A College in Secession


JUNE 3, 1941, will be remembered at St. John’s College in Annapolis as the day on which the College conferred the degree of Bachelor of Arts on the first graduates of the ‘New Program,’ a curriculum based on the study of some hundred of the world’s greatest books from Homer to the present, and on the last graduates of the Old Program, the elective system which characterizes the American college of liberal arts today. During the four years preceding, the College had installed a new administration for the express purpose of introducing the new curriculum, had reorganized its Board with an eye to giving that curriculum maximum support, had dropped a goodly share of its student body for poor academic standing, had made sweeping changes in its faculty in order to secure the knowledge and teaching skills the new curriculum would require, had restored its physical plant from ruin to efficiency, had emerged from financial desperation to economic stability, and had found almost three hundred friends, most of them new, willing to make the financial sacrifices without which the College could not accomplish the task it had set itself.

The story of these four years has never been told in print, and this is perhaps the right moment to tell it. They record an academic revolution which has implications for every college community in our country and for every person, whether in academic life or outside it, who cares what sort of liberal education is to be available to the young men and women of this Republic. It would be possible, of course, to focus attention only on the end which this revolution had constantly in view, to expound that end, and to narrate only where narration would clarify exposition. But I think there is much to be said, in this case, for straight narration. For more than a decade the educational philosophy behind the St. John’s Program has been discussed against the background of the current practices it challenges. (I am ignoring the many centuries during which it was discussed before that.) Since its inauguration, or restoration, at St. John’s, the Program itself has been widely and publicly discussed, and many thousands of men and women from all walks of life have written the College for detailed statements of it. Why repeat those statements here, except where exposition will support narration? Why not simply tell what was done about it?

In May 1937, St. John’s College found itself in a first-class jam. To state the case financially — and that is the way American colleges normally state things — it owed some $400,000. Its plant was in disrepair, its student body was in steady decline, it had lost its ‘credit rating’ with the Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges, its faculty was demoralized, it had had three presidents in nine years and was in search of a fourth. The Board of Visitors and Governors, confronted with probable financial bankruptcy, took a step unusual for college boards: they looked behind their financial problem and discovered an educational problem, of which the financial one was a mere reflection. Instead of trying to patch up the College finances somehow, they decided to exploit catastrophe and effect a radical educational reform. After all, St. John’s exhibited no diseases, either educational or financial, that were not found in other colleges, although it would have been hard to find all the diseases so clearly exhibited in any other single institution. Out of this desperation was born the courage to take drastic steps.

Through a chance friendship, the Board had learned of the Committee on the Liberal Arts which President Hutchins had established at the University of Chicago for the sole purpose of setting up an ideal undergraduate curriculum, capable of restoring liberal education to the American college. The members of this committee had been recruited mainly from the University of Virginia, where two of them had helped frame the Virginia Report, dealing with the same problem, a couple of years earlier. This committee was nearing the end of its first year’s research when the Board of St. John’s turned to its members for advice.

In the conferences that followed, the Committee proposed for St. John’s, and the Board accepted in principle, that the College should abolish the elective system and the textbook and substitute for them an all-required four-year course based on the study of the great books of the Western tradition, of the sort which American colleges of liberal arts had furnished before Eliot of Harvard had introduced the elective system and the elective system had introduced vocationalism, a growing intellectual chaos, and, finally, the illiterate alumnus. Having reached that determination, but not before then, the Board considered the questions of who might assume the responsibility, as President of the College, for introducing the proposed curriculum, and how money might be raised to finance the task and rescue the College from its accumulated financial burden. The Board then decided to ask me to assume the presidency and Scott Buchanan, chairman of the Chicago committee, to serve as dean.

