Great Books College: St. John’s College – Humanities Connection

March 2, 2015
by Maryland Humanities

Last week on Humanities Connection we featured a commentary by St. John’s College President Christopher Nelson.  St. John’s College in Annapolis is a liberal arts college where students focus on collaborative inquiry and the study of original texts to examine the fundamental questions of what it means to be human.

We’ve reprinted it below. For those of us who would rather hear the audio, listen to President Nelson’s Podcast below.  What do you think about their approach to learning?  Let us know in your comment below.


Humanities Connection.2.25.15.St.John’sCollege


President Christopher Nelson, St. John’s College

St. John’s College is known as the first Great Books college, with a single Program of study which all students follow for an entire four years. When people first hear of what we do they can scarcely believe their ears. We invite them to come and see. If they are familiar with other institutions of education, here are the main differences they will observe:

  • First, we go back behind the modern departmental division between humanities and sciences to an older ordering: authors and arts. We regard all studies—including mathematics and science—as humanities, because they all contribute to human growth. Hence almost half of our curriculum is math and science, while the rest encompasses language, literature, history, social science, philosophy, and music.
  • Second, our Program is entirely unified; thus, there are no departments at all and practically no electives.
  • And third, there is no lecturing in class. Our faculty, who teach the whole Program, are not professors of knowledge, but advanced learners assisting novices in serious and penetrating inquiry.

We deal directly and immediately with books, which we read together with our students during their four years. These books are not, as is often imagined, a museum of dusty texts composed by privileged people. They are the living springs of the modern world, through which we come to know the terms we live with. They help us know ourselves.

This point of view—that to know ourselves we need to know our tradition—is different from “historicism,” the notion that we are the products of impersonal historical forces set into deterministic motion at some point in the long-dead past.

We want nothing to do with what is dead and bygone. When we speak of “tradition,” we mean individual works by thinking authors that have shaped contemporary life in ways of which we are largely unconscious. We can bring these works back to life by reading them not as historical documents but as living presences that made us who we are and taught us to talk as we do. We are convinced that these Great Books contain a live wisdom necessary for thinking out our daily lives, for living with awareness.

Our students come to us with a love of reading, a thirst for learning, and a desire to create their own education by actively participating in it. Ideally, when they graduate four years later, they have a keener understanding of themselves, the limits of their knowledge, and the world around them—together with the courage to continue identifying and correcting imperfections both within and without.

We believe that this is the true purpose of liberal education. We strive to provide the occasion for it to all who want it. And we welcome students of all ages who seek it to visit us at St. John’s College.