A Critical Appraisal of the St. John's College CurriculumSidney Hook
Published in Education for Modern Man (New York: The Dial Press, 1946). Reprinted with some minor changes from The New Leader, May 26 and June 4, 1944.
No enterprise in the history of American education has provoked more interest and attention than the new curriculum of St. John's College at Annapolis, Maryland. In books and radio broadcasts, in editorials and news stories in effusions of columnists and in articles of academic journals, the St. John's program has been acclaimed as a sure cure for our major educational ills. Leading spokesmen of its philosophy have gone even further. They have contended that the cultural and social crisis of our times is a direct consequence of our faulty educational system and that only its radical transformation along the lines of the St. John's program can assure us of a good society. For all of their love of the classical tradition and the medieval synthesis, the organizing spirits behind this new program have not hesitated to use every device of publicity and salesmanship — so characteristic of the modern world they deplore — to put their ideas across. And they have largely succeeded. Their indisputable merit is to have shocked many educators and intelligent laymen into an awareness of the acute importance of educational issues.
The few critics of the St. John's program — whose voices have hardly reached the public — have contented themselves with a criticism of the metaphysics of its founders. No detailed analysis has been made of the actual program and its relation to the declared objectives of the new curriculum. Discussion has taken the form of outright total acceptance or outright total rejection. Part of the reason for this is that the proponents of the plan have insisted that it be taken as a whole or rejected as a whole. Although this may be good strategy for purposes of propaganda and conversion, it does not make for clarification.
It is essential to understand at the outset that the new curriculum at St. John's is not an "experiment" in education. An experiment is an organized procedure designed to test an hypothesis, about which we are in doubt, by observation of the resulting consequences. The best type of experiment is checked by a control. Suppose we believe that a certain educational curriculum is better designed to achieve desirable results than an alternative curriculum. The intelligent procedure would be to select two groups of students, more or less equally matched in intelligence and preparation, and submit one group to the first curriculum and one to the second. After a specified time, we would evaluate by appropriate tests the relative performance of the two groups in respect to the idea or plan under consideration.
This has often been done to determine the relative merits of educational projects. It has conspicuously not been done at St. John's College. And for a very good reason -- from the point of view of those who have devised its curriculum. They believe that the superiority of the St. John's program can be demonstrated by argument, and that the conclusions of such demonstration are more certain and reliable than the merely probable findings of a controlled experiment. Their behavior has been consistent with their belief. The St. John's program was launched in 1937 with only twenty students enrolled. Without even waiting for the program to get under way, those responsible for it burst upon the world with a barrage of articles and speeches purporting to prove that the St. John's curriculum was superior to all others, and that it offered the best, if not the final, solution to our educational problems. Merely a bare handful of students had completed the curriculum in 1941 when the draft and the war began to play ducks and drakes with the program. The most recent Catalogue of St. John's College admits that it is not on the approved list of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, the accrediting agency which operates in its region, whose imprimatur is withheld until certain minimum conditions have been met. The Association has not been able to act on St. John's because, until now, the College has not produced enough material to be assessed. Since 1941, like other colleges, St. John's has suffered serious losses in students and faculty. It is yet to graduate a normal class.
Under the circumstances one would have expected a certain diffidence and modesty in advancing claims on what has been achieved. Nonetheless, the President of St. John's, Mr. Stringfellow Barr, the most vocal representative of the institution, maintained in November 1943 that six years of experience with its curriculum "have convinced us that St. John's may serve as a model for the reorganization of liberal education in the United States." Mr. Mark van Doren, whose book, Liberal Education, is recommended by St. John's educators as an authoritative statement of their purposes, proposes that its curriculum be planted in every college of the country. "It will take time to get the proposal accepted. Until it is accepted everywhere in America, we shall lack the right to say that liberal education exists among us." Mr. Mortimer J. Adler, one of the philosophical godfathers of the curriculum, broadcasts to the nation that "St. John's is the only college in the country which is making a proportionate effort to adapt means that may succeed in achieving the ends of a liberal education."
These convictions obviously are not based upon the results of the truncated and incomplete experience of a few years at St. John's. If they were, it would betoken a woeful lack of understanding of the nature of scientific method which it is one of the aims of the curriculum to impart. It is based upon an argument from certain assumptions, and on the claim that what St. John's is doing in the practice of the liberal arts was already done successfully on a large scale in Greece and in the medieval university. There is a curious inconsistency in this last claim when taken together with the oft-repeated assertion that the state of society depends in the main upon the state of liberal education. For if liberal education was so eminently successful in Fifth Century B.C. Athens and in Thirteenth Century Europe, the disastrous crises and bitter wars during those periods, so reminiscent of our own times, would be hard to explain.
However, a sound position may sometimes be defended by bad arguments. The logical lapses in the writings of the inspirers of the St. John's program may not be relevant to its content. It is necessary, therefore, to examine this program in its own terms.