As for the required money, there was none. The College had lost too much face through recent mistakes and mismanagement to permit it to hope for help in the family, so to speak — from its own alumni and from the local community. It was not just then feasible to invite donations or pledges from the persons who had made possible the Committee on the Liberal Arts in Chicago. Anyhow, it was doubtful if one could raise money on a blueprint of the curriculum we wanted to restore — a curriculum that would be bound to appear strange and new. Even those who were disillusioned with contemporary practices would doubt the practicality of this. Could American boys be found willing to do the hard intellectual work this curriculum would demand? Could donors be found willing not merely to help build that curriculum but also to clean up the financial mess which past folly had brought on the College— to ‘pay for dead horses,’ as the saying goes? Would the members of any college faculty consent to come out of hiding, from their departmentalized specialties, and reëducate themselves for the sort of teaching versatility that would be required? What about ‘the Alumni’ — that burning question of every academic grove? And when the gunfire got hot — as it obviously would — would the Board back me up? If even one of these questions could be affirmatively answered, that answer might serve as fulcrum for the lever. But could it? The whole project sounded like a pretty reckless and irresponsible dream.

But there were arguments on the other side. St. John’s College dated from the seventeenth century, and its charter, like the charters of most of our older colleges, was all in our favor. We should be not merely restoring liberal education, but in a very real sense restoring our country’s third oldest college to its original and declared purpose. We were concerned to revitalize a great intellectual tradition, and traditions are sustained by the visible signs of a vigorous and creative past. We were turning back to the great books, precisely because they conveyed the great and permanent ideas which had nourished our civilization at every period of healthy growth. Why not, then, at a college which had been built when those ideas were still the common currency of educated men? As for the College’s debt, would any other college examine its educational premises or take the radical steps that would be necessary unless financial catastrophe had brought it to its senses? The risks were great, but so was the prize; and, if we failed, others might read in our failure a way to succeed. Meanwhile, we could raise a standard to which the wise and honest might repair.


I had reached my own decision, but before accepting formally I wrote the Board a letter, setting down what appeared to me to be the principle of our relationship if we were to get anywhere. To their credit, they read the letter thoughtfully and did not set its composition down to arrogance. The burden of the letter was that if they elected me it would be I, not the Board, that would direct the affairs of the College, but I stood ready to resign at any moment if they lost confidence in my direction. I was aware that this was against the practice of most college boards; but this particular group were thinking about the problem more clearly than college boards commonly think, and they recognized that I was discussing not persons but functions. They elected me; and my mandate was to introduce the curriculum that we had already agreed on. We appointed Buchanan dean and he accepted from me the entire responsibility for organizing instruction. Like me, he was given enough power to meet his responsibility.

That was in June 1937. A few weeks later I called my first faculty meeting. The circumstances were somewhat, though unintentionally, theatrical. The faculty, like the College itself, being small, and my office rather large, we met there; but the office was without overhead lighting and I needed a floor reading lamp, with the result that we looked somewhat conspiratorial in a mild Rembrandt way. I had called them for the purpose of reading them a newspaper announcement of the curriculum before its publication next morning in the Baltimore Sun, and explaining to them the reasons I had accepted the presidency of the College, the mandate the Board had given me, the responsibility Buchanan had accepted for organizing the curriculum and directing the rest of us in its teaching.

I invited their coöperation, but I pointed out reasons why in individual cases I might not get it. Some of them might feel that the elective system was pretty good as it was. Others might feel that a basic reform was needed, but that this was the wrong reform. A third group might feel that this reform was itself good, but might not choose individually to sacrifice the professional capital which their specialized training now represented and start learning all over again. A fourth group might be willing to do so, but might fail. I added that I was not inviting decisions on these points now, since those decisions would require both experience of the Program and reflection concerning it. The amount of time required for such experience and reflection would necessarily vary in individual cases. I am sure that members of my profession will agree with me that it would not have been an authentic faculty meeting had not one of those present asked me whether I had any statement to make on the financial condition and prospects of the College. I answered truthfully that I had not, except that the Board had pledged themselves to help in the coming battle for existence.

