St. John's Colleges exist in Oxford and Cambridge in the U.K. and in the University of Sydney in Australia.

It was said that the St. John's colleges in Oxford and Cambridge were so rich that you could walk from the St. John's College in Oxford to the St. John's college in Cambridge always walking on land owned by either college.

Sadly, the St. John's College in Sydney isn't quite as affluent (I stayed there for four years).

In the United States, St. John's College is a four year, liberal arts college with two campuses: one in Annapolis, Maryland and another in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Enrollment is capped at 400 students at each campus. All the students take the same, mandatory "Great Books" curriculum:

The St. John's College "Great Books" List

"The following teachers will return to St. John's College again this year:"


HOMER: Iliad, Odyssey
AESCHYLUS: Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides, Prometheus Bound
SOPHOCLES: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, Philoctetes
THUCYDIDES: Peloponnesian War
EURIPIDES: Hippolytus, Bacchae
HERODOTUS: Histories
PLATO: Meno, Gorgias, Republic, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Symposium, Parmenides, Theatetus, Sophist, Timaeus, Phaedrus
ARISTOTLE: Poetics, Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, On Generation and Corruption, Politics, Parts of Animals, Generation of Animals
EUCLID: Elements
LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of Things
PLUTARCH: "Lycurgus", "Solon"
NICOMACHUS: Arithmetic
LAVOISIER: Elements of Chemistry
HARVEY: Motion of the Heart and Blood
Essays by: Archimedes, Fahrenheit, Avogadro, Dalton, Cannizzaro, Virchow, Mariotte, Driesch, Gay-Lussac, Spemann, Stears, J.J. Thompson, Mendeleyev, Berthollet, J.L. Proust


ARISTOTLE: De Anima, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics, Categories
VIRGIL: Aeneid
PLUTARCH: "Caesar", "Cato the Younger"
EPICTETUS: Discourses, Manual
PTOLEMY: Almagest
PLOTINUS: The Enneads
AUGUSTINE: Confessions
ST. ANSELM: Proslogium
AQUINAS: Summa Theologica, Summa Contra Gentiles
DANTE: Divine Comedy
CHAUCER: Canterbury Tales
MACHIAVELLI: The Prince, Discourses
COPERNICUS: On the Revolutions of the Spheres
LUTHER: The Freedom of a Christian
RABELAIS: Gargantua and Pantagruel
PALESTRINA: Missa Papae Marcelli
VIETE: "Introduction to the Analytical Art"
BACON: Novum Organum
SHAKESPEARE: Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, The Tempest, As You Like It, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Coriolanus, Sonnets
POEMS BY: Marvell, Donne, and other 16th- and 17th-century poets
DESCARTES: Geometry, Discourse on Method
PASCAL: Generation of Conic Sections
BACH: St. Matthew Passion, Inventions
HAYDN: Quartets
MOZART: Operas
STRAVINSKY: Symphony of Psalms


CERVANTES: Don Quixote
GALILEO: Two New Sciences
HOBBES: Leviathan
DESCARTES: Meditations, Rules for the Direction of the Mind
MILTON: Paradise Lost
PASCAL: Pensees
HUYGENS: Treatise on Light, On the Movement of Bodies by Impact
ELIOT: Middlemarch
SPINOZA: Theological-Political Treatise
LOCKE: Second Treatise of Government
RACINE: Phaedre
NEWTON: Principia Mathematica
KEPLER: Epitome IV
LEIBNIZ: Monadology, Discourse on Metaphysics, Essay On Dynamics, Philosophical Essays, Principles of Nature and Grace
SWIFT: Gulliver's Travels
HUME: Treatise of Human Nature
ROUSSEAU: Social Contract, The Origin of Inequality
MOLIERE: The Misanthrope
ADAM SMITH: Wealth of Nations
KANT: Critique of Pure Reason, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals
MOZART: Don Giovanni
JANE AUSTEN: Pride and Prejudice
DEDEKIND: Essay on the Theory of Numbers
ESSAYS by: Young, Maxwell, Taylor, Euler, D. Bernoulli