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The main features of the St. John's plan are by now familiar to readers of current books and periodicals. But we must fix them in mind in order to assess the worth of the curriculum to the ends sought. The St. John's curriculum is an all-prescribed, four-year program of study. It is designed not for precocious or superior students only, but for the average run of students whose capacities fit the normal curve of distribution. It is open to fifteen-year-olds who have completed the second year of high school. The heart of the curriculum consists in the study of a hundred great books which, in the eyes of those who have devised the curriculum, constitute the grand and classical tradition in Western thought. Only two books published in the Twentieth Century are on the list—both in mathematics. The great books are studied in various ways. In small seminars meeting twice a week, in daily tutorials in language and mathematics, and in laboratories where the student familiarizes himself with the instruments and experiments related to the scientific classics on the list. Once a week the entire college attends in a body a formal lecture on some topic that may or may not be connected with their reading. The books are read in order, the earliest ones first. The books are not sampled or perused in part but, so the President of St. John's assures us, are read from cover to cover, every line on every page. The curriculum is identical for everybody. Every student is studying the same subject through the same books at the same time as every other student in his class year. The books are read in translation but some sections of the Greek classics are studied in the original during part of the first year. Latin is taught for a few months in the second year, French for a few months in the third year, and German for a few months in the last year. After the first few months of each year the language tutorial consists of a more detailed study of some English translations of other books on the list. The language work is not designed to give students either a speaking or easy reading knowledge of any language.
A liberal arts curriculum may be evaluated in two ways -- by its aims and by its success in achieving its aims. The aims of the St. John's curriculum are formally identical with the declared aims of other liberal arts colleges in the country. All declare their justifying purpose to be the education of intelligent and responsible citizens in the democratic community. All assert that they therefore strive to develop in the student the powers of critical thought and disciplined imagination, to impart some mastery of basic intellectual skills, and to give him an intimate familiarity with important bodies of knowledge. All affirm that this happy union of powers, skills and knowledge will enable the student to understand himself, his cultural heritage, and the world he lives in—an understanding which is the prerequisite of intelligent and responsible action. The phrasing of the ends of a liberal education varies from one college bulletin to another but the variations are pretty much on the same theme. Some colleges, as distinct from St. John's, include vocational and paraprofessional training.
The question we must now explore is whether the St. John's curriculum is better able to realize the aims of a liberal arts education than other curriculums. Since there is no experimental evidence at hand, we shall attempt to answer the question in the light of whatever is already known about the educational process, about similar educational curriculums in the past, and about established weaknesses and virtues in alternative curriculums in the present. The analysis will center around two issues. What subject matter, if any, should be prescribed for all students? By what methods should it be taught?
The defects of the elective system in current education have long been recognized. But the steps that have been taken to remedy them have not. Partisans of the St. John's curriculum write as if the elective system in our colleges is largely the result of progressive education, as if any prescription is incompatible with its philosophy, and as if all colleges operate with an unrestricted elective system with no common core of required studies. They therefore pose the problem in a way to suggest that our choice is limited between a program in which everything is to be prescribed for everybody and one in which nothing is to be prescribed for anybody. All of the assumptions behind this easy dichotomy are false. The elective system in college was introduced many years before progressive education made any headway, and for reasons that have little to do with its central theories. On the college level, progressive education takes its point of departure not only from the objective needs and capacities of different individuals but from the declared aims of a liberal education. It attempts to discover through intelligent guidance what course of study will best enable this particular student to achieve the most of what a liberal education strives to impart to all students. The objective needs of the individual, when considered in relation to the society of which he is a member, are such that the study of some prescribed subjects is clearly indicated as essential to intelligent living, no matter what his later professional interests may be. Differences in the needs, background and capacities of those who are at all educable, point not to the necessity of a tailor-made curriculum in the early years of college but to the wisdom of adapting different techniques of instruction, specialized assignments, and projects of graded difficulty for students of different powers instead of holding them all to one dead level of uniformity, low or high, easy or hard. In fact, most liberal arts colleges that reflect the philosophy of progressive education require almost a solid two years of prescription in certain fields of knowledge in order to assemble the data on the basis of which students are permitted, under proper guidance, to concentrate in special disciplines. Since the majority of liberal arts colleges do not conduct high-pressure publicity campaigns about their course of study, the advocates of the St. John's curriculum seem to feel quite safe in making the most outrageously inaccurate statements about what is actually going on in other institutions.
Why, indeed, should a liberal arts college prescribe an identical course of study for four years for everybody independently of prior preparation and varying capacities, interests and special needs as these are revealed in the processes of instruction? The argument most often advanced for it contains a palpable fallacy. Mark van Doren, whose book is primarily a defense of the St. John's program, writes: "If liberal education is, it is the same for everybody; the training it requires, in addition to being formal, should be homogeneous through four years — if the best is known, there is no student whom it will not fit, and each should have all of it." What this says is that if we know what the end of education should be, then the means in every case must be the same no matter how different the individuals whom we are to educate. This is like saying that, since the aim of medicine is to produce health for everybody, if the best diet is known there is no individual whom it will not fit, and each should have all of it. In medicine an argument of this kind is an unfailing mark of a quack. From the truth that medicine has common end for everybody it does not follow that there is a common means of achieving it independently of whether a person has diabetes or leukemia, is thin or fat.