The announcement of the New Program at St. John’s College was a ticklish business. Whatever was said would be pretty thoroughly misunderstood because of the current practices in liberal education. The curriculum, as devised, called for two ‘seminars,’ or discussion groups, each week on one of the great books on the St. John’s list; for five ‘tutorials,’ or small classes, in mathematics each week; five language tutorials a week; at least one three-hour laboratory period a week; and at least one formal lecture a week — all this for four years for every student in the College. The language tutorial was to make use of a different language each year; in the freshman year, Greek. Had we emphasized that Greek was required, or that everybody would study mathematics all four years, we could hardly have hoped to be understood, given the manner in which departments of mathematics and Greek now present those subjects to undergraduates. In the end, and at a clearly foreseen risk, we made a slogan of the statement, ‘the hundred great books.’ We realized, of course, that we were inviting President Eliot’s five-foot shelf to fly up and hit us in the face, and it did; but at least we focused public attention on the books and the seminar rather than on subjects that have become professionalized in the elective system. Still, it hurt to get hit by a plank that Eliot, founder of the elective system, had left out of his system.

A seminar, a seminarium, was originally a seedbed. At St. John’s it is books — or the ideas great books contain — that are planted there. But if they are to sprout and grow, cultivation has to take place. In a seminar on one of the great books, or on a piece of one if the book is long and requires several seminars, two instructors lead twenty students in a discussion — a discussion in which one tries to follow, like Socrates, whithersoever the argument leads. For perhaps the best seminars ever held are those which Plato puts in the mouths of Socrates and his friends. It is in such a discussion that the meaning of a book can come out, that ideas grow luminous. And, to return to the seedbed metaphor, it is in such seminar discussions that ideas germinate, take root, proliferate, and bear their fruit, both in thought and in action. A good seminar can be, quite literally, about the most exciting intellectual experience a man can have; although, because seminars are spontaneous, intensely democratic, because they are dialectic and therefore conversation, their goodness is less predictable than the goodness of an experienced and intelligent lecturer.

Even the best seminars could not hope alone to illuminate adequately some of the books on the St. John’s list. But the discipline of the tutorials furnishes five times a week, for four years, basic training in the handling of mathematical symbols, and five times a week similar training in the symbols of language. And the tutorials, too, use the great books. The experience of the laboratory supplies another aid to understanding. Any seminar leader at St. John’s can watch these aids functioning in a seminar, as he can watch the effect of one of the weekly formal lectures, even one heard months ago. Cultivation is complicated, but the yield justifies the effort.

It was no good assuring the public that students in nearly any college read a hundred books or so, although many of them are far from being great books. After all, each student in other colleges selects the professors he will authorize to choose his particular hundred books, whereas we ourselves chose every one of our hundred. The irony lay in the word ‘we.’ The earliest version of our list had been used at Columbia in the twenties, for an honors course, and was later published by the American Library Association. Buchanan had adapted it to adult education in Manhattan when he served as Assistant Director of the People’s Institute; he and I had both had further dealings with it at the University of Virginia, although necessarily on a somewhat departmentalized basis. President Hutchins and Mortimer Adler had taught the list for years as an elective course at Chicago. By the time the Virginia Report appeared, Buchanan had added the mathematical and scientific classics, picking minds wherever a good mind could be got at, here or in Europe, for suggestions. A year after the St. John’s list was set up, subject to constant revision, I happened across Sir William Osler’s last speech, delivered at Oxford and abusing Oxford for not including the scientific works in its Litteræ Humaniores. Osier’s nominations were pretty close to the ones added in the Virginia Report. As we expected, the teaching experience of the past four years has shifted the list somewhat, but only in detail.

I doubt if any of the misunderstandings about ‘the hundred books’ could have been prevented. But we did not foresee a pretty important one. President Hutchins had tried to dissuade us from attempting what looked to him a well-nigh impossible task, from a financial point of view, and urged us to stay in Chicago. Nevertheless, on our strong insistence, he generously came on our Board. The effect of that innocent step was to convince the public that St. John’s was ‘a novel educational experiment’ which the University of Chicago had financed at Annapolis. This legend had important repercussions. In the first place the public, particularly the Maryland public, assumed that St. John’s was being taken care of — which made it no easier to find donors to keep the College open. In the second place, it was assumed that the educational decisions were made by Mr. Hutchins, whereas he differed from us on some pretty important points. He had, of course, too much awareness of the relation between board and president to want to meddle. In the third place, the words ‘novel’ and ‘experiment’ gave a tentative air to the whole thing that made some donors, at least, feel tentative too.

