Despite its name, St. John's College has no religious affiliation. The school grants only one bachelor's degree. Two master's degrees are currently available, one in Liberal Arts, which is a modified version of the undergraduate curriculum, and a parallel course of studies in Eastern Classics. Both graduate degrees are awarded to graduate students through the college's Graduate Institute.
The four-year program of study, nearly all of which is mandatory, demands that students read and discuss the works of many of Western civilization's most prominent contributors to philosophy, theology, mathematics, science, music, poetry, and literature, such as Aristotle, Shakespeare, Descartes, and Einstein. In line with the views of the program's founders—who complained of "vocational interests" that "clutter" other college's curricula—"Johnnies", as St. John's students style themselves, usually value intellectual pursuits for their own sake, regardless of whether they have practical application. Tutorials (mathematics, language, and music), as well as Seminar and Laboratory, are discussion-based. In the Mathematics tutorial students often demonstrate propositions that mathematicians throughout various ages have laid out. In the Language tutorial student translations are presented (Ancient Greek is studied in the first two years and French for the last two). The tutorials, with Seminar and Laboratory, constitute the "classes". All classes, and in particular the Seminar, are considered formal exercises; consequently, students address one another, as well as their teachers, only by their last names during class.
Unlike mainstream U.S. colleges, St. John's avoids modern textbooks, lectures, and examinations. Instead of textbooks, in addition to primary materials, the college relies on a series of manuals. While traditional (A through F) grades are given, the culture of the school deemphasizes their importance and grades are released only at the request of the student. Grading is based largely on class participation and papers. Tutors, as faculty members are called at the College, play a non-directive role in the classroom, compared to mainstream colleges. However, at St. John's this does vary somewhat by course and instructor.
The Great Books program inspired the Integral Program at Saint Mary's College of California.
St. John's College was founded as King William's School in 1696. In 1784, Maryland granted a charter to St. John's College, into which the original preparatory school merged. The college took up residence in a building known as Bladen's Folly (the current McDowell Hall), which was originally built to be the Maryland governor's mansion, but was not completed. There was some association with the Freemasons early in the college's history, leading to speculation that it was named after Saint John the Evangelist, the favoured saint of Freemasons. The College's original charter, reflecting the Masonic value of religious tolerance as well as the religious diversity of the founders (they included both Presbyterians and Episcopalians), stated that "youth of all religious denominations shall be freely and liberally admitted."
The College curriculum has taken various forms throughout its history. Although it began with a general program of study in the liberal arts, St. John's was a military school for much of the 19th century. In contrast to Washington and Lee University, a contemporary institution, the College always maintained a small size, generally enrolling fewer than 500 men at a time.
In 1936, the College lost its accreditation. The Board of Visitors and Governors, faced with dire financial straits caused by the Great Depression, invited educational innovators Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan to make a completely fresh start. They introduced a new program of study, which remains in effect today. Buchanan became dean of the College, while Barr assumed its presidency.
In his guide Cool Colleges, Donald Asher writes that the New Program was implemented to save the college from closing: "Several benefactors convinced the college to reject a watered-down curriculum in favor of becoming a very distinctive academic community. Thus this great institution was reborn as a survival measure."
In 1938, Walter Lippman wrote a column praising liberal arts education as a bulwark against fascism, and said "in the future, men will point to St. John’s College and say that there was the seed-bed of the American renaissance."
In 1940, national attention was attracted to St. John's by a story in Life Magazine entitled: The Classics: At St. John's They Come into Their Own Once More.
Classic works unavailable in English translation were translated by faculty members, typed, mimeographed, and bound. They were sold to the general public as well as to students, and by 1941 the St. John's College bookshop was famous as the only source for English translations of works such as Copernicus's De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, St. Augustine's De Musica, and Ptolemy's Almagest.
The wartime years were difficult for the all-male St. John's. Enlistment and the draft all but emptied the college; 15 seniors graduated in 1943, eight in 1945, and three in 1946.
