St. John’s College Clings to a Radical Tradition

The college offers a master class in branding and self-awareness, remaining contrarian in an industry marked by conformity.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former columnist for The Chronicle ...
Published on April 15, 2024
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Alex Pasquariello is a senior news editor for BestColleges. Prior to joining BestColleges he led Metropolitan State University of Denver's digital journalism initiative. He holds a BS in journalism from Northwestern University....
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Image Credit: St. John's College
  • St. John's College features a curriculum based on the "Great Books" of Western civilization.
  • All students follow a prescribed academic path for four years.
  • The college is a top feeder to law schools and Ph.D. programs.
  • St. John's remains small but sustainable thanks to its lean operation.

There are no professors. There are no departments or majors. There is no football or basketball team.

You won't find students studying computer science or artificial intelligence or accounting. Instead, their noses will be buried in the works of Plato and Socrates and Euclid, Aristotle and Descartes and Hobbes.

No, this isn't a new experimental venture, an online gambit designed to counter prevailing trends in higher education. In fact, its roots trace back to 1696, making it older than Yale.

Depending on your perspective, St. John's College is either the most traditional or most radical college in America, remaining steadfast in its mission to educate students through an immersive exploration of Western civilization's Great Books.

In an era when many colleges are gutting the liberal arts in response to dwindling student interest, St. John's swims defiantly against the tide.

'The Most Intellectual College in the Country'

Unlike many colleges, St. John's knows exactly what it is and what it isn't. It's not trying to be all things to all people. It's one thing for some people. Amid a sea of collegiate mission statements and educational visions that sound alike, St. John's is unique.

That's why it attracts students for whom the college is a perfect fit.

"We tend to draw students who love books, love ideas," Benjamin Baum, St. John's vice president of enrollment, told BestColleges. "They want a college experience where they're going to immerse themselves with other people who are just as excited to talk about these ideas as they are.

"I don't think it's overselling things to say that we might be the most intellectual college in the country."

Roughly 1,000 students — spread across two campuses, in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico — accept this intellectual challenge.

"I was very intrigued," Helen Felbek, a junior from Germany attending the Annapolis campus, told BestColleges. "I like talking. I like reading."

At college fairs, students aren't as much intrigued as they are confused, Baum noted. On many occasions, he's had to explain to students and their parents the peculiar aspects of St. John's that set it apart from other colleges.

For one, the college doesn't offer majors in the usual sense. Students pursue a bachelor's degree in the interdisciplinary liberal arts. That's it.

They're taught not by "professors" but by "tutors," faculty whose purpose is to guide classroom conversation, not simply impart knowledge through lectures.

"The idea is that we aren't necessarily the best student in the class," Ned Walpin, a tutor and associate dean for graduate programs at the Santa Fe campus, explained to BestColleges.

Formal lectures occur on Friday nights, when guest scholars visit campus to present on topics relevant to the St. John's curriculum. Even then, these talks quickly evolve into conversations with students.

Johnnies don't take "classes," either. They take "seminars," along with "tutorials" in math, languages (French and ancient Greek), and music. Each seminar is led by two tutors.

What about electives? They're called "preceptorials." Juniors and seniors choose one each year to focus on a particular author or subject that's intrigued them.

And outside of class, students engage in "don rags," one-on-one conversations with tutors in which they discuss the student's progress and address any academic concerns.

All this adds up to an education no other undergraduates in America are experiencing.

"Our distinctiveness is our most important attribute," Baum said. "We're not a college that does what every other college does."

A Prescribed Curriculum Featuring the Classics

Besides the unusual nomenclature, a nod to Oxford and Cambridge traditions, the college's most significant differentiating characteristic is its curriculum, known simply as "The Program."

Think of it as a brainiac boot camp, a cerebral basic training all students must march through together — except that it lasts four years, not 10 weeks. Felbek calls it a "binding agent for the community."

All students follow the same path, studying philosophy, literature, political science, psychology, history, religion, economics, and math, among other subjects. It's a sequential progression, beginning with authors such as Aristotle, Homer, Plato, and Sophocles in the first year, moving to Thomas Aquinas, Francis Bacon, Descartes, and Machiavelli in the sophomore year.

Juniors delve into political documents from the Founding Fathers in addition to Galileo, Kant, Locke, and Milton. Seniors finish up with Darwin, Tocqueville, Einstein, Melville, Plath, and Woolf, to name a few.

It's been this way, with a few tweaks, since 1937.

The progression is intentional, not random. Readings build on one another, enabling students to see how writers drew on intellectual traditions they too have studied.

"It really is cumulative," Ivan Torres, a first-year student from New Mexico studying at the Santa Fe campus, told BestColleges, "and it's kind of beautiful when you experience it."

These readings are both timeless and timely, Baum argued, remaining relevant to what's happening in the world today.

"We're dealing with issues of inequality, with issues of ethics and war, with the nature of democracy," he said. "These are not new questions."

Although gaining knowledge constitutes a primary goal of this curriculum, the more salient outcome is newly established methods of thinking.

"It teaches you how to deconstruct arguments, reconstruct them, make sense of them, question them, and really, truly examine why we hold certain belief systems to be true or false, and what the implications are for society as a whole," Torres said.

Along the way, students inevitably encounter material outside their comfort zone. Reading the classics exposes them to the antiquated societal views of writers who were products of their time.

"There's not a single student at St. John's who isn't studying something that they're not comfortable with," Walpin said.

Instead of censoring controversial thoughts, students meet them head-on.

