June 21, 2017
A recent Pew Research Center survey of 1,408 technology and education professionals suggested that the most valuable skills in the future will be those that machines can’t yet easily replicate, like creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, adaptability and collaboration. In short, people need to learn how to learn, because the only hedge against a fast-changing world is the ability to think, adapt and collaborate well.
But perhaps instead of reinventing higher education, we can give students what they need for the future by returning to the roots of liberal arts. Consider St. John’s College, America’s third-oldest institution of higher education, founded in 1696. With fewer than 700 students between two campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe, St. John’s is a bit under the radar. But it’s emerged as one of the most distinctive colleges in the country by maintaining a strict focus on the classics of the Western canon.
Many fine schools in the US organize classes and curriculum around Western classics, and St. John’s two campuses look much like hundreds of small colleges across America. So what makes St. John’s unique? First, as David Brooks of the New York Times recently wrote, the college has the “courage to be distinct” amid a marketplace of more than 5,000 colleges and universities in the US. A big part of that distinction is due to a strict adherence to its own curated curriculum and teaching methods, know simply as “the Program” implemented back in 1937.
In contrast to some liberal arts stalwarts like Brown or Wesleyan that allow students to choose from a vast array of classes with few restrictions, St. John’s offers only the Program; it’s prix fixe is a higher education world of a la carte. Four years of literature, language, philosophy, political science and economy, and math. Three years of laboratory science, and two of music. That’s it. No contemporary social studies. No accounting. No computer classes. No distinct majors or minors.
The Great Books, or “texts” as they are referred to at St. John’s, flow largely in chronological order. Starting with the Greeks and working through the 20th century including some “recent” science readings from the 1950s and 1960s, the curriculum is rarely altered. The college adds only what it believes are seminal works, and often it takes decades to reach consensus on what may be worthy of inclusion. Juniors and seniors have “electives” and can suggest texts for a class or two. The sequencing of classes is very important to the St. John’s method, with knowledge building over the semesters and years.