Homecoming

In the Fall of the year alumni of our many, many colleges and universities across this great land of ours prepare to return to campus for a day or two, party a bit, watch the homecoming parade and, perhaps, take in the homecoming game on Saturday. I remember this, because I was at Northwestern for four years and recall all the hoopla and, I must admit, I enjoyed myself thoroughly, though I never attended Homecoming as an alumnus. But while I was a graduate student I never missed a home football game with the “Wildcats” then under Ara Persigian and surprisingly successful.

But I now receive annual notifications in the Spring of homecoming at the small college of several hundred students I attended before going to Northwestern. That college is located in Annapolis, Maryland — we used to say the Naval Academy was in our shadow, but we all know it was the other way ’round. The college was St. John’s College and it is centered around the reading of “the hundred Great Books,” a marketing ploy that was designed to attract students. Today I suspect  it would turn them away! But we read many of the Great Books, however numerous they were. In any event, I thought I would share with you some of the events of this year’s homecoming at the Annapolis campus and the Santa Fe campus as well — there are now two campuses where the exact same program of studies is pursued. All classes are required; there are no electives to speak of. The assumption is that the faculty know better than the underclassmen what will be of most benefit to them as they go out into the world.

Alumni are requested to arrive on Thursday, September 27th where they are invited to sit in on a regular Thursday night seminar. Undergraduates attend seminars every Monday and Thursday evening for at least two hours each. On Friday the alumni are invited to sit in on a class in session, foreign language or mathematics, as I recall; attend a session on “Admissions and Career Services,” where their input is heartedly invited; attend a “conversation with college leaders (?)”; eat an evening meal with fellow alumni, after which all are invited to attend the Friday night lecture — the weekly lecture is the only lecture the students at St. John’s are required to attend during their four years! All classes and the seminars, of course, are based on discussion, not lectures.

On Saturday the fun begins! There are alumni Seminars at 10:00 AM. Past seminars have involved such topics as Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath,” Shakespeare sonnets, Plato’s Meno, Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book IX), Goethe’s “Metamorphosis of Plants,” Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Books 8 and 9) Plato’s Phaedrus, and Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I. Alumni are encouraged to re-read these before attending the seminar. After that there is a lunch break followed by soccer on the back forty (which is participatory. The college does not have a soccer team. Or any other intercollegiate team, for that matter.) The strenuous activities of the soccer match (which resembles to a large degree a caucus face, as described by Lewis Carroll) are followed by a discussion of Ptolemy in the planetarium, followed by a session on career planning, including alumni involved in Finance, Consulting, and Business. St. John’s alumni can be found in all walks of life, including medicine. Such are the advantages of a liberal education! At the end of the day there is an outdoor movie on the back campus. On Sunday there is a brunch and folks take their leave — after an exhausting, but exhilarating, couple of days.

That’s Homecoming St. John’s style. And a good time will be had by all!

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Meeting Great Minds

I received a brochure in the mail yesterday (I will probably not go out today as it promises to be well below zero until tomorrow afternoon!). I usually don’t pay much attention to the bulk mail since it is filled with vapid messages from marketers whom I would rather ignore. But this one was from my alma mater reminding me of a classics series it offers every summer which has always fascinated me. This post may sound like a promotion for that college, but that is not my intention and the college will go unnamed.

The brochure starts out with the usual banter:

“The backgrounds of your fellow attendees span religions, cultures, interests, and ages, and each seminar, regardless of individual focus, makes room for multiple points of view. We are united, however, in a commitment to the texts we study and an unwavering belief that to understand another’s point of view is an act of generosity.”

OK, well that’s not the usual tripe. So I read on. The college is one of two sisters in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico that has a four-year curriculum, based on reading the “Great Books.” And they offer summer seminars like those mentioned in the brochure — not for college credit, but simply for those who have a “passion for learning.”

I should point out that as one who spent four years at the college, I can attest that they mean what they say. The brochure is not simply passing along empty promises thrown up by a marketing firm. The colleges center around the seminar with two leaders, each of whose role is that of facilitator, not lecturer, and no more than eighteen participants. And they read serious material. Some of the great minds the participants will encounter in the brief weeks of the seminars are the following:

Aristotle, reminding us in his Politics how important civilization is, that we are more human as we interact with and care about others and reap the benefits of law and education. As Aristotle himself noted:

“That the city is by nature prior to each individual, then, is clear. For if the individual when separated from it is not self-sufficient, he could be in a condition similar to that of the parts in relation to the whole. One who is incapable of sharing or who is in need of nothing through being self-sufficient is no part of the city, and so is either a beast or a god.”

Then there’s John Stuart Mill from his essay On Liberty:

“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental, or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”

And so it goes. Snippets from the pens of great minds — minds that have been under attack in our colleges and universities by many who have traditionally been assigned the task of preserving the very best that has been passed on to us from our collective past. It is refreshing to know that there are small outposts in the din of daily chaos that passes for culture these days that still embrace civil discourse, the meeting of minds, and invite us to participate in the great conversation that is growing faint in the aforementioned din.