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Maryland College Takes 'Liberal Arts' Seriously - 2002-10-27

The buzzword in American education these days is "Liberal Arts." These academically diverse programs were once thought of as an intellectual gutter for college students who couldn't decide what subjects they wanted to major in. But now, Liberal Arts programs are touted by many educators as the best way to help students understand their complex world. In most programs, students still major in a particular subject. But not at St. John's College, in Annapolis, Maryland. There, administrators take the Liberal Arts so seriously, that students aren't allowed to major in anything, because they're expected to learn everything the school offers.

"Is this the first time we've seen that word?"

It's a Wednesday morning in Nick Maistrellis' Senior Science Seminar, and about twenty students are discussing the title of today's assigned reading. It's a paper written in 1905 by Albert Einstein, entitled "Concerning a Heuristic Point of View about the Creation and Transformation of Light."

Student 1: "In some sense, doesn't 'Heuristic' there mean something to the effect that he hasn't tried to produce any evidence of his own? That he's making a hypothesis about a place where he thought his view was the best one."
Student 2: "I don't think so…"

The students continue to discuss the paper, in which Einstein suggests that our scientific understanding of light is inadequateand then they perform the experiment that prompted the world-renown genius to write his paper. Instructor Nick Maestrellis says the experiment is a common part of most Introductory Physics courses.

But he says at other colleges, students focus on what is already known about light, and they rely on secondary-source textbooks. They don't read and painstakingly decipher Einstein's inquiries into the subject. "It's really hard for the radical nature of this discovery to become real to them," he says. "Because they're beginners in physics, and a textbook writer has a lot at stake in getting rid of the mystery, and making it into something that's a matter of professional knowledge. And that's not what we're trying to achieve. What I'm trying to achieve is to get them initially to see that this is a radical change in our thinking."

That goal of getting students to appreciate the radical nature of knowledge is at the heart of St. John's College's so-called "Great Books" curriculum. All of the students here take the same courses. They learn math from great western thinkers like Euclid and Nicholai Lobachevsky. Politics from Aristotle and Jean Jacques Rousseau. And history from Herodotus and Friedrich Nietzsche.

There are no departments or textbooks, and faculty members are required to teach all courses. Dean Harvey Flaumenhaft says truly revolutionary ideas are crafted by people who aren't prisoners of their own place in time. And he wants the students at St. John's to understand that many of the social and scientific concepts taken for granted today didn't always exist. They had to be conceived by someone. "We don't give them an overview of the current state of the art in anything and have them run with it. What we try to do is help them to see how the current state of the art is the outcome of a process of thought," he says. "See some of the considerations, some of the questions that gave rise to the answers that people start from now."

The mantra put forth by everyone at St. John's College is that the Great Books curriculum teaches students how to think. But it doesn't necessarily give them the specific facts and skills they need to get a job. Students desiring a career in medicine, for instance, often find they have to take one or even two years' worth of hard-core science courses at another undergraduate institution before they're ready to take the medical school entrance exams.

But 21-year-old John Kvesik says that doesn't bother him, because in many careers, you're always having to gather new facts. "Especially in a field like the medical field, or something like that, where it's growing and expanding, and the facts you might learn in college, by the time you become a doctor, those facts are no longer prevalent in that field," he says. "I mean, what's really at stake, and what's really important is your ability to learn and your ability to think about things in different ways. A lot of St. John's graduates that I talk to find that the first year they enter medical school, or the first year they enter a field, they're just totally lost. But then, once they get that background that all the other students have, then they far excel those students, because they have that ability to learn that the other students never got."

But the fact remains that a St. John's College education doesn't necessarily lead directly to a career. And because students and parents must often take out thousands of dollars in loans to finance a college education, most want to know that in the end, a college degree is going get them a job. That means the Great Books curriculum attracts a very particular type of studentone who can afford to love knowledge for its own sake.

The students at St. John's College tend to come from middle to upper-class families, and, for the most part, they're white. Twenty-year-old Bryson Finkley says that means he and his classmates do miss out on a very important opportunity to learn from their peers. "We're here at St. John's to learn, to get a liberal education, which means to make us free men and women, to take us out of our own time, so that we are not stuck thinking just what the common opinion is of today," he says. "And that makes sense to me, so in an analogous way, I think that if we were exposed to more non-white, non-middle class students, then we would be taken out of our own culture to become free men and women, to understand who we are and where we fit into the world."

But Bryson Finkley says he's still happy with the diverse, liberal arts education he's getting at St. John's, and he can't imagine going to college anywhere else. School administrators admit that the homogeneous nature of the school's student body is an unfortunateand unintendedconsequence of the Great Books curriculum and its 'experimental' reputation.

And they aren't really sure what can be done about it. But administrators are also confident that because the students at St. John's College know how to think, they're able to recognize the limits of their experiencesand find ways to compensate for them.