The Most Contrarian College in America What’s the highest calling of higher education? St. John’s College has some enduring answers.

Students discussing Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit” in a seminar at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M.CreditCreditAdria Malcolm for The New York Times

SANTA FE, N.M. — Have I got a college for you. For your first two years, your regimen includes ancient Greek. And I do mean Greek, the language, not Greece, the civilization, though you’ll also hang with Aristotle, Aeschylus, Thucydides and the rest of the gang. There’s no choice in the matter. There’s little choice, period.

Let your collegiate peers elsewhere design their own majors and frolic with Kerouac. For you it’s Kant. You have no major, only “the program,” an exploration of the Western canon that was implemented in 1937 and has barely changed.

It’s intense. Learning astronomy and math, you don’t merely encounter Copernicus’s conclusions. You pore over his actual words. You’re not simply introduced to the theory of relativity. You read “Relativity,” the book that Albert Einstein wrote.

Diversions are limited. There’s no swimming team. No pool. The dorms are functional; same goes for the dining. You’re not here for banh mi. You’re here for Baudelaire.

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I’m talking about St. John’s College, which was founded in 1696 in Annapolis, Md., is the third-oldest college in America and, between its campus there and the one here, has about 775 undergraduates. And I’m drawing attention to it because it’s an increasingly exotic and important holdout against so many developments in higher education — the stress on vocational training, the treatment of students as fickle consumers, the elevation of individualism over a shared heritage — that have gone too far. It’s a necessary tug back in the other direction.

I’m not saying that most students would take to it or that other schools should mimic it. The degree to which “the program” omits the intellectual contributions of women and people of color troubles me. But many schools would be wise to consider and better integrate its philosophy, which Walter Sterling, the dean of the Santa Fe campus, recently explained to me.

Walter Sterling, the dean of the Santa Fe campus, left, and Mark Roosevelt, Santa Fe president, at St. John’s College.CreditAdria Malcolm for The New York Times

“Your work and career are a part of your life,” he said when I met with him and the Santa Fe president, Mark Roosevelt. “Education should prepare you for all of your life. It should make you a more thoughtful, reflective, self-possessed and authentic citizen, lover, partner, parent and member of the global economy.” I love that assessment — the precision, balance and sweep of it.

And what better idiom for the instruction that he’s describing than the classics? What better mooring? They’re the foundation of so many of America’s ideals and institutions. They’re the through line from yesterday to tomorrow.

I visited St. John’s out of respect for its orneriness and because it’s making an announcement this week that’s consistent with its mission of pushing back against the fashionable norm. For the academic year that begins in the fall of 2019, it’s lowering its yearly tuition to $35,000 from $52,000, a change that recognizes how wildly the cost of college has risen and how few students pay the sticker price anyway.

St. John’s College, founded in 1696, focuses on the classics.CreditPhotographs by Adria Malcolm for The New York Times
The Santa Fe campus.

Some colleges keep that figure high, even if it scares away a few prospects, partly because it validates their prestige. Then they dole out deals, often regardless of need. It’s a capricious, confusing and demoralizing process.

“We’ve resisted almost every trend in higher education that we consider naughty,” Roosevelt told me, but they surrendered to what he called “prestige pricing” — until now.

St. John’s wants more comers than it gets; this price cut may help. But the college also means to be a model of financial accessibility as well as of rigorous intellectualism. To stay flush, it’s conducting a major fund-raising campaign, begun without any announcement two years ago, to raise $300 million by 2023. An alumnus, Warren Winiarski, the founder of the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, has agreed to match up to $50 million of contributions.

The St. John’s method isn’t cheap. No class is larger than 20 students; even so, some have two “tutors,” which is what professors are called. They steer winding, soulful discussions that demand engagement. I eavesdropped on several. Three dynamics stood out.

The first was how articulate the students were. Something wonderful happens when you read this ambitiously and wallow in this many words. You become agile with them.

A St. John’s freshman reading Homer’s “Odyssey.”CreditAdria Malcolm for The New York Times

The second was the students’ focus. A group discussing Homer’s “Iliad” spent more than 10 minutes on the phrase — the idea — of someone having his “fill of weeping.” If digital devices and social media yank people from one trumpet blast to the next, St. John’s trains them to hold a note — to caress it, pull at it, see what it can withstand and what it’s worth.

The third dynamic was their humility. They weren’t wedded to their initial opinions. They weren’t allowed to be. And they moved not toward the best answer but toward better questions. In the “Iliad” and in life, is there any catharsis in revenge? Any resolution in death? Does grief end or just pause? Do wars?

Jack Isenberg, a senior, told me that St. John’s had taught him how much is unknowable. “We have to be comfortable in ambiguity,” he said.

What a gift. What an education.

I invite you to sign up for my free weekly email newsletter. You can follow me on Twitter (@FrankBruni).

Frank Bruni has been with The Times since 1995 and held a variety of jobs — including White House reporter, Rome bureau chief and chief restaurant critic — before becoming a columnist in 2011. He is the author of three best-selling books


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