I earned my master’s degree in liberal arts from the Graduate Institute of St. John’s College (Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico). Mortimer Adler famously said in How to Read a Book, “There is one college that I know of in this country which is trying to turn out liberal artists in the true sense. That is St. John’s College.” Only primary sources are read in an integrated arts and sciences program based on a chronological study of seminal works of Western civilization. The following curriculum is required of all undergraduates:
- 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
St. John’s is known for having one of––if not the––most ambitious reading list of any college in the United States. “The first year is devoted to Greek authors and their pioneering understanding of the liberal arts; the second year contains books from the Roman, medieval, and Renaissance periods; the third year has books of the 17th and 18th centuries, most of which were written in modern languages; the fourth year brings the reading list into the 19th and 20th centuries.” Learning at St. John’s combines Socratic method and close reading (see a definition below).
The best description of St. John’s was provided by Loren Pope, the former education editor at The New York Times, who wrote a book called, Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges. I am grateful to have attended two of the colleges mentioned in the book: Wheaton College and St. John’s College. To read the entry on St. John’s, click here.
From David Mikics, A New Handbook of Literary Terms
Close Reading The discipline of careful, intricate study of a text, championed in the mid-twentieth century by the New Critics. To read closely is to investigate the specific strength of a literary work in as many of its details as possible. It also means understanding how a text works, how it creates its effects on the most minute level. As such, close reading is the necessary form of serious literary study. Any reader who wishes to avoid turning a poem or novel into a mere piece of evidence concerning society, history, or intellectual tradition, must read closely.
The institutional basis for close reading was set by Reuben Brower in Humanities 6, a team-taught course in “slow reading” that he started at Harvard in the 1950s. For a portrait of the source, see Reuben Brower, ed., In Defense of Reading (1962). Frank Lentricchia has edited a recent, useful anthology of criticism, Close Reading (2002). Brower’s course at Harvard is invoked in both Richard Poirier’s Poetry and Pragmatism (1992) and Willard Spiegelman’s “‘And We Will Teach Them How’: But How?” Literary Imagination 4:1 (2002), 77-78. For some inspiring examples of close reading, see Stanley Burnshaw, The Poem Itself (1960); Helen Vendler, The Odes of John Keats (1983); Camille Paglia, Break Blow Burn (2005).
Note: Lest this email be perceived as St. John’s triumphalism, I recognize other schools with excellent liberal arts programs. Catholics have done a much better job with the great books than Protestants, save a few exceptions. I eagerly await C. S. Lewis College (Northfield, Massachusetts), which promises to be the only “mere Christian” (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant) great books college with a commitment to the visual and performing arts. See the following academic programs:
- Thomas Aquinas College (Santa Paula, California)
- Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (Merrimack, New Hampshire)
- Constantin College of Liberal Arts at the University of Dallas (Dallas, Texas)
- Saint Anselm College “Portraits of Human Greatness” (Manchester, New Hampshire)
- Providence College “Development of Western Civilization” (Providence, Rhode Island)
- St. Olaf College “The Great Conversation” (Northfield, Minnesota)
- Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University (La Miranda, California)
- John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University “John Wesley Scholars Program” (Marion, Indiana)
- Hillsdale College “Core Curriculum” (Hillsdale, Michigan)