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What is the content and subject matter of the St. John's curriculum? To what extent can it be used to achieve the objectives of a liberal education today? An examination of the backbone of the curriculum — the great books — shows that it is predominantly classical and traditional. At the end of the third year, St. John's students have reached, as the farthest point in their studies, a book published in 1739. In the remaining year of their education, everything from 1739 to the present is covered. Only two books of the Twentieth Century are read, both in higher mathematics, and usually studied by specialists in the graduate schools of universities. Not a single book on or about or since the First World War is on the list. There are no books on American history except the Federalist Papers and the Constitution of the United States to which a few seminars are devoted. (This has not prevented some St. John's educators from joining the hue and cry against other colleges for not teaching enough American history.) The only other work by an American thinker on the list is by William James.
What justification is offered for this curriculum? We are told that it, and it alone, fulfills the requirements of the "proper" subject matter of the liberal arts, to wit, the study of "man and the world." Further, that it, and it alone, supplies the great tradition of the Western world whose "ghost frightens decadent liberals who would have us get along without tradition." And finally that this curriculum in conjunction with the methods employed in its study is better able to evoke the powers and skills and maturity in students, which we have accepted as the aims of a liberal education, than any other curriculum and set of methods.
Let us consider tradition first. The charge that those who disagree with the St. John's curriculum are decadent liberals who have no place for tradition need not detain us long. It illustrates that facile use of oversimple disjunctions that betrays the fanatical and illiberal mind. It is obviously no more true than the statement that the St. John's curriculum is completely sunk in the worship of the past, and that it has been devised by reactionaries palsied by fear of the present. Exclusive absorption in the past or the present is impossible. Every curriculum is a blend of the past and present. The real issue is always the relative emphasis they should receive in instruction, and how tradition is to be used. The St. John's curriculum is predominantly concerned with the materials of the past organized in one central tradition that moves into the present. This tradition is accepted as our best support in facing the uncertainties of the modern world. The curriculum which opposes it is centered around the great problems of present-day culture and studies the traditions that are relevant to these problems. It draws from both the past and present in order to provide building material for the creation of a new tradition, continuous with what is best of the old, one that enables us to meet our uncertainties with intelligent action rather than with pious resignation.
There is literally a world of difference between these curriculums. Here is where the shooting begins.
Those who urge us to take as our starting point contemporary problems of experience — whether social, political, intellectual or, if we like the word, spiritual — maintain that those provide a focus of relevance to which the study of the past may be intelligently related. Far from being artificial, as the St. John's educators assert, these problems are so much alive that it is only by reference to them that we can tell which traditions are living and which are dead. They indicate to what points in the limitless past we can significantly run back our intellectual lines, what to select for detailed study out of its inexhaustible material, what to stress and, since something must be ignored in any case, what to intelligently ignore. If we study the past for its own sake, we have no guide except the vagaries of personal taste or the enthusiasms of the dean. If we study the past, not as antiquarians, but for the illumination it throws on the present, for its important truths, for its value as dramatic contrast or support to the values we find in modern experience, we can do no better than to follow the lead of progressive educators who use the focal problems of social life to test the large claims made for tradition.
Few contemporary problems can be adequately grasped without exploring the causal and ideational lines that radiate from them to the events and ideas of the past. Nothing is more contemporary, for example, than present-day totalitarianism. Can its nature be understood without a social and economic analysis of capitalist society? Can we come to grips with its rationalizations and achieve clarity in our own minds without some study of the ideas of men like Nietzsche, Hegel, Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes, Aquinas, Aristotle and Plato as well as the principles contained in the papal encyclicals? What subject can bring home more forcibly the importance of sound ideas on biology and the logic of evidence? But it is not only to the past we must go. The study of present-day materials is mandatory to make the historical excursions fruitful. It is a monstrous pedagogic error on the part of the St. John's educators to regard the study of present-day materials as irrelevant to proper liberal education. To understand totalitarianism our students should read not only great books of the past but some bad books of the present, perhaps large parts of Hitler's Mein Kampf. They might with profit study Germany's cultural an economic life since 1933, read Stalin's new constitution an examine the state of political freedom as well as differential wage rates in the Soviet Union, examine the Lateran Treaty between Mussolini and the Church, see selected moving pictures and plays, even pore over old newspapers -- all as a directed part of their study, and all taboo on the St. John's plan.
This brings us to one of the great paradoxes of the St. John's classical curriculum. In justifying the exclusion from the program of the study of the great social and cultural problems of our time, its administrators write: "Social studies at present do not provide an intelligible set of organizing principles." But out of the hundred books, which make up the St. John's curriculum, forty-seven are devoted to social and cultural problems of the past! In effect, what Messrs. Barr, Buchanan and Hutchins are saying is that the social problems of Graeco-Roman, medieval, Renaissance, and post-Renaissance culture -- out of which many of the great classics were born -- are worth studying but not the social problems of the Twentieth Century. The problems of unemployment are a proper subject of liberal arts study if only they bear on the decline of the Roman Empire. Architecture, housing and politics warrant attention if only they can be related to the life and problems of the Greek city-state.
This paradox in the St. John's curriculum can be resolved on only one assumption: that the true answers to our problems be found by assaying the heritage of antiquity and the Middle Ages. This in fact is the hidden assumption in the philosophy underlying St. John's.