DARWIN: Origin of Species
HEGEL: Phenomenology of Mind, "Logic" (from the Encyclopedia)
LOBACHEVSKY: Theory of Parallels
TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America
LINCOLN: Selected Speeches
KIERKEGAARD: Philosophical Fragments, Fear and Trembling
WAGNER: Tristan and Isolde
MARX: Capital, Political and Economic Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology
DOSTOEVSKI: Brothers Karamazov
TOLSTOY: War and Peace
MELVILLE: Benito Cereno
TWAIN: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
O'CONNOR: Selected Stories
WILLIAM JAMES: Psychology, Briefer Course
NIETZSCHE: Birth of Tragedy, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil
FREUD: General Introduction to Psychoanalysis
WASHINGTON, BOOKER T.: Selected Writings
DUBOIS: The Souls of Black Folk
HEIDEGGER: What is Philosophy?
HEISENBERG: The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory
EINSTEIN: Selected Papers
MILLIKAN: The Electron
CONRAD: Heart of Darkness
POEMS by: Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Baudelaire, Rimbaud
ESSAYS by: Faraday, J.J. Thomson, Mendel, Minkowski, Rutherford, Davisson, Schrodinger, Bohr, Maxwell, de Broigle, Dreisch, Orsted, Ampere, Boveri, Sutton, Morgan, Beadle & Tatum, Sussman, Watson & Crick, Jacob & Monod, Hardy

History of St. John's College

St. John's traces its origins to a grammar or preparatory school called "King William's School", founded in Annapolis in 1696. At that time there were only two colleges conferring advanced degrees in the colonies: Harvard and William and Mary.

In 1784, the legislature of the newly independent State of Maryland chartered a college for the Western Shore of Maryland in Annapolis. The new college took over the faculty and library of King William's School and was granted some land near the Maryland State House. The land included a large, uncompleted brick building, and a large tulip tree, known as the "Liberty Tree". There the colony had started construction on a mansion for the colonial governor, Thomas Bladen, but never completed it. In a letter dated May 25, 1766, Thomas Jefferson wrote of Annapolis: "They have no public buildings worth mentioning except a governor's house, the hull of which after being nearly finished, they have suffered to go to ruin." Until 1837, the college was housed entirely in the building, renamed McDowell Hall after the college's first president.

Several signers of the Declaration of Independence were involved in the founding of St. John's College. William Paca, as governor of Maryland, signed the charter. Charles Carroll was a principal financial supporter Thomas Stone and Samuel Chase served on the original Board of Visitors and Governors. Prior to the Revolution, schools and colleges were primarily intended to prepare students for religious ministry, and so were very sectarian. Unlike some of the colonies, which were dominated by a particular sect, Maryland had large and influential contingents of Catholics and dissenters (the collective term for Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and Quakers). This is reflected in the college charter which, foreshadowing the Bill of Rights, admitted students "without requiring or enforcing any religious or civil test". An early alumni was Francis Scott Key, author of "The Star Spangled Banner", the poem which became our national anthem.

Financial support by the State of Maryland ended in 1805, and the college became a private school. During the Civil War, the college's buildings were occupied (and looted) by the Union Army, which used McDowell Hall as a hospital for soldiers who been held prisoner by the Confederates. Before and after the Civil War, St. John's College was reduced to a military school for rich thugs. The distinguishing characteristic of "Johnnies" during that period was a propensity for dueling. The preferred weapon was a rapier concealed in a cane or walking stick. The people of Annapolis were encouraged to fund a dormitory building program so that the students could be locked up at night. The students then fought in the halls. The halls had to be shortened to make duelling impractical. One of the dormitory buildings, Pinkney, is still divided in half right down the middle of all four floors (into "East" and "West" Pinkney).

The establishment of the United States Naval Academy, on some landfill across the street from St. John's, accelerated the decay of the college. St. John's adopted a program of compulsory military training for students in 1884, and the college served as a sort of prep school for the Naval Academy. In 1905, the War Department listed it as one of the top six military colleges in the United States. During the 1920's, St. John's College enjoyed some national fame as a powerhouse in the sport of Lacrosse. By the mid-1930's, however, the college was again in serious financial trouble and in danger of closing its doors forever.

The college's financial position was wiped out by the great stock market crash in 1929, and the subsequent devaluation of Annapolis real estate during the Great Depression. The stage was thus set for the fundamental changes which came to be called "the New Program".

In 1937 the college's board brought in Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan, two academics with revolutionary educational ideas, to completely revamp the curriculum. Barr was made President and Buchanan was appointed dean. Buchanan devised a course of study with the "Great Books" as the basis for discussion classes in a unified, all-required curriculum and no departments or majors. Barr and Buchanan transformed a sleepy Maryland college into an educational experiment which attracted nationwide interest. While few colleges have adopted St. John's "New Program" in its entirety, dozens of schools have created "core" requirements based on discussion classes and the Great Books, either for their entire school or for special programs for gifted undergraduates.

In 1951, women were admitted. In 1964, rather than expand the enrollment of the college, a second campus was opened in Santa Fe, New Mexico, retaining the same program and many of the tutors who had helped develop the New Program in Annapolis.