From 1940 to 1946, St. John's was repeatedly confronted with threats of its land being seized by the Navy for expansion of the neighboring Naval Academy, and James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, formally announced plans to do so in 1945. At the time, the New York Times, which had expected a legal battle royal comparable to the Dartmouth case, commented that "although a small college of fewer than 200 students, St. John's has, because of its experimental liberal arts program, received more publicity and been the center of a greater academic controversy than most other colleges in the land. Its best-books program has been attacked and praised by leading educators of the day.
The constant threat of eviction discouraged Stringfellow Barr. In late 1946 Forrestal withdrew the plan, in the face of public opposition and the disapproval of the House Naval Affairs Committee, but Barr and Scott Buchanan were already committed to leaving St. John's and launching a new, similar college in Stockbridge, Massachusetts; that project eventually failed -- but thinking about other sites for the college eventually led to the opening of St. John's second campus, in Santa Fe, in 1964.
In 1948, St. John's became the first previously all-white college south of the Mason-Dixon line to voluntarily admit African American students. The movement to desegregate the College was wholly internal, beginning with students who, with the support of the faculty and administration, persuaded a reluctant Board of Visitors and Governors to go along. The first African American student was Martin A. Dyer, from Baltimore, who graduated in 1952.
In 1949, Richard D. Weigle became president of St. John's. Following the chaotic and difficult period from 1940 to 1949, Weigle's presidency continued for 31 years, during which the New Program and the college itself became well established.
In 1951, St. John's became coeducational, admitting women for the first time in its then-254-year history. There was some objection from students because they had not been involved in -- nor even aware of -- the decision before it was announced to the media, and from some who believed that the college could not remain a serious institution were it to admit women. But Martin Dyer reports that the women who were admitted were an extraordinary group, quickly proving that they were the academic and intellectual equals of their male counterparts.
As enrollment grew during the 1950s, and facing the coming larger baby-boom generation, thoughts turned again towards opening another campus -- but this time in addition to, not instead of, the one in Annapolis. Serious talk of expansion began in 1959 when the father of a student from Monterey, California, suggested to Pres. Weigle that he establish a new campus there. Time Magazine ran an article on the college's possible expansion plans, and, in addition to California, 32 offers came in to the college, from New Hampshire, Oregon, Georgia, Alaska, Florida, Connecticut, and more.
A group from the Monterey Peninsula told Weigle that they were definitely interested, though funding was a problem, and suitable land was a big question. There was also an offer of land in Claremont, California, but competition with the other colleges there for students and financial contributions was a negative. The Riverside Mission Inn (in Riverside, California) was another possibility, but with only of land and lots of renovations needed to the inn, funding was again a major question. A negative factor for California in general was the cost of living for faculty.
Nevertheless all three of these locations were major contenders, when Robert McKinney (publisher of the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper, and a former SJC board member) called and told Weigle that a group of city leaders had long been looking for another college for Santa Fe. At a lunch Weigle attended at John Gaw Meem's house on the outskirts of Santa Fe in late January, 1961, Meem volunteered that he had a little piece of land (214 acres) that he would gladly donate to the college. Upon looking at it after lunch, Weigle instantly fell in love with it. A committee of four faculty members (Robert Bart, Barbara Leonard, Douglas Allanbrook, and William Darkey) went to visit all four sites (the three in California, and Santa Fe) and, after much deliberation, also recommended Santa Fe.
Western mystery writer Tony Hillerman tells a slightly different story: The site selection committee, having originally expected to locate in Claremont, California, reluctantly accepted an invitation to inspect the site in Santa Fe. Hillerman spins a tale of the committeemen:
As it turned out, land was also donated to the college on the Monterey Peninsula (CA) shortly after this, on condition that a campus also be developed there by a certain date. It eventually became apparent that opening yet a third campus in close succession to the second would stretch the college's resources too far, however.
St. John's is located in the Historic Annapolis district, one block away from the Maryland State Capitol building. Its proximity to the United States Naval Academy has inspired many a comparison to Athens and Sparta. The schools carry on a spirited rivalry seen in the annual croquet match between the two schools on the front lawn of St. John's, which has been called by Gentleman's Quarterly (GQ) "the purest intercollegiate athletic event in America." St. John's has won 21 out of the last 26 matches.