Needless to say, a number of times it looked as if the baby would die while everybody speculated on its chance of reaching adolescence. To those who worked in the Program and knew its background, ‘novel’ and ‘experimental’ sounded a bit ironical. Actually, except for the inclusion of science, the Program was mossy with age, while the ‘traditional’ elective system was born only the other day, as such things go. And we certainly had no intention of experimenting to see if Plato and Euclid are more worth an undergraduate’s time than the stuff most undergraduates now read.


The published comments on the Program multiplied so rapidly that we were forced to consider seriously the problem of publicity. We adopted the policy of never courting publicity, — least of all employing one of the ubiquitous publicity men our colleges hire to get them in the public prints, — but never refusing to answer questions even if they were asked by somebody who wanted to write about the College. The results of that policy have been far from perfect, but I know of no other that would have done us less harm. And, while we never tried merely to be talked about in the press, we used every available medium — platform, press, and radio — when we had something we wanted to communicate. Last summer, for instance, when the Annapolis Housing Authority made a sudden drive to seize a slice of our campus for a low-cost housing project, the College appealed to the public through every channel it could command. Fortunately the Authority’s condemnation proceedings were eventually dismissed by the Court.

Meanwhile, by April 1938, less than one year after the new College administration took office, it was apparent that, although the Board was securing more gifts than the College had received for years, the sums received were nowhere near enough to rehabilitate the College and get the St. John’s Program durably built into it. Faced with this new crisis, the Board made a second interesting decision. Every member of the Board offered his resignation; and a new Board, chosen solely with an eye to supporting the College’s newly assumed task, was constituted, partly from members of the old Board, partly from outside it. The new Board set a date in May 1938, and agreed that if $50,000 could not be raised by that date the College would necessarily close. Through the generous understanding of several donors who had become interested not merely in the job the College wanted to do but in what it had already done and was doing, the money was found.

While waiting for those funds, I myself had to make a decision. If I told the faculty of the precarious state of the College, word would spread and loss of confidence would paralyze those who might aid financially and those who might enter the College as students. If I kept silent till May, some of the faculty might lose the chance of finding a teaching post elsewhere. I chose to tell them, and the College unquestionably suffered. Actually, we missed a salary date that year only once, and then the College paid on Monday instead of Saturday. But it was a ghastly year.

It was not made any pleasanter by the student body. On the advice of Board members, we had allowed students who entered college in September 1937 to choose to enter the all-required four-year Program or the regular elective system. Twenty chose the New Program. The remaining thirty-four joined the upperclassmen in the Old Program — that is, the elective system. It became obvious fairly early that the student habits of the Old Program would hinder our building of the New. A healthy proportion of students under the Old Program had not been accustomed to work and didn’t propose to begin now. As a wave of national publicity focused on the struggling little band of New Programmers, — who, incidentally, behaved with admirable discretion, — the Old Programmers felt more and more like stepchildren. In February of that first year, twenty-five had to be dropped for poor work, of a sort that would have caused them to be dropped from any properly administered college. But the ‘February purge’ scandalized young men who had come to feel that the College was in no position financially to enforce rules of academic standing, and the feeling got pretty bitter. My own public utterances were largely devoted to a critique of the elective system, which the Old Programmers — along with a few of the alumni — felt was a personal attack on them. That I was attacking my own education as well apparently did not occur to them, or excused nothing if it did.

Then some real crises occurred. By the fall of 1938, the beginning of the second year of the Program, it was perfectly apparent that two features of the College’s life had to go if we were to get on with the job. First, the several chapters of national fraternities on the campus led a sort of roadhouse existence in College dormitories, although they paid no rent for the additional space and privacy. For some months we tried to persuade these fraternities to clean house and accept a responsible rôle in the community, but nothing came of it. We therefore announced that at the end of the session the houses in question would be withdrawn from their use and made into ordinary dormitories. The fraternities charged us with abolishing them, and justified the charge by pointing out that without their special quarters they could persuade no freshmen to join in future years. The administration answered that if the rent-free use of College real estate was all they had to offer freshmen there was no real reason for their continuance. They were assured that fraternities would be neither abolished nor driven under ground, but that the College would take no further cognizance of them officially.