"There's racism and sexism and prejudice of all sorts," Felbek said. "It can be uncomfortable, but I think one has to power through that."

She added that students often have these difficult conversations during don rags, when they can talk individually with tutors about discomforting material.

"We approach this like, 'How can we center this conversation in a way that I can maintain being engaged while also being respectful of my own personal boundaries?'" Torres added. "All of my friends have had issues like that. We're able to resolve them and work through them with the faculty."

Finding students of this ilk isn't easy, said Baum, whose job it is to find them. He doesn't necessarily seek the most accomplished students. The college accepts about 45% of applicants, and the average GPA is 3.79. It's been test-optional since 1972.

Baum is more concerned about fit, wanting the kinds of students most likely to not only manage the rigor but to thrive in the deeply intellectual environment St. John's promotes.

"We see students who might have flaws on their transcripts in some ways, and yet, through their essays and the interview, we can see that this is the kind of student who's going to be grappling with ideas exactly the way we want them to at this college," he said. "And so that search for fit through the admissions process is essential to what we do."

What materializes is a diverse student body. Students come from across the U.S., and about 16% of students are international. More than 30% are people of color, while 12% are first-generation students.

And about 20-25% of students in each entering class receive Pell Grants.

"You might think that this sounds like a rich-kid education," Walpin said. "As it turns out, we have very few — maybe fewer rich kids than we might want."

How Relevant Is a St. John's Education?

For students accustomed to pondering deep questions, one that likely arises is, "What am I going to do with a St. John's education?"

That sentiment is shared by parents who have to foot the bill.

"I had a hard time explaining first what St. John's is," Felbek said, "and then what I could do with it afterward."

Baum routinely fields such questions from parents.

"There's an expectation that a particular major corresponds to a particular career, and so even at other small liberal arts colleges, majors in different fields are indicators to families that this is a path they can follow," he said. "That's a difference St. Johns has to navigate."

He added that the college's educational approach forces students and parents to "think beyond the preconceived notion they have of how college leads to a career."

And yet it turns out Johnnies do quite well after graduation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, lots of Johnnies wind up in law. St. John's ranks No. 15 in the nation in the percentage of graduates who attend the most prestigious law schools.

It also prepares students well for Ph.D. programs. The college ranks No. 11 nationally based on the percentage of graduates pursuing Ph.D.s across all subjects. More specifically, it ranks in the top 2% of colleges for alumni earning humanities Ph.D.s and in the top 4% for graduates earning doctorates in science and engineering.

That last statistic may seem counterintuitive given that Johnnies aren't learning the latest scientific developments and working in the most modern campus labs.

But math and science constitute roughly half of the curriculum, providing students with a solid theoretical foundation in those disciplines, Baum noted.

"There are plenty of students who come into St. John's really fascinated by STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)," he said. "More commonly, students come here maybe leaning toward the humanities but discover a love for the sciences and math through our approach."

To help prepare students for the rigors of graduate programs in science, as well as medical school, the college provides funding for summer research projects at universities, corporations, and national labs.

Graduates also proceed straight into the job market, landing jobs in fields such as education, government, and the media, often after completing internships supplemented by the college.

The breadth of St. John's curriculum piques students' interests across a wide variety of subjects, Baum said, while its particular style of learning prepares graduates for whatever comes next.

"You're not emerging with one focused concentration," he said. "You're emerging with the ability to speak fluently about the sciences as well as the humanities, the ability to converse with each other in the classroom, which extends into the workplace, the ability to write and to think critically. These are things I think we do particularly well."

Is the St. John's Model Sustainable?

In today's higher education landscape, a small liberal arts college with an enrollment of 1,000 students and a modest endowment (St. John's has about $245 million) should be teetering on the brink of extinction.

But not St. John's. How does it survive, especially with an expensive educational model featuring small classes taught by two faculty — and no adjuncts?

"We're kind of lean and mean because we do one thing, and we do it really well," Walpin said.

That means St. John's sacrifices the usual trappings of a collegiate experience, including a vast physical infrastructure brimming with the latest amenities. It also means no NCAA athletics program, though it does offer a handful of intercollegiate sports (including a national championship croquet team) and a range of intramurals.

The college survives because each year enough students want exactly what St. John's offers, and nothing more.

Not that more money wouldn't help. The college just completed a $325 million fundraising campaign. Instead of pouring those funds into new majors and fancy buildings, St. John's is using it to lower tuition (now about $39,000) and provide scholarships.

The college has no plans to expand its traditional program. It already has, establishing the Santa Fe campus in 1964 to replicate the Annapolis experience for more students.

There are opportunities for growth at the margins, however. The college enrolls about 170 students through its Graduate Institute, including a burgeoning online population (the "lemonade we made out of the pandemic," Walpin quipped).

It also maintains partnerships with universities — "4+1" arrangements with schools of public health and business to ease student transitions into graduate programs — and is exploring similar opportunities in the sciences.

Might St. John's consider adding certificate programs in fields such as cybersecurity or artificial intelligence, a tactic employed by many liberal arts colleges aiming to provide students supplemental skills for in-demand fields? No, Baum said, but the college remains "very open" to collaborating with institutions offering this kind of instruction.

In other words, don't expect St. John's to veer much from the iconoclastic path it long ago blazed — because it doesn't have to.

"There are some students who are drawn to our tradition," Baum said, "and there are other students who are drawn to us for almost the opposite reason — that we're radical. What we're doing is so different from the rest of higher education."