Construction of McDowell Hall at the center of campus, was begun in 1742 by Provincial Governor of Maryland, Thomas Bladen, but was not completed until after the end of Proprietary government. Its Great Hall has seen many college events, from balls feting Generals Lafayette and Washington to the unique St. John's institutions called waltz parties. Despite their name, waltz parties have gradually evolved to consist mostly of swing dancing, though waltz, polka, and even some tango are still played. Champagne and strawberries have been known to be served, and it is not uncommon for students, especially the women, to dress in formal evening ballroom attire.
St. John's Santa Fe campus is located at the foot of Monte Sol, on the eastern edge of Santa Fe. It was opened in 1964 due to the increase in qualified applicants at the Annapolis campus. The College chose to open a second campus rather than increase the size of the Annapolis campus. The second campus was part of a larger project, championed by then-college president Richard Weigle, which called for six campuses to be built across the country. St. John's abandoned the concept when it later sold a tract of land it owned in Monterey, California.
The Santa Fe campus offers students a more secluded atmosphere than the Annapolis campus, with the vast Pecos Wilderness and Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The campus also boasts an expansive view of Santa Fe that extends to Los Alamos to the west.
The college maintains gear to facilitate student use of the outdoors, such as kayaks, rafts, hiking equipment, and sports equipment. In addition, the college Search and Rescue team is recognized throughout the Southwest, participating in a wide variety of rescue missions in conjunction with the New Mexico State Police and other volunteer teams.
The program involves:
The Great Books are not the only texts used at St. John's. Greek and French classes make use of supplemental materials that are more like traditional textbooks. Science laboratory courses and mathematics courses use manuals prepared by faculty members that combine source materials with workbook exercises. For example, the mathematics tutorial combines a 1905 paper by Albert Einstein with exercises that require the student to work through the mathematics used in the paper.
Nevertheless, the emphasis on source materials is strong; all seminar readings are from the book list, and music is studied from scores that are primary sources.
The only elective courses are brief "preceptorials" offered in the winter of the junior and senior years. The options for these classes change each year, and often include courses on topics not covered in the Great Books program, including works by authors beyond the Great Books list, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Wallace Stevens.
No written tests are given, apart from occasional quizzes in language tutorials, an algebra test to be passed by the end of sophomore year and a French exam given at the end of the Junior year. Students are evaluated based on class participation and papers. In the seminar, an oral examination is also given each semester. This examination is a discussion with the tutor or tutors intended to show that the student has read and understood the material covered. In-term written assignments consist of occasional short (usually less than 10 pages) papers. Longer papers are required for seminars. On the Santa Fe campus students must write seminar papers at the end of each semester. The paper for the spring semester is a longer paper, and is awarded a separate grade on the transcript. Students at the Annapolis campus write a single longer (20-30 pages) essay at the end of each year. Papers for tutorials and seminars are not research papers, and emphasize the individual student's analysis of a work or interpretation of an idea or theory. Of particular importance is the sophomore annual essay, which plays a prominent role in the college's formal decision to allow a student to continue into the final two years. In their senior year, students must also write and defend a full-length thesis. Defense of a Senior Essay is open to the public, with the student engaging in discussion of his or her essay with a panel of three tutors.
Don Rags begin with each tutor discussing the present student's performance in the third person to the other tutors. The discussion takes place as if the student were not there. After this, the student is asked if he or she has anything to add, at which point the student may discuss his or her own performance in light of the tutors' comments, although he or she is not required to do so.
For the first semester of junior year, students may elect to have a Conference (instead of a Don Rag), in which the students first report on their progress and then hear responses from their tutors.
The regular Don Rag format continues for the student's last Don Rag, which is at the end of junior year.
The term "Don Rag" comes from Oxford, where professors ("dons") would "rag" on their students.