Secondly, the New Program and the athletic system were in full collision. Strangely enough, although I think we were quite as aware as the next newspaper reader of the low and declining state of intercollegiate athletics, we had given no serious thought to changing the system. But the New Programmers were finding it quite as awkward to participate in intercollegiate athletics as a law student or a medical student would, and for the same reason. They had to work; and intercollegiate athletics in their contemporary form grew up during precisely the period when the undergraduate curriculum was in decline. Indeed, intercollegiate athletics as now played have actually rushed in to fill a vacuum. And despite their profit aspect, despite subsidized athletes and newspaper exhibitionism and the sports-goods racket and the other evils colleges complain of, the athletic field is frequently the only place in the college that furnishes any sort of self-discipline or even rigorous instruction. But for St. John’s it was a head-on collision.

We decided to drop intercollegiate competition in athletics altogether. It would have been pleasanter to wait till the end of the session before making a decision that would necessarily demoralize the whole community. But there was an obstacle. Intercollegiate athletics is a big business now, even for small colleges, and for financial reasons it is necessary to make up schedules a year, even two or three years, in advance. I could not place our coach in the nasty position of accepting dates he could not fill. And if we declined dates without explanation, sports writers would soon put two and two together and smoke us out. Clean surgery was called for. One week after the fraternities were notified that this was their last year of free housing I announced in a radio speech to our alumni that this was the last year of intercollegiate athletics, and gave my reasons. I promised a heavy expansion of intramural athletics — and offered athletic scholarships, to increase the athletic skills available to the community.

Both steps were taken to forward the single purpose that had dictated my own election, the reorganization of the Board, and the teaching requirements I had announced to the faculty as governing all appointments in the future. But the reader, if he is at all familiar with American colleges today, will already have guessed the effect on the student body, and particularly that portion of the student body which had dedicated itself to a rear-guard action, the Old Program. The cleavage between the two programs was getting pretty bad. Both, of course, disapproved of the administration’s actions on fraternities and athletics. But by the second year they were beginning to talk different languages about most things. The third year the Old Program had become a minority and had pretty much given up trying to understand a world gone mad. By the fourth year the hatchet appeared to be buried, and those seniors who alone remained in the elective system arranged with the faculty to have courses resembling the New Program and really joined the fun. Throughout the strain, too, there were individual students in the Old Program who saw the point and helped make things go.

Meanwhile, of course, the New Program student body was steadily increasing. In 1937, twenty freshmen; next year, forty-six; the third year, fifty-four. Last September, the College admitted ninety-three freshmen. It turned a good many away, because at present it plans never to admit more than around ninety. The ‘feel’ of the student body has changed, as the contagion of intellectual excitement has inevitably spread.

As for the first graduates, the College is often asked to characterize them. What happened to them? Well, I think their chief characteristic, taking them as a group, is that, when they don’t know something, they know they don’t. That is a rare characteristic among the young Americans who received the bachelor’s degree this year. I suppose Socrates would say it is a beginning of wisdom.

In many colleges today the alumni would have formed an insuperable barrier. But the organization of the St. John’s alumni was not strong; many of them had been sorely disillusioned by rapidly succeeding administrations and continuously desperate cries for financial help; and the failure of most of them to rally to the College in its extremity placed them at a disadvantage anyhow. Finally, a very instructive thing happened. At any college as old as St. John’s, there will always be a few alumni who will stand by and do what they can even when they do not approve of the administration. Loving their college, they yield their personal preferences, as the woman did in the judgment of Solomon. But in addition I suspect that most colleges today have alumni who have outgrown the adolescent fever over athletic victories and have begun to ask themselves questions about the job that Alma Mater is doing educationally. Alumni offices are not usually in touch with this second group. Since the abolition of intercollegiate athletics at St. John’s and the increasing emphasis on excellence in intramural athletics, there has been a pronounced turn-over in alumni interest. Some alumni have quit cold, at least for the present; but others have frankly told me they were excited by what the College was doing and really interested for the first time since they graduated.