The Catalogue of St. John's College explicitly states that the proper object of the liberal arts is "man and the world." Not ancient man and the ancient world, nor modern man and the modern world but simply "man and the world." The writings of all the spokesmen for St. John's show clearly that they accept the view that man has an essential nature which cannot change and that the truth about man, as distinct from opinion, consists in knowledge of his essential nature and what logically follows from it. All of them are firmly convinced that the classic tradition should constitute the substance of college studies because it is a great storehouse of truths which provide answers to the perennial problems of human life and destiny *
* As distinct from orthodox Thomists they do not believe that these truths, even of faith, should be indoctrinated but critically examined. Catholic educators enthusiastically support St. John's almost to a man. Their only major criticism is that it does not explicitly teach the true faith, but permits questioning and allows students, if they are not convinced, freedom to doubt. They herald it as the best kind of liberal education that can be expected in a non-Catholic college.
Leave the dubious metaphysics aside. Grant for the moment that there are perennial problems and even truths. Why cannot they emerge from a consideration of the important issues of our age? What is eternally true must be true at any time. Grant that the proper study of a liberal arts program should be man and the world. The St. John's program would still be educationally unsound. For, whatever the alleged advantages of a curriculum organized around the materials of the past, they can also be won by an intelligent analysis of modern culture. The enormous differential gain in the latter approach is that the knowledge and values which emerge from inquiries into the massive and dramatic problems of our times have a definite relevance to the perennial task of making life better here and now.
On the other hand, if we assume that we already are in possession of eternal truths that need only be applied to the present, we are likely to overlook what is distinctive in our own times. There is a natural bias to discount the evidence showing that propositions believed eternally true are actually false or have only a limited historical validity. The creative sterility of modem adherents of great systems of past thought is in part due to their failure to dip into the fresh seas of contemporary experience in order to test and amplify their stock of eternal" truths.
The whole notion that the past is to be ransacked only to discover the "truths" it can bequeath to the present is parochial. Its more fruitful use, as in literature and art, where the past is not relevant to present-day social problems or programs of action is the ever-present occasion it offers for the enlargement of meanings and the cultivation of the imagination. But not a single work in the imaginative literature of the last seventy years, in poetry, drama or the novel, is on the St. John's list. The aesthetic sensibilities of the architects of the program agree with those of Mr. Sorokin, one of its great admirers, who finds nothing in modern art and literature of any worth. Quite commendable is the use the program makes of the literature of antiquity to develop imagination. But could not the immediate occasions of difference and conflict between nations and races today also be taken as subject matter for training of the imagination? Our world today is a world of different contemporary cultures. The predicaments of present life are partly the result of difficulties of communication with alien ways and traditions. Is not imaginative sympathy with the problems and experience of the Chinese and Hindoos, with whom we must deal tomorrow, just as important as imaginative grasp of the agonies of early Greek, late Roman and Sixteenth Century Italian society? Yet not a single work of any non-Western culture is on the list. Since men are men, no matter where they are, the philosophers of St. John's probably feel that if they know Greek man, they know all men. But, then, why study Greek man and not American man?
There are two other assumptions behind the St. John's curriculum uncritically made by its defenders. The first is that the hundred great books exhibit only one tradition whose acceptance is a prerequisite, if not a guarantee, of intelligent belief in democracy. The second is the neo-Spenglerian view -- to be discussed below -- that the understanding of this historical tradition is equally relevant to the study of all subjects from philosophy to physics and mathematics.
The truth is, however, that the hundred books do not express one tradition but many different ones. The Greek tradition is quite different from the medieval Christian one. And the line from Machiavelli, Hobbes and Hegel is distinct from the intellectual tradition that connects Locke, Voltaire and Kant. Tradition is more than a matter of books. Even the same books, interpreted differently, can be shown to enter into conflicting traditions. One devotee of St. John's has boldly claimed that the resistance of the French underground is to be accounted for by the classical education its heroes received. He blithely disregards the obvious fact that the men of Vichy received precisely the same kind of classical education, and read the same books. It is interesting to observe that higher education, at corresponding levels, in totalitarian countries like Germany, Italy and France was much closer to the curriculum of St. John's than to the system in other American colleges.
Critical scholarship has demonstrated that those who most glorify the past do so from the vantage point of some present allegiance. This allegiance grows out of a social position and interest of which they are not always aware. The significance of the past is not a physical object that can be recovered like shards dug from an excavation site. It must be interpreted. The past has many effects continuing into the present. These bear on different groups in different ways. They therefore seek to rework and reinterpret tradition in the service of their current needs. The result is, there are as many "pasts" as there are significances that can be drawn in a never-ending series of "presents." It should be clear, then, that no policy can be justified on grounds drawn exclusively from the tradition or the past. A reasonable policy must have supporting evidence in the present.
Mr. Mortimer Adler, the mentor of St. John's educators, assures us that "those who have really read the great books" will think soundly on the issues we face today and support right actions in their behalf. The italicized word "really" suggests that Mr. Adler will admit that great books have been properly read only if we agree with him on what actions are right today -- a rather circular procedure. The facts, however, are that on many of the great issues of today -- war, peace, isolation, appeasement and intervention -- the advocates of the St. John's plan are just as much at odds with each other as the rest of the community.
