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A College President Becomes a Freshman Againby Roger Martin
Four years ago, I took a rather unusual sabbatical leave. After 18 years as a college president, and at the age of 61, I enrolled as a freshman at St. John's College, the Great Books School in Annapolis, Maryland. For six months, I attended freshman seminar, where I read Homer, Plato, Aeschylus, and Herodotus; sat in on labs and tutorials in biology, Greek, and mathematics (all taught from the Great Books); and even went out for crew, racing with eight high-testosterone teenagers in a northern Virginia intercollegiate regatta. I was living the Baby Boomer's dream!
During my time at St. John's, I learned a lot from my freshman classmates, who gave me a very different perspective on American education. One of the things I did was to hang out in the coffee shop and just shoot the breeze with students. "Hanging out" is what college students do. What they told me about their high-school education, however, gave me great pause.
Take Phil from Arlington, Virginia: "High school for me wasn't so much learning," he said, "but memorizing for the SOLs." Phil is referring here to the controversial Standards of Learning test that all Virginia public school students must pass in order to graduate. "I mean, I've always been curious. I've always had lots of questions. And so by junior year, I began to wonder why I was being required to memorize all of these stupid things. I wasn't really learning anything. And I was bored. Really bored! Also, I have a passion for conversation, and there wasn't much meaningful conversation going on in the classroom. No one argued or debated issues. The teachers just drilled us for the SOLs."
Or Anthony from just outside of Los Angeles: "Everything was about grades," he told me. "There seemed to be little interest in learning for learning's sake. I ended up with what I think was a 3.5 GPA; but I couldn't care less. When I got my final report card I just threw it into the trash. My high school education was one big credential with little substance to back it up."
Or Sabrina, a young woman from Portland, Maine: "The teachers were only focused on getting us into an Ivy League university. I tried to escape my school every chance I could by, for example, taking junior year abroad."
Here are three very bright students who were bored out of their minds in high school. And what happens to students like these when they go to college? Unfortunately, more of the same. Indeed, many students just beginning their college careers experience four major road blocks to their education.
Let me speak briefly about each.
Passive learning: Hungry for discussion, college freshmen are often lectured at by their professors, while the students passively take notes that they will then disgorge on multiple-choice quizzes and examinations. Very little meaningful learning takes place when all these students do is sit in class like lumps of coal.
Random general education requirements: The general education courses taken by freshmen (as well as sophomores) are often an unrelated potpourri of distribution requirements — a few courses in the arts and humanities, a few in the natural and social sciences, a course in religion or philosophy — that bear little or no relationship to each other. A frequent question I hear from first-year college students is "What do all of these courses mean? Why do I have to take them?"
Over-specialization: These general education courses, moreover, are taught by faculty (often drawn from the junior ranks) whose training in graduate school prepared them to be specialists rather than generalists. Freshmen are not only taking an agglomeration of random and often unrelated discipline-based (as opposed to interdisciplinary) distribution requirements, but, far from being a broad introduction to the liberal arts and sciences, some of these courses sound suspiciously like the instructor's doctoral dissertation or master's thesis. No wonder freshmen are confused and frustrated.
Low expectations: Not wanting to get bad student evaluations, many faculty give light homework assignments and grade generously, even for mediocre work. The result is grade inflation, giving freshmen the misguided and dangerous notion that they are brilliant. Worse, the school week has become truncated, often ending on Thursday and starting up again on Tuesday, so that everyone gets an extended weekend.
It should not surprise us that too many of these first-year students, disengaged academically and with lots of time on their hands, pour their enormous energies into partying and drinking. What's the solution? St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, offers some interesting alternatives.
From the very beginning of their freshman year, freshmen like Phil, Anthony, and Sabrina clearly understood the meaning and purpose of St. John's unique curriculum. They could see connections between the major areas of human knowledge they were reading about, were never bored in class, and knew that learning, not partying, was job #1. They ended up four years later facing bright futures: Phil attended medical school in New England, Anthony joined Teach for America in Houston, and Sabrina began working for a Fortune 500 corporation on the West Coast.
This is the kind of education freshmen should expect.
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Part 2: Why We Should Pay Attention to Great Books Programs
In Part 1, I described some of the disheartening trends in American high-school and college education, and I mentioned that St. John's has attempted to address these roadblocks in interesting and often controversial ways. I would like to go into more detail about the St. John's approach.
At St. John's, learning takes place almost exclusively in a seminar setting — 18 students and two tutors sitting around a common table. Students are partially graded on their participation and therefore must actually read the assigned material lest they make fools of themselves in front of their classmates. They are engaged, active learners rather than passive note takers. Indeed, note taking is forbidden in seminar.
Moreover, St. John's unique curriculum — 100+ Great Books of Western literature, science, mathematics, and philosophy — has direction and purpose. Almost every book the students read between freshman and senior year is somehow connected and related. In freshman seminar, for instance, we first read Homer's Iliad, written almost 3,000 years ago, with its focus on bloodlust and revenge. We soon read Aeschylus's trilogy, the Oresteia, written a couple hundred years later, in which the concept of modern justice is introduced for the first time. We then read Plato's Republic, written in 360 BCE (and found in the libraries of the founding fathers of our country), wherein justice is further refined in the context of modern governments.
Importantly, seminar is guided by two tutors (the title "professor" is never used at St. John's) from different academic disciplines, perhaps a biologist and a comparative lit scholar, or a mathematician and an archeologist. Because there are no departments or majors at St. John's, the tutors are required to teach across the curriculum, thus moving away from the kind of academic overspecialization mentioned above. Students quickly see that human knowledge is not only related, but that scientists and social scientists, humanists and artists, can speak to each other about large and important issues that really matter in our highly complex and technological world.
Finally, the course of study at St. John's is demanding — sometimes 250 pages of reading a week for freshman seminar alone! St. John's freshmen have additional weekly reading assignments for their math and Greek tutorials and for science lab. Friday night, when students on most American campuses are off partying, Johnnies are attending a college-wide lecture with their tutors, usually on a subject not included in the required canon of books.
As far as I can tell, these intellectual activities do not cut into the students' social lives, which I found to be rather robust at St. John's. Interestingly, incidents of excessive drinking or drug use are minimal. You can't survive this kind of rigorous academic program if you have frequent hangovers.
I'm not suggesting that St. John's should be the model for every college and university in America. There are many different and equally valid ways to provide an undergraduate liberal arts and sciences education. But I think the spirit of the St. John's program — a connected liberal arts curriculum, a pedagogy that promotes active learning, a faculty that is willing to cross disciplinary boundaries, and a program that is demanding and rigorous — is well worth emulation by all of us.
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Roger Martin's experiences at St. John's are captured in Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again. Martin is President and Professor of History Emeritus of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. For more information, visit Martin's blog.