The ideal solution for the problem of complete communication between the College and its alumni would be the widest possible participation by them in the program of instruction itself. The means for this solution actually exist. Ever since the second year of the New Program, the College has furnished adult seminars on the great books. A number are now held in Annapolis, Baltimore, and Washington. These seminars are not ‘extension courses’; they offer no ‘credit.’ They offer only the intellectual excitement inherent in reading the great books and discussing them as well as possible with other persons who are reading them. Such instruction serves an extraordinarily necessary purpose for a healthy college.

Some twenty years ago Albert Jay Nock complained to me that there were no longer any colleges in America. With the temerity of extreme youth, I asked him why one could not be started. ‘Where would you put it?’ he demanded. ‘You can’t hang a college up in the air.’ With the decline of liberal education during the past few decades, any college that attempts to appeal again to that great tradition risks finding itself up in the air, so far as public understanding is concerned. Yet without public understanding no college can hope to flourish healthily. Most important, it is the duty of a liberal arts college to instruct everybody; liberal education, as distinguished from specialized training, by its nature demands that it be continued all one’s life. The undergraduate curriculum should be merely the induction to the real thing, should merely form the intellectual habits which make possible the real thing. The commencement exercises which imply good-bye to all that chalk up a failure. It is with these considerations in mind that St. John’s College has devoted its already overtaxed teaching energies to a program of adult education in the area it has inhabited so long.


What element of a college is still missing from this narrative? Board, administration, faculty, students, and alumni have played their respective rôles, which have called for hard work, terrible anxiety, big risks, and sometimes heroism. They have found the strength to play these rôles by measuring all their efforts against one standard and one standard only, the educational purpose of the College. But they could not have played them but for the men and women who, scattered all over America, have sent financial aid. Voluntary and unsolicited gifts have come in, ranging all the way from a dollar bill, and an encouraging message with it, to single gifts running as high as $14,000.

In asking for other gifts, the College has followed a simple recipe: State what we believe is wrong, indeed fatally wrong, with the American college of liberal arts today; state what we are doing about it; state our needs. Willing gifts have followed. It would be fatal to the College if it appealed in general for money and let the resultant gifts dictate its educational policy, either consciously or unconsciously; just as it would be fatal if the ‘interests’ of its students dictated that policy through ‘course offerings.’ It would be equally fatal if the College postponed pressing educational decisions until the money to carry them out was in the treasurer’s safe. There are things that would be done now were there enough money, things not done for lack of it. But none of them are immediately essential things. St. John’s policy on gifts was dictated by a single decision, made by the Board and the administration four years ago and concurred in by the faculty and undergraduates, who are regularly and fully informed of the College’s financial problems by the treasurer. That decision was to tackle the job before the money was in hand, and count on the understanding and collaboration of men and women who have means and intend to use them to a high end.

That end can bear restatement wherever free men and women recognize other than animal needs. It is the full development of man’s most specifically human powers: his intellectual powers. To develop them takes harder labor, longer discipline, and more patient guidance than our colleges have recently faced, and a much more exclusive devotion to the main issue. Information, vocational training, useful and ‘practical’ courses that somehow turn out so pathetically impractical after Commencement Day, social contacts, a good time, tricks for making money — all these ends are sorry and treacherous substitutes for education in the liberal arts, the arts of thinking, speaking, writing, knowing. Every century has its vocabulary. The Greeks boasted that man was a rational animal and they devised systems of liberal education that would discipline and free those reasoning powers. The Christian mediæval philosopher stated that man had a rational soul: it was through the practice of the liberal arts that the powers of that soul were brought into their fullest possible play. As late as the nineteenth century the liberal arts colleges of America, as well as of Europe, were dedicated to cultivating the human intellect, the same high task. Then it was the mind, next the brain, and finally, with a sickening thud, ‘attitudes.’ We condition men now — just like the Nazis. We teach them many means for attaining their chosen end: we rarely ask them to criticize their choice of end. And man, who is the reasoning animal, the speaking animal, the only animal capable of logical discourse, capable of handling the word, the logos, is still here, insisting on his right to liberal education, the education that frees. For the purpose of liberal education rises superior to a decayed vocabulary: it always has been, is, and always will be to free the soul of man.