St. John’s College, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Annapolis, Maryland, recently hit the headlines, but not for the reasons we’ve come to expect for a global higher education provider…
For this institution deliberately veers away from current education trends, defining its own outlook by going against the tide.
In an opinion piece titled, The Most Contrarian College in America, published by The New York Times in September, Frank Bruni ponders the significant difference between an education from St. John’s and other universities in the United States.
Rather than adapting the curriculum to meet 21st century expectations, ‘the program’ at St. John’s has remained mostly unchanged since it was implemented in 1937. All students follow the same program: an in-depth exploration of the classics of the Western canon from Aristotle, Aeschylus and Thucydides, to Kant, Copernicus and Einstein.
In fact, an education at St. John’s involves the most comprehensive study of the traditional western canon, more so than any other US university. A la Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, students at St. John’s gain an in depth understanding of well, everything that shaped modern literary, academic and scientific thought.
The reading list contains seminal texts that have shaped Western discourse in literature, philosophy, science and mathematics.
Examples include Einstein’s Relativity, Descartes’ Geometry, Discourse on Method, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Newton’s Principia Mathematica, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and everything in between.
Rather than constantly evolving programs to keep pace with a rapidly-changing word, Bruni argues that this in-depth study of the classics gives us a more stable structure of studying “the through line from yesterday to tomorrow”.
In the classroom, students don’t get lectured at about the great books. Instead, every class is a small discussion.
Alumna, Editor-in-Chief of HuffPost, and Board member Lydia Polgreen argues that at St. John’s texts are used to guide conversations, serving as an anchor to reality around which the class must gather. She also discusses the college’s proud tradition of intellectual diversity. Students come from each end of the political spectrum to discuss vast concepts of philosophy, sense of self and what makes us human.
Such an in-depth education is, as Bruni puts it, ‘a gift’. On his visit to the school he found the students to be unbelievably articulate, literate, focused and most of all humble. The most significant lesson of all is learning how much is ‘unknowable’.
This radical model, with its small class sizes and personalised teaching, does not come cheap, and Mark Roosevelt, President of St. John’s College in Santa Fe admits that in the past, the school has given in to the trend of “prestige pricing” for reputable universities, keeping costs high to validate status.
But St. John’s will no longer be a part of this, rejecting the model most other American universities follow. Starting from the next academic year (autumn 2019), yearly tuition is being lowered from US$52,000 to US$35,000.
This change recognizes the vast inflation of college tuition and the fact that most students receive some kind of financial aid anyway, making the whole process confusing and demoralising.
This achievement is innovative and exciting. The cost of educating a student at St. John’s has been calculated at US$59,203 due to the small, faculty-led classes.
But the generosity of philanthropy from the school’s esteemed alumni and friends, part of a major fundraising campaign called Freeing Minds: A Campaign for St. John’s College, provides US$24,203 per student, lowering tuition fees to US$35,000.
It’s taken three long years of funding ventures to achieve this, with the ultimate goal of US$300 million by 2023 announced two years ago. One alumnus, Warren Winiarski, founder of the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, has even agreed to match up to $50 million of contributions.
The school understands that expenditure goes further than just tuition; students who live on campus pay room, board and other required fees at an average cost of $14,310, making the total cost of attendance around US$49,310.
St. Johns is also aware that even a US$35,000 tuition with living costs on top puts St. John’s out of reach for many families. So, the college provides generous need-based financial aid to make an education affordable for all students, domestic and international.
In fact, 85 percent of students receive some need-based financial aid and on average, with financial aid, students pay US$24,800 per year.
It’s an incredible opportunity for students to receive the education of a lifetime at an affordable price. Find out more about St. John’s here.