At the end of the Sophomore year, tutors give a higher level of scrutiny to the student in the Don Rag. The tutors formally ask themselves and each other whether the student should remain at the college in light of current performance. This question is largely independent of the student's grades however, and is more subjective than other Don Rags. Any of the tutors present at the final Sophomore Don Rag may object to the student remaining at St. John's. Any objection begins the process of an evaluation by the faculty disciplinary committee ("the Committee") as to whether the student should be allowed to remain at St. John's.
The Committee is closed to all but faculty - even to the student whose matriculation is in jeopardy. The Committee consists of a panel of Tutors and the administration who are appointed for the year to handle disciplinary matters. At the end of the year the Committee is convened to evaluate each student presented, hearing testimony from Tutors who have taught that student over the past two years. The Committee makes a decision to either "Enable" the student, allowing them to continue into the Junior year, or to "Disenable" the student, ejecting them from the student body. Appeals are allowed to students who have been "disenabled", and if successful, the "disenabled" student is allowed to continue without interruption at St. John's.
While specific numbers aren't available, generally between 5% and 10% of the Sophomore class are referred to the Committee and a portion of those are Disenabled. Disenabled students are allowed to reapply to the school to continue into their Junior year after a period of one year, but readmission is not guaranteed and few bother to reapply.
Motivational business speaker Zig Ziglar included a chapter on "St. John's: A College That Works" in a 1997 book. He said St. John's holds fast to the "medieval" notion that all knowledge is one and states that "the books they use are terribly hard." He notes that the school "ranks fifth nationally in the number of graduates earning doctorates in the humanities" and is impressed by the 81% of graduates entering education, engineering, law, medicine, and other professions. He concludes "Sounds like St. John's is onto something. Maybe more schools should take that approach."
According to a study published by the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium, based on data from 1992 through 2001, St. John's ranked first nationally in percentage of graduates attaining Ph.D.s in both Humanities and English Literature. In addition, the college ranked among the top ten institutions in Political Science, Linguistics, Foreign Languages, Area & Ethnic Studies, and Math & Computer Sciences.
St. John's runs counter to the usual emphasis on rankings and selectivity. As of 2005, St. John's college has chosen not to participate in any collegiate rankings surveys, has not sent them their requested survey information. However, the school is still included in the influential U.S News college ranking guide. President Christopher B. Nelson states that "In principle, St. John's is opposed to rankings." He notes that
Princeton Review's list of the twenty colleges with the "happiest students" includes both St. John's campuses, the Santa Fe campus ranking seventh and the Annapolis campus ranking seventeenth. In the 2005 edition of the Princeton Review Guide entitled "The Best 357 Colleges", St. John's College (Santa Fe) received the following rankings:
The Great Books reading list, though it varies from year to year, is the basis of the curriculum at both St. John's campuses. The list, as of 2005, is as follows:
Writing in 1938, just after the first group of freshmen completed their first semester under the new curriculum, Stringfellow Barr insisted that there was nothing radical about the curriculum and that it was
In a 1944 essay, the pragmatist philosopher Sidney Hook was highly critical of the "St. John's experiment." In particular, he asked whether the presentation of science and mathematics through historical texts instead of conventional systematic study actually helped students "acquire greater competence in mathematics and science or a better insight into their character as liberal arts." By way of answer, he quoted three prominent mathematicians and scientists who opposed a historical approach to scientific education.
Hook quotes Richard Courant:
St. John's provokes to an intensified degree the long-standing question of whether a liberal arts degree is suitable preparation for modern-day employment. In the case of St. John's, the question is intensified because of St. John's idiosyncratic program and educational philosophy.
Robert Hutchins defended that educational philosophy in 1937, insisting that other educational methods "fail in all respects—we don't get either good practitioners or well-educated people." He said that thirty-six industries in Minneapolis and St. Paul, answering a questionnaire, said that they preferred "no specific education in schools" for their workers.
In his 1987 book College: The Undergraduate Experience in America, Ernest L. Boyer lampoons St. John's College, claiming that "The fixed curriculum of the colonial era is as much an anachronism today as the stocks in the village square.