Despite this, Mr. Barr, President of St. John's, has since Pearl Harbor continuously charged that the parlous state of our defence, our foreign policy, and what he calls our "political, economic, intellectual and moral collapse" have all been caused by "a crisis in liberal education." This crisis is to be permanently cured by making the St. John's curriculum universal. Such statements are intellectually scandalous. They reveal not only a lamentable deficiency in logic and scientific method, but the disingenuousness of a purveyor of patent medicines and other universal nostrums. They are on the same level as the shrill accusation of another of his colleagues that "American democracy has more to fear from its professors than from Hitler." Yet it happens that the foreign policy Mr. Barr applauds is damned by other advocates of St. John's and approved by many of its critics. The crisis of our culture is apparent in countries of the most diverse educational systems. It has its roots in the unsolved social and economic problems whose study Mr. Barr does not regard as appropriate for liberal education. Unable to win assent for his educational schemes by rational argument, he has not scrupled to exploit war hysteria in an effort to discredit critics of his gospel of educational salvation.
We now turn to the question whether the classical curriculum at St. John's is better able to produce individuals of disciplined intelligence and imagination than other curriculums. Dogmatism on a question of this sort is unseemly. For, as we have seen, it can be decided intelligently only on the basis of an experiment that will test the relative effects of different courses of study on students of approximately equal natural capacity. But here, too, we are in possession of some knowledge that bears on the issue. This knowledge challenges another assumption of the St. John's curriculum -- a psychological assumption technically called "transfer of training." This is the belief that trained powers of perception and inference, acquired in the mastery of one field of knowledge, can be transferred to another. Allied with this doctrine is the notion that certain subjects are uniquely able to generate intellectual discipline and that they should be central in the curriculum.
The St. John's curriculum places major emphasis on language, mathematics and science. Forty-one of the hundred great books are in mathematics and science. Language and mathematical tutorials run for four years as well as laboratory courses in the history of science. These subjects are not studied for vocational reasons; nor in order to produce expertness. They are justified on the ground that they make for clear, logical thinking, for better life in a democracy, and for competence in the social sciences. The Bulletin of St. John's informs us that the basis of solid training in mathematics and science "one may hope for a generation of competent economists, political scientists, and even sociologists."
All available evidence gathered from experiments in educational psychology shows that the doctrine of transfer of training is false. To be sure, there is some carry-over from one field to another. But its extent depends upon the degree of similarity in the subject matter of the different fields. The more important issue, however, is not whether achievement in one subject facilitates achievement in another. It is whether the discipline we expect the student to carry over from one study to a second, cannot be better developed if an equal amount of time and energy were devoted to the second. The evidence shows it can. For example, the study of Greek or Latin undoubtedly improves the students' command of the English language. But the same amount of additional time spent directly in the study of English results in a much greater improvement. Students who study mathematics will be able to detect logical fallacies more readily than those who do not study either mathematics or logic. But matched against students of equal capacity who have spent the same amount time in the study of logic, they do not do as well in the detection of fallacies.
Bear in mind that the St. John's curriculum is designed not for exceptional students but for fifteen-year-olds in the normal range. This will explain why, when the list of the hundred books was made public, many experts openly scoffed and some cried "Fraud!" In the first year, students were going to read books -- every line, said Mr. Barr -- like Euclid's Elements, Appolonius' Conics, Ptolemy's Almagest; in the second, Plotinus' Enneads, St. Thomas' Summa Theologica; in the third, Newton's Principia and Leibniz's Mathematical Papers; and in the fourth -- at the ripe age of eighteen when most students enter other colleges -- Hegel's Logic, Marx's Capital, Gauss' Mathematical Papers, Fourier's Mathematical Analysis of Heat, Galois' Mathematical Papers, Maxwell's Electricity and Magnetism and works of comparable difficulty by Dalton, Peacock, Lobachevski, Riemann, Joule, Hamilton, Boole, Cantor, Hilbert, Russell and Whitehead. Not some exceptional students but all students!
Some of these books have since been replaced by others. But any one who reads the current list must wonder whether those who drew up the program are devoid of a sense of humor and proportion. Many of these books are works now read only by specialists after a lifetime of preparation. We shall presently call on them directly for their evaluation. But here we ask the simple question: is this program of reading propel fare for the ordinary 15-year-old boy? Can 15-, 16-, 17-, 18-year olds actually read books of this kind profitably? Mr. Barr stoutly affirms they can "if 'read' means to understand to some degree." Again, our master of the liberal arts misses the logical point. Anybody can get something out of a course. But can the normal student get more out of a better balanced fare of study than he can out of the St. John's exclusive and esoteric diet of great books? Concretely, can the ordinary student understand more mathematics and physics by studying an excellent current textbook than by reading the historical classics in these fields? Can they learn more biology by reading a Twentieth Century work than by reading Harvey?
The St. John's educators have been loud in their protestation of belief that all normal students can read the great books with immense intellectual profit. They have charged critics who doubt it with being undemocratic! But Heyey also insist that they have rigorous standards of instruction and that they are prepared to "drop" students who cannot clear the impressively high hurdles set by their examinations and thesis-papers. In effect, were the St. John's plan made universal, students unable to keep up with this intellectual athleticism would be deprived of all possibility of a liberal education.
