to root out intellectual dishonesty in oneself and replace it with humility and openness. It should not mean a four-year nursery school where nobody has to encounter ideas they don’t like. Nothing speaks louder to the fact that critical thinking is dead in America than what is happening at Yale right now.
The hardest thing for me since leaving St. John’s has been having to deal with people who are threatened by asking questions. I have always been an inveterate questioner of everything, not out of rebellion but out of an insatiable desire to know everything I possibly can. A Johnny soon learns, upon graduating, and to his great sadness, that many people are unnerved by this, and that they do not even know how to have a conversation about ideas. You will see this on internet discussion boards all the time. There, people seem to think that discussion involves two people simply presenting their points of view, often with contempt and invective, and then totting up the score later. Most likely, each will come away privately thinking the other an idiot and himself the victor.
I am not one to criticize those who find it frightening to have the intellectual ground yanked away from under one’s feet. I know first-hand how difficult it is to realize the things you “believe” are actually without foundation until they are examined, parsed, and tested. But this is what universities are supposed to be for. They are not–again, this has already been heavily written about and commented upon–for protecting and coddling. I was fortunate enough to spend four years in a place that to many might sound like a paradise, but which was actually a relentless testing chamber. As long as our students are lectured to instead of conversed with, as long as they are forced to digest packaged textbook versions of ideas instead of original sources, as long as they are told that true strength means clinging to one’s ideas rather than examining and questioning them, and–most of all–as long as they are allowed to resist solving problems for themselves, the pursuit of true understanding may be safely said to be gone in America. It is that concept, and no other, for which we should be providing a safe space. Everything else is wind.