Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Some Asides

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I don’t really have the time to write a real blog entry today.  I’ve got to go running all over creation, and it’s one of those days where it starts cold and ends hot and nothing makes sense.   I did a talk at the public library in Glastonbury yesterday.  The audience was wonderful and the library was spectacular.   I’ve got to do another one on Wednesday, this time at a local community college, so I’m feeling a little rushed.

But I thought I’d try to make clear what I’ve been getting at once and for all, by providing this link


That’s St. John’s College in Aannapolis, Maryland–they have a branch in the Southwest somewhere, too–and although their program isn’t perfect, it’s the right kind of thing.

If you look through the site, you’ll see that they’re not expecting students to memorize long lists of intellectual facts the way students of history were sometimes asked to memorize long list of dates–the program is nothing like that.

And since they restrict themselves to only 100 books over the four years, their list (their de facto canon) is not exhaustive, and it does change at the edges sometimes. 

But this is what education is, and the “courses” we all took in “disciplines” in college was not. 

Now I’m going to go off and berate students, and then run around to banks and gas stations and places like that.

Written by janeh

April 12th, 2010 at 7:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Some Asides'

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  1. Santa Fe. Their other campus is in Santa Fe. It’s my goal, at this point in my life, to save enough for my retirement that I can afford to move to either Annapolis or Santa Fe (I like them both) and do the Master’s in Liberal Arts offered by St. John’s. Of course, I haven’t told my husband this yet. But just look at the reading list for the degree! (It’s on the website).


    12 Apr 10 at 9:58 am

  2. OK, this makes sense. Frankly, if you gave me four years, this is not how I’d spend it. At my age, if you haven’t read a classic, it’s because you really weren’t interested. But this would be an interesting program, and it might be fascinating to someone with a great love of philosophy and a broader tolerance for Literature.
    Understand, the kids going in would be brighter and better informed than most, and I sometimes suspect that most college education comes from putting a bunch of bright young people together with a good library within reach. Lectures and reading assignments may only be supplemental. I am only looking at the reading list given.

    Now, let me be the bad guy:

    Please note what’s not there.
    The stories as given are often incomplete. Much of what we think of as the story of the Trojan War is not contained in the Illiad or the Odyssey. You can read both and be ignorant of the causes of the war, much of the course of the war and the fates of many of the combatants. Thucidides breaks off before we find out the end of the Peloponesian War. Tacitus’ Annals have gaps. Understanding these stories will require other reading not mentioned. I would expect it at St Johns, but it’s worth noting.

    Even then, some of this is not going to make a lot of sense without supplemental material to cover the things the original intended audience knew. Those sections on the Illiad need pictures of Dendra armor and boars’ tusk helmets, if not reconstructions to feel the weight. It needs archeologists’ reconstructions of those canted walls the way the Odyssey needs reconstructions of a 3,000 year old sailing vessel, and a good guide to Bronze Age navigation. Tacitus needs a bunch of material on Roman office-holding and the Roman military system, or the motivations of his people will make no sense at all. That sort of thing seems to be true of all the history on the list–to include the Old Testament–and a good deal of the literature. Which, again, doesn’t mean St Johns isn’t doing this and doing it well. But Acts 8:31 stands as a warning.

    If you started college without a good timeline of European and American history, nothing on this program would ensure you’d end with one. You could read every book on the list, and–unless I missed something–not have heard of the Thirty Years War, which means you’ll never understand Germany’s view of Europe. And you’ll have no idea why the Russians are so touchy about foreigners. (Two words: Genghiz Khan.) Not to mention Lexington and Concord, Yorktown and Bataan.

    Maybe a young person fresh out of St Johns could get hired as a potential CEO of a large business. I wouldn’t know. But if he or she wanted to go to a graduate program in History, I don’t think this would get him in. Not without serious supplemental work. If he finished this and wanted to be a chemist, I suspect he’d have to start over as a Freshmen.

    Which does not mean it is not fulfulling its purpose. Please go back and re-read my first paragraph before gathering up torches and pitchforks.


    12 Apr 10 at 5:14 pm

  3. Um, you really should have read through the whole web site.

    St. John’s is one of the top five liberal arts colleges for admission to graduate schools–and first tier graduate schools–in History, Literature, Philosophy, Economics, and all the rest.

    It’s in the same category for admission to law schools.

    It’s got an excellent record of placin students in jobs after graduation.

    And it’s got a first-rate admit rate to MEDICAL schools–with only two summers of extra math, which is about what it takes for the sciences, too.

    No starting over as a freshman anywhere, and no heavy-duty backup work in any of the humanities.

    And only those two summers of extra math and then only if the student wants to be an MD or a chemist.


    12 Apr 10 at 5:24 pm

  4. Hmmm. From the reading listed, you could get through the place without having heard of Marathon. Which is not to say the students haven’t heard of it–only that the “Great Books” won’t take you there by themselves.

    Same thing–and I should have mentioned it earlier. When on a strictly Great Books program, does someone point out that the Great Author is lying? The books listed contain some demonstrable falsehoods. Which does not mean they ought not to be read. It does mean they should be read with context not mentioned on the reading list.


    12 Apr 10 at 5:40 pm

  5. Oh, double argh.

    If you had read through the whole program, instead of just skimming the reading list–you’d have found they do a lot of things.

    They hear lectures by visiting scholars and scholars on the faculty. They read supplemental material. They spend time in seminars means to bring all the books together (so that it’s hot History and Literature and Science, but Everything TOgether as Single Subject).

    They read quite a bit of the early books in the original Greek and Latin–which means they spend time in intensive small classes and tutorials to learn now to do that, since virtually no student any more comes to college knowing how to read either.

    If you don’t like this kind of thing, you’ll be bored and annoyed trying to do it. If you want a “major” in a single subject, it will drive you crazy.

    But if you are drawn to this kind of approach, and you can get these people to take you, you’ve got a ticket to just about any post-baccalaureate work you want to do, anywhere you want to do it.

    You might want to consider why that might be.


    12 Apr 10 at 5:47 pm

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