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Defenders of the St. John's program often write as if critics of its program were opposed to the reading of great books. On many occasions they imply that great books are not read in most liberal arts colleges. The truth is that in every college great books are regarded as one of a number of materials of instruction. As I recall my own college days, some of the books which were prescribed reading included Plato's Republic and other Dialogues, Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, Berkeley's Three Dialogues, Boas' The Mind of Primitive Man, Poincare's Foundations of Science, Kant's Prolegomena, Santayana's Life of Reason, vols. 2-5, Dewey's Reconstruction in Philosophy, Milton's Samson Agonistes and Paradise Lost, novels by Dickens, Thackeray, Hardy, the major plays of Shakespeare, some poems of Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, essays by Hazlitt, DeQuincey, Ruskin and Carlyle. Some of them were read in elective courses; some in required courses. In some courses we had textbooks; in others we were expected, so to speak, to write our own; in all courses, except science and mathematics, supplementary reading in classical and modern writers was required. In science and mathematics only textbooks were used.
This list reflects peculiarities of my own interests but my experience is not unrepresentative. Other students read different books depending on what courses they took and when they took them, since the same teacher would use different books when he repeated the course.
The intelligent question is not whether great books should be read but whether, as the St. John's educators insist, only great books should be read. The answer to the question can only be given after we consider the broad fields of knowledge in which the student is to be educated.
One of the more startling innovations of the St. John's curriculum is the prescribed reading of the historical classics in mathematics and science. The works of Euclid and Ptolemy, Kepler and Newton, Galen and Harvey are studied instead of modern systematic textbooks in mathematics, physics and biology. Nothing indicates so eloquently the dogma-ridden character of the curriculum than this approach to mathematics and the natural sciences. For in these disciplines, it is no exaggeration -- nor does it betoken lack of piety -- to say, that the best contributions of the best minds can be presented in a more systematic, coherent and elegant way than can be found in the works of the great pioneers. The historical classics in mathematics and science are often written in an outmoded notation. Works of genius as they are, they are also full of false starts, irrelevant bypaths, and blind alleys. The science of our day has already extracted the rich ore and put it in a form which facilitates more rapid comprehension and further progress.
It may be argued, as Spengler does, that mathematics and science are really historical in the sense that they express the cultural values of the age in which they have been developed. According to this view, their meaning and truth-claims are so integrally bound up with the underlying pattern of culture, that they cannot be understood in isolation. However this may be with other subjects like art or law, in mathematics and science it is demonstrably false. Whatever is valid in these fields has been incorporated in a continuous and progressive scientific tradition. There may be reasons for approaching the study of mathematics and science historically for certain cultural purposes, but they have nothing to do with the logical necessities of understanding the subject matter.
If there is no cultural justification for this approach, is there a pedagogical one? Can students acquire greater competence in mathematics and science or a better insight into their character as liberal arts by reading the historical scientific classics than by systematic study? We can do no better than to turn to the mature judgment, based on long years of teaching and active research, of some great mathematicians and scientists.
Our first witness is the distinguished mathematician Richard Courant, who writes:"There is no doubt that it is unrealistic to expect a scientific enlightenment of beginners by the study of Euclid, Appolonius or Ptolemy. It will just give them an oblique perspective of what is important and what is not. Studying the more modern works by Descartes, Newton, etc., except for a few single items, would be even more difficult and likewise not lead to a balanced understanding of mathematics."
Lest Professor Courant be suspected of parti pris because he is the author of several texts of high repute, let us hear the judgment of a mathematician whose work is one of the only two books of the Twentieth Century included on the St. John's list. Bertrand Russell writes:"The subject on which you write is one about which I feel very strongly. I think the 'Best Hundred Books' people are utterly absurd on the scientific side. I was myself brought up on Euclid and Newton and I can see the case for them. But on the whole Euclid is much too slow-moving. Boole is not comparable to his successors. Descartes' geometry is surpassed by every modern textbook of analytical geometry. The broad rule is: historical approach where truth is unattainable, but not in a subject like mathematics or anatomy. (They read Harvey!)"
In the field of physical science, none can speak with better qualifications than Albert Einstein:"In my opinion there should be no compulsory reading of classical authors in the field of science. I believe also that the laboratory studies should be selected from a purely pedagogical and not historical point of view. On the other side, I am convinced that lectures concerning the historical development of ideas in different fields are of great value for intelligent students, for such studies are furthering very effectively the independence of judgment and independence from blind belief in temporarily accepted views. I believe that such lectures should be treated as a kind of beautiful luxury and the students should not be bothered with examinations concerning historical facts."
These citations are introduced not as an argument from authority but for the judgments they contain.
The weighty considerations adduced by these men may, of course, be overriden by the empirical findings of controlled experiments in education. But St. John's is not conducting an experiment. It has devised its mathematical and scientific program in line with a crotchety philosophical position whose motto seems to be: we would rather be classical than right!
In the field of philosophy and social science the case for great books is much more persuasive. But here St. John's is banging against an open door. For in most colleges some of the great books in these disciplines are part of the primary source-material in which required reading is done. Not infrequently they are used as texts. The relevant question is whether in philosophy and social science other materials in addition to great books should be used. Where the approach is determined by problems, there is considerable evidence that they can be fruitfully studied by the use of contemporary material. Whatever principles are at stake in the present war, surely the intelligent study of its causes requires familiarity with complex data from economics, demography, mass psychology. These cannot be found in any great books but in newspapers, magazines, novels, plays, cinemas -- and bad books. Even such a prosaic theme as taxation can be presented in such a way that the great conflicts of social philosophy spring into view. For a knowledge of the basic social conflicts of our time, for an understanding of what it means to live in a technological age, visits to industrial storm centers, guided work experience, participation in social movements and other vital community activities have been found to be very valuable aids.