The ideology of the Great Books

The "Great Books" connection leads many to assume, erroneously, that St. John's College is allied with the conservative elements in academia, who now tout Dead White Males, and "core" curriculums in "Western Civilization", against choice, diversity, and multiculturalism and/or moral relativism. None of this debate was significant in 1937 when St. John's was founded and very little of it affects St. John's today. The typical St. John's student and tutor is much more likely to be liberal than conservative. Reading Plato's Republic does not automatically turn you into William Bennett. The kind of person who thrives in the environment of St. John's College would probably find a choice between a survey course on "Western Civilization" and survey course on "Multiculturalism" to be like having to chose between being boiled in salt water or being boiled in oil.

There is, however, a definite intellectual or perhaps "cultural" slant towards the "Western" or European tradition. You won't find any East Asian writings on St. John's list, such as the Analects of Confucius, even though they are clearly the equal of anything that Plato wrote, in terms of quality, historical influence, and potential for interesting and valuable class discussion. Confucius wasn't part of the conversation in Europe, however, and this is what gets a book on the Great Books list: its linkage to the present through the themes common in the Western intellectual and artistic tradition.

How St. John's College is different.

Besides the "Great Books" content, St. John's College also differs from other American colleges and universities in several other ways:

No departments, no research: The St. John's program is primarily a four-year, liberal arts program for undergraduates. Graduate level versions of the undergraduate program have been developed to suit persons seeking a masters degree in liberal arts–a program popular with teachers, for example–but there are no "graduate schools" in the usual sense, for advanced professional training or research.

No professors: All the faculty (called "tutors", not professors) are generalists. Their teaching does not consist in "professing" an expertise in a subject matter. Every faculty member is expected to teach all the courses: including French, Greek, music theory, and quantum mechanics. Obviously, individual faculty members cannot be as well-versed in all those subjects as professors who specialize in one subject at a university, but there is no emphasis at St. John's in furthering human accomplishment in any particular field. The emphasis is on the students, their education, their skills. Tutors are therefore educators in the original sense of the word: they "draw out" a student's own efforts to learn. The best tutors can therefore be compared to Socrates, who in Plato's Dialogues disclaimed any knowledge of his own, but instead characterized himself as a "midwife" to wisdom.

No exams, no grades: All the classes are discussion classes. Students learn to judge the quality of their contributions from the reactions of their peers, and to a lesser extent, the infrequent interventions of the tutors. Twice a year there is formal feedback in a process called a "don rag", where tutors discuss a student's performance in the third person. The "don rag" is not open to the public and does not permit students to compare each other's progress or be compared. Satisfactory performance requires perfect attendence and frequent participation in class. Thus, in the don rag a student will frequently hear some comment on the level and quality of their participation, for example, that he or she needs to speak up more in class. Grades are assigned (for the convenience of graduate schools or transfers) but students are discouraged from ever looking at them. Most Johnnies don't look at their grades often, some (like me) don't look at them at all, and they are never discussed. Obsessively competitive students either don't go to St. John's–because it is not a top ranked school in any field–or chafe at the vague, subjective way their superiority is acknowledged.

No electives, no "majors". There is only one curriculum at St. John's: sometimes still called the "New Program" (the name it was given when St. John's converted to the "Great Books" curriculum in 1937). This simplifies registration and allows students to postpone career- and life-defining decisions until graduate school. Everyone is studying the same thing. On Thursday night, September 4, 2003, all the freshmen in Santa Fe read books 13-18 of Homer's Illiad for Seminar. Academic and social life blend to an extent impossible at other schools. Students share the same knowledge base and have all faced the same intellectual problems. Johnnies can use words like ειδη (the Greek word for "form" or "idea") in casual conversation and all other Johnnies will understand.

No sports. The "St. John's" with the basketball team is St. John's University. St. John's College has no intercollegiate sports, that is, unless you count the croquet match every year in Annapolis against the Naval Academy. There are intramural sports and recreations: Annapolis has a boathouse on a tidal creek and Santa Fe has prime access to mountain sports, like skiing, climbing and hiking.

No fraternities, no sororities. My father was a Theta Chi man and felt that I was missing out by not being in a fraternity, until he visited me at St. John's and announced: "This place is one big fraternity". It's a very small college (enrollment at each campus capped at 400) with a very tight-knit social life.

The St. John's Program

The truly unique aspects of a St. John's education are the methods, not the content. All classes are discussion classes. Attendence and participation are absolutely mandatory. Prepared or not, sober or not, Johnnies must go to class. If you do not talk, you fail. There are no exams, but required writing assignments are taken very seriously. There are no majors. All students "major" in skills: reading, writing, speaking , listening, and above all, thinking. The actual content of the courses, while well-chosen and interesting, is clearly secondary to their use in developing skills. This is particularly obvious in the case of science, mathematics, and languages.

