Lectures at St. John's College


Lectures at St. John's College

When the new, liberal arts curriculum at St. John’s College was laid out in 1936 or so, one of the first moves was to shake off the academic habit of conducting classes by lecturing to the students. Instead, students and faculty at St. John’s would join in learning from the great authors, who were to be the real teachers. The corollary of this was the conclusion that the faculty would not function as experts, but would leave their special fields at the door and undertake to teach around the program. All would be known simply as “tutors”; there would be neither faculty ranks nor faculty departments. A new tutor knowledgeable in literature would, on arrival, be assigned to teach mathematics, while a mathematician would be assigned to teach Greek. All would join with students in a common learning experience, and an ongoing common conversation. 

Almost unbelievably, that setup, essentially the work of the College’s initial dean, Scott Buchanan, has remained the rule to this day!

 What, then, was to become of the art of lecturing? It was not to be abandoned, but transferred from the separate classrooms, where it was no longer needed, to the lecture hall in the form of a weekly lecture directed to the entire college. Such lectures, always on Friday evenings, might be given by a tutor or by a visiting lecturer, and might address any topic in the liberal of arts of interest to the college as a whole. They needed to be couched in terms accessible to everyone, though it would often happen that freshmen would be bewildered by lectures on Einstein or Joyce, while seniors would be pressed to remember their Euclid. Each lecture would be followed by a gathering for a conversation with the lecturer–not a “question and answer” session, but a probing investigation of the ideas the lecture had presented.

 My lectures presented on this site are instances of this tradition: addressed to the college community as a whole, and drawing freely upon the authors we read in common. They are meant to address fundamental questions and to promote discussion. They were given at various points along the path of my own life at the College, and thus do not necessarily present views I would hold, or express in the same terms, today.