In the field of literature, I know of no way of reading great books except by reading them. There is little difference here between the St. John's curriculum and those its advocates condemn. The dividing question is whether only the great poems, novels, and dramas of the past should be read. Perhaps there is nothing in the Twentieth Century that can be ranked with the literary productions of previous centuries. But should not students be encouraged to test their powers of critical judgment on the literary creations of their own times? The reading of the best in modern poetry and the novel is not easy. And if it is held that the reading of the classics is sufficient to insure a proper critical reception of great works in the present -- why the very history of the past reception of great works speaks against it.
Behind the peculiar stresses of the St. John's reading program there is another set of assumptions. One of them is that in reading the classics we come into direct contact with the great minds of the ages who are "the original and ultimate teachers" of the St. John's curriculum. Another is that all great books are intelligible in their own terms without background reading in books of lesser worth.
To say that the real teachers of the curriculum are the great minds of the past sounds very impressive. Who would not like to go to school to Plato, Aquinas, Newton and Darwin? But it is over-simplified to the point of naivete. More important than any book in the instruction of youths is the role of the teacher who interprets it. What comes through to students is inescapably dependent upon the lesser minds of the "auxiliary intermediaries," as teachers are quaintly called at St. John's, through whom the meanings of the authors of the past are screened. The Bible, which appears on the St. John's list, is a good illustration. No book has been read more widely, more carefully, more sympathetically, more critically. Yet no book has been subject to greater variety of interpretations, many of them mutually incompatible. A college can be better than the books it teaches; but no matter how great the books on its reading list, a college cannot be greater than its teachers.
Most of the classics on the St. John's list demand for their most intelligent reading some information about the period in which they were written. They abound in peculiar idioms of language and thought. They presuppose knowledge of certain conditions and events to which they refer. This cannot always come out of the books themselves because their authors, writing for a contemporary audience, took many things for granted. This view is denied by the President of St. John's. The belief that a great book demands some information that cannot be found within its covers he denounces as "a modem superstition. . . . Machiavelli will remain intelligible, alone and unaided, so long as ordinary human experience holds out." This is a very revealing sentence. Some of Machiavelli obviously cannot be properly understood without reference to Italian political life at the end of the Sixteenth Century. Even more of Dante requires outside aids. Elsewhere Mr. Barr tells us that background and preparation are important but that these are supplied by the chronological order in which books are read. But an earlier book cannot give the contemporary information presupposed by a later one. Really, some logician ought to take Mr. Barr in hand.
"Ordinary human experience" in one age is not enough to understand ordinary human experience in every other. To enter into the world of Plato, of Plotinus, of Dante, of Calvin is to get a sense of the compulsions which led them to certain key assumptions, problems and conclusions that seem credible to them if not to us. When we do this, something happens to our ordinary human experience. We read and understand better. The sympathetic imagination required to make the past come alive, demands a knowledge of the living context of ideas, the passionate historical occasions which move men to action or flight, of their actual intent when it differs from the professed one. Criticism without such imaginative grasp and knowledge is apt to be irrelevant, and to run out into thin exegesis of a text. We must bring to a great work of the past something like what its author assumes his audience is aware of, if we are properly to understand his meaning.
That is why intelligent study of, say, the Greek classics, should be accompanied by judicious reading in the works of F. M. Cornford, Jane Harrison, Gilbert Murray and others. The same kind of reading in outside sources is indispensable to an enlargement of the understanding of the great books of any period. This may mean that fewer "great" books will be read during college years than are read at St. John's. But both books and students will be better read. Indeed, why compress what could serve almost as the reading of a lifetime into four hurried years? Some books are best digested slowly and at a later age.
There remains one final question. To what extent are the books on the St. John's list actually read? What evidence is there of Mr. Barr's proud boast that instead of reading selections, as is done in other colleges, every line of them is read by every student? We are dealing with average boys from fifteen to eighteen. They spend at least twenty-one hours a week in class. Let us assume -- eyes and attention and normal distractions of the young being what they are -- that after class they read six hours a day, every day in the week, throughout the school year. Add up the pages of the one hundred and ten books on the current list, make allowances for the highly technical character of many of them -- some have to be read with pencil and paper, others in Greek -- and it becomes a mystery how the books can be read, and even more mysterious how they can be understood. Here is a telling instance. In the glossy photograph of the complete shelf of St. John's books printed in its President's report, we observe Vol. II of Marx's Capital. The featuring of Vol. II is the skillful public relations touch that suggests the entire work is read by St. John's students. Excellent! But there are 2,535 large pages in the English translation of Marx's Capital, most of which are difficult reading. Anyone who knows this book firsthand will find it a strain on his credibility to believe that average students of eighteen can read and understand a work of this character even if they read nothing else for a month. And there are longer and more difficult books on the list.
The best features of the St. John's program are its small classes and the extensive use of seminars. These, however, are not unique to St. John's. The secret of effective seminars is not good books but good teachers who can draw students into cooperative discussion on central issues raised by great problems.