Many hours are spent in physics lab, for example, performing classic experiments, such as Robert Millikan's Oil Drop Experiment for measuring the charge of an electron. For a physics major at a good university, this would be virtually useless. The physics are elementary, the equipment and lab techniques are absurdly antiquated. For someone like myself, however, who anywhere else would probably never have darkened the door of a physics lab, it was an invaluable lesson on the precision necessary (and the sheer tedium involved) in "doing science".

That having been said, the curriculum can be stated as follows:

  • Seminar: 4 years -- philosophy, theology, political science, literature, history, economics, psychology
  • Mathematics: 4 years -- geometry, astronomy, algebra, calculus, relativity
  • Language: 4 years -- Ancient Greek, French, English composition, English poetry
  • Science: 3 years -- biology, chemistry, atomic theory, physics
  • Music: 1 year -- theory, composition

"Seminar" is a two-hour long discussion class held twice a week on Monday and Thursday nights. These classes have a formal air. (Back in my day, many of us wore jackets and ties to Seminar, but then again, back in my day we could smoke in class). To prepare for the class you have to complete a reading from the "Great Books" list. The readings are usually long and take hours of work each day. (The few short ones, like six (6) pages from the Preface to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, are absurdly difficult.) There are no textbooks, secondary sources, or lectures to tell you what to think about the reading. Learning to listen, think and speak are more important than the content. You sit down with about twenty of your fellow students and two "tutors", whose job it is to get the conversation started and keep things moderated. It is not unusual for one of the tutors to ask an opening question and then say nothing substantial for the rest of the seminar.

Tutorial: All other classes are in "tutorial" format: shorter classes which meet three or four times a week in smaller groups. Language, math, music and laboratory science are all taught in this fashion. Like Seminar, however, the format is reading and class discussion. If you haven't read, say, your French homework, it's not going to be spoon-fed to you in class.

St. John's education as a foundation for a career: pro and con

The strength of the the St. John's Program is the teaching of the basic skills of an educated person: reading, writing, listening, speaking and thinking. The advantage to having gone to St. John's, as opposed to most other undergraduate schools, is being able to learn and work in a much more professional manner. In law school, my fellow students would literally pee their pants with fear at being expected to simply read the materials and then answer questions in class. They spent their entire undergraduate career in lecture halls. In law school, I would frequently hear the complaint: "Why don't they just tell us what is going to be on the exam?" Because, my friends, nobody knows what's going to be on Life's big exam. Now, well into my career in law, I find that virtually all of what I memorized for the bar exam to be obsolete and useless. It is far more useful to be able to listen to what the judge is asking, figure out what is on his or her mind, gauge the judge's level of understanding and fluency, and reply in a manner that will make sense to that judge: these are all skills I learned at St. John's College.

The weakness of a St. John's degree is the lack of specialized knowledge. Take for example, Ancient Greek. A St. John's graduate has at least been exposed to Greek and can recognize the unusual alphabet, and can even translate a sentence or two given a lexicon and a grammar book. Most St. John's students do not become proficient at Greek, however, and reading a difficult work like a Platonic Dialogue can take all semester. By comparison, I once met a classics major at Yale who was assigned to read Plato's Meno in a single night. Of course, that classics major did not cover in her Yale days anything remotely like the breadth of the reading list quoted above, but the point is that in any particular field, the St. John's student has a lot of catching up to do in graduate school, if indeed they can get into graduate school. Generally, this is not a problem in traditional "professions", such as law, medicine and theology, where the schools are looking for well-rounded persons. It is a problem in science and engineering, particular at big universities that rely on GRE scores in admissions. (I applied to graduate school in psychology and was rejected by several universities because my GRE score in psychology was abyssmally low.)

The result is an education which is an excellent preparation ... for further education. On the negative side, the liberal arts degree granted by St. John's College is virtually useless. You can't even be employed as a public school teacher without additional course work. If St. John's College teaches any marketable skills or useful specialized knowledge at all, it is by accident and not by design. On the positive side, once a St. John's graduate makes up the deficit in the specialized training, they find themselves much better prepared to participate in post-graduate environment. Facts can be learned, technique can be acquired, rather rapidly if you haven't been spoon-fed your entire college career. St. John's students must participate in the equivalent of graduate-level seminars from the get-go, or flunk out. In my opinion, having a variety of new problems and challenges thrown at you constantly, rather than getting comfortable with well-worn paths, is the best way to prepare for work in any field.

For the teenager I once was, having an education a mile wide and a foot deep was a good start. You wouldn't want to stop there, however, unless it is your life's ambition to be and be known as a shallow dilettante.

New St. John's website:

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