St. John’s College, the so-called Great Books school, has provided a sanctuary for liberal education since 1937. All students study the same prescribed assignments at the same time as their classmates. Except for a few classes in the final two years, there are no electives. The readings comprise many of the world’s most intellectually challenging works, which are addressed in small group discussion sections. The faculty treat themselves as fellow learners and the students are expected to be active participants rather than passive consumers. The only tests are the challenges posed in these discussions.
St. John’s is one of the very few colleges that have systematically treated liberal education as an end in itself, rather than as a means of acquiring a useful credential or job training. The school has also resisted pressures to politicize its educational mission. In the spring of 1970, for example, when campuses around the nation were shut down by violent protests, St. John’s peacefully continued to practice the liberal arts. Rather than indulge themselves in a riot, the students and faculty organized extracurricular seminars to debate the issues raised by the war in Vietnam. So far as I’m aware, the president of the college did not make political statements, let alone become a political activist.
A lot has changed since then, and perhaps this college has as well. The co-presidents of the school’s two campuses have issued a statement about the events that have recently dominated the news. Administrators at most schools routinely respond to such events with standard-issue expressions of pious grief and compassion, often tinged with treacly self-abasement. Leaders at St. John’s should be able to avoid what the presidents call “the narrowness of beaten paths,” but in this case they did not even try.
Like administrators elsewhere, the presidents safely lament “the brutal, heartbreaking, and senseless killing of George Floyd” and the racism that “is an all too prevalent feature of our society.” Who will disagree? Amid all their virtue-signaling, however, they have not one word of regret, let alone outrage, over the murders of David Patrick Underwood and David Dorn, or others killed by rioters. Nor do the presidents so much as allude to the countless police officers and innocent civilians who’ve been shot or otherwise brutalized during what they delicately call the “protests underway in major cities across the United States in response to the Floyd murder and other too similar tragedies.”
There are plenty of hard questions raised by the death of Mr. Floyd and the ensuing unrest. Those questions should, as the presidents say, move “us to grapple with our unexamined beliefs and to free ourselves from prejudice.” But the presidents themselves offer what even they seem to recognize as empty platitudes. Remarkably, they are oblivious to how callous they must look to anyone who cares about all victims of criminal violence, including Messrs. Underwood and Dorn; including the survivors of vicious physical attacks by armed “protesters”; including those whose uninsured small businesses have been destroyed; and including those who will be robbed, raped, and murdered if woke politicians respond to police misconduct with measures that further embolden violent criminals.
The presidents solemnly intone that getting beyond platitudes is “hard work” and that it’s “high time we get to it.” They don’t specify what we’re all supposed to do, so I offer them this suggestion: Try to free yourselves from the reigning prejudices about what college presidents are required to say when protests, including violent criminal riots, are mounted in the name of addressing what you call “the fault line of racial inequality.” That should not be such hard work, and it might be a first step toward freeing yourselves from the unexamined beliefs that generate only pablum.
The St. John’s College at which I matriculated fifty years ago has been my alma mater in the fullest sense of the term. At that time, she sought to rouse students from their childish slumbers, to nourish their minds, and to liberate them from blind allegiance to fashionable opinion. If the words of her spokesmen are any indication, those days may be gone.
Nelson Lund is University Professor at George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School.
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