It is undeniable that a sincere, an almost passionate, interest in education pervades the St. John's curriculum. Whatever its subsequent history, we are in debt to its founders for having awakened many educators from the blind trance of their accustomed ways. They have nothing in common with those educational racketeers who are indifferent to all philosophical questions and to whatever is going on, provided they are permitted to bark up their own educational wares for profit or prestige. Nonetheless, it is also undeniable that this creditable interest in education at St. John's is marred by a broad and deep streak of intellectual snobbism. Many signs reflect it -- the claim to be the sole academic heir to the culture of the ages, the number of relatively esoteric works selected for study, and the charge that critics who doubt that normal students can thrive best in this atmosphere of intellectual athleticism are not consistent democrats and indulge in talk that is "unconsciously fascist."
Much more important, this snobbism is revealed in the account the St. John's educators themselves give of some of their teaching methods. The formal lecture which all students of different class years are required to attend in a body is given once a week. The subject of the lecture has no necessary relation to what the students may be studying at the moment. The topics range all over the universe, from "Paracelsus and Iatro-Chemistry" to "Russian Satanism," from "Grammar" to "Immortality." There is only one thing demanded of the lecturer -- that he pitch his treatment on the highest possible professional level, without reference to the background, preparation, or capacity for comprehension on the part of his young listeners. The writings of the St. John's educators make very curious reading at this point. They do not believe it necessary that the young students understand what it is all about. They are proud of the fact that students listen "to talk that is often over their heads" and claim -- one wonders on what evidence -- that the lectures are "remembered and absorbed long after the immediate hearing." In response to bewildered complaints of students who sit through a highly technical lecture on Kant without understanding a word of it, they are wont to retort that a baby does not learn how to talk by listening to baby-talk. Apparently he can learn only by listening to Samuel Johnson.
By itself this matter is quite trivial. I cite it because it shows that those who administer the St. John's curriculum are prepared to sin against some of the best established principles of good teaching, if only they can get an indulgence from the high classical tradition -- as they interpret it. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that they believe it better for students to get little or nothing from an excellent lecture than a great deal from a merely good one. This may be hyper-intellectualism, but educationally it is downright unintelligent. It violates a valid maxim as old as Hippocrates, whose works are on the St. John's list of "unkillable classics" (the phrase is van Doren's): "Food or drink which is a little less good but more palatable, is to be preferred to such that is better but less palatable." The alternative to a lecture which is way above the heads of students is obviously not one that talks down to them or is full of anecdotal irrelevances. Even the classical tradition, when it is free of snobbism, recognizes that a lecture -- whatever virtues it has -- acquires an additional virtue when it is related to what students are studying at the time. It should be above them but not out of sight.
There is snobbism in a curriculum that prescribes the reading of books for all students which, as its administrators admit, its own faculty has not yet read, and which it has not yet learned how to teach. There is snobbism in a curriculum that sets as a requirement for a degree competence only in elementary calculus but which prescribes the reading of books that demand competence in much more advanced mathematics. There is snobbism in a procedure that will sacrifice the very good because it cannot procure the very best. And, in the absence of experimental data, it is sheer intellectual arrogance to pretend that one particular type of curriculum is better able to achieve the ends of liberal education for all students than any alternative curriculum.
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In this analysis I have been concerned only with the question of the relation between the St. John's program and the purposes of a liberal arts education. I have stated the reasons why a curriculum of its type is ill-adapted to achieve these purposes and have examined the theoretical claims made for it by its protagonists. Nothing I have written should be construed as challenging the right of St. John's College to educational existence or to any curricular undertaking it devises. Indeed, I would not have embarked upon this appraisal if St. John's College had represented itself as an educational venture trying to work out and test a special program in order to see what educational consequences would ensue for the type of students admitted to its classes. As an educational experiment it would have been universally welcomed by all fair-minded men. It would have supplied additional data for formulating and testing a program of liberal education for general education. The fact is that St. John's was not conceived as an experiment. Mr. Barr denies that it is necessary "to 'wait ten years' before 'evaluating' its work." He tells us that "Any educational institution whose faculty can practice the liberal arts is capable of detecting whether its students are learning to do so." Since he has also proclaimed that there is no other educational institution at present whose faculty practices the liberal arts, it follows that he and his colleagues are the only ones in a position to evaluate what they are doing. Far from waiting ten years, he evaluated the success of the curriculum before it was put into effect. No experiment, not even in the broad sense of the word, can be conducted in such a spirit.
There are other issues of great importance on which St. John's has taken a position. They invite investigation that space here forbids. Among them are the place of vocational elements in college study, and the sharp separation and invidious contrast drawn between "liberal arts" and "vocational arts." Some other colleges, unfortunately, take the same view as St. John's toward them. This view by-passes the great problem of integrating cultural and vocational (or professional) studies on all levels from the time the latter are introduced. Such integration is necessary if society is to avoid the evil of producing, on one side, technicians who are blind to the larger ideals and social contexts which should control the application of science and mechanical skills, and, on the other, specialists in "culture," predominantly of a literary or verbal type, who regard the workaday world as alien soil in which sustaining moral values cannot take root.
In criticizing the immoderate and unjustified claims of St. John's College, I do not wish to appear to be justifying the present state of liberal arts education in the country. My positive proposals for its reform will be published elsewhere. All I have sought to establish in this article is that whatever is wrong with it cannot be remedied by the St. John's curriculum. If anything the proposed cure is worse than the disease.