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:




Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Christopher Benson


  1. The Academic Program at St. John’s College | Mere Orthodoxy http://bit.ly/ar0vCe

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter


  2. slavicpolymath July 21, 2010 at 8:20 am

    For what it’s worth, SJC in Annapolis also happens to be the home of a burgeoning Orthodox (capital O) community, under the guidance of Father Deacon Robert Miclean. A few of those wily Orthodox undergraduates are going to be at Santa Fe for the upcoming school year…


    1. SlavicPolymath: Indeed, there’s an Orthodox presence at the Annapolis campus. My closest friend from St. John’s, hailing from a Nazarene background, and his wife, hailing from a Pentecostal background, converted to Eastern Orthodoxy during the time of his studies. They attended Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, Maryland. The godmother of their children is the well-known Orthodox writer Frederica-Mathewes Green, who is the “Khouria” (“Mother”) of this parish where her husband serves as the priest. During my stint in Annapolis, I drove to Washington, DC every Sunday to attend Church of the Resurrection, an Anglican parish associated with AMIA. Are you a former student at St. John’s?


      1. slavicpolymath July 21, 2010 at 1:06 pm

        Ha! No, I’m a current Georgetown student, but more importantly I’m a parishioner at Holy Cross in Linthicum, a cornerstone of the Annapolis Campus Ministry. Fr. Gregory Mathewes-Green is my confessor and spiritual father.

        For the curious, I discovered this blog through Mr. Anderson’s talk at AEI on Monday.


        1. SlavicPolymath: Wow! It’s a small world. You travel a long way from Washington to Linthicum. Aren’t there good Orthodox churches in DC? Are you an undergraduate or graduate student at Georgetown? Studying what? Are you satisfied with the program?


          1. slavicpolymath July 22, 2010 at 5:52 am

            Oy! Well, Holy Cross is my home parish (and was and always will be) but I usually go to St. Nicholas on Massachusetts Avenue while I’m at school, but I constantly try to slide home to Linthicum when I can. Undergrad in Middle East Studies, and yes, I’m very satisfied.

  3. I’d also mention St. Katherine College, which is a new college starting next fall (2011) near San Diego. It’s an independent Orthodox college (not under any one jurisdiction) that aims to be merely Christian. See more at http://www.stkath.org.


  4. Gary: Thanks for informing me (us) about St. Katherine College. How can an Eastern Orthodox college be “merely Christian”? Will there be Protestant and Catholic faculty? students?

    Recently, I had a conversation with John Mark Reynolds who teaches at Biola. It was news to me that Biola has Catholic and Orthodox faculty. Matt can confirm or deny this impression. If true, Biola has an ecumenical hiring policy compared to the Protestant-only policy of my alma mater, Wheaton College.


  5. Christopher: The founder of St. Katherine is Greek Orthodox, and he wants it to have a substantial Orthodox faculty. But it will have Catholic and Protestant faculty and students, too.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *