The Liberal Sciences and the Lost Arts of Learning

When freshmen arrive at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, one of their first assignments is to draw a picture of the dogwood tree that stands near the center of campus. With no training, preparation, even or much in the way of explanation, the students are told to study the tree closely and to render some aspect of it with paper and pencil.

Students say this drawing assignment is surprisingly challenging. Bearing the normal worries of a college freshman, to which are added the prospect of four years of intensive “great books” study covering the canon of Western thought from Aristotle to Einstein, they are directed to observe a tree. The sheer open-endedness of the assignment catches new students flat-footed. Anxious to impress, they are flooded with performance-related fears (“How will I know if I’ve done it right?”), the product of 12 years of graded assignments, tests, and an adolescence spent climbing the greasy pole of secondary school stardom. For St. John’s to work, performative habits, many years in the making, must be undone. Observing the tree and attempting to draw what one sees is the first, halting step in that process.

A Culture of Observation

The other question on the lips of students engaged in tree drawing, a not unreasonable one, is “Why are we doing this?” In what possible way would drawing a tree relate to the study of great books? The St. John’s College seal (above) offers the beginning of an answer to that question. The motto reads, “I make free adults from children by books and a balance.” Those words and symbols are worth pondering. The balance symbolizes the enterprise of modern science which so dominates our intellectual, economic, and social lives that we barely notice it. For most Westerners, there is only one pathway to “real” knowledge and it is embodied in the scientific method. Under the weight of empiricism, other forms of knowledge crumble into opinion. The balance embodies the post-Cartesian counting and measuring that is the means by which we have converted the rest of nature into an instrument of human well-being. The books that surround the balance are the great works of pre-Cartesian learning that propose a different approach to knowledge, scientific and otherwise, based on Aristotelian observation. The question the observational approach poses is not “What can I do with this?” but “What kind of thing is this, and what is it in itself?”

In mid-March, I had the opportunity to spend two days on the St. John’s campus attending science labs and mathematics tutorials to get a better understanding of how the New Program (the name given to St. John’s great books program in the mid-1930s) seeks to achieve integration of the observational and instrumental approaches to the science. The labs and tutorials bear a strong resemblance to the seminars that make up the rest of the St. John’s program. As with the seminars that deal with seminal works of philosophy, history, and literature, the mathematics and science classes are founded on the reading of original texts. Math courses focus on the works of Euclid, Ptolemy, Nichomachus, and Leibniz in which students “re-prove” the original proofs of geometry and calculus. Science labs rely on papers written by scientists who first made or articulated key discoveries in physics, chemistry, genetics, and other fields of investigation using the modern scientific method. Frequently, these readings are accompanied by experiments that seek to replicate the results detailed in the papers.

For labs, students assemble in a laboratory room around a square table accommodating 20 to 25 students. The sessions are led by a tutor and the emphasis is on a non-hierarchical instruction and learning. The use of the title of “tutor” de-emphasizes the role of the instructor who is understood to be simply the most advanced student in the room. While almost all tutors have Ph.D.’s, none are addressed as “professor” and their academic training may or may not be in field covered by the lab. (All St. John’s tutors eventually teach every aspect of the program creating a broad, democratized base of knowledge within the faculty.)

The expectation for all classes is that students will have read the text for the class session but tutors do not have a formal lesson plan or learning objective. Typically, a tutor will raise a question for consideration but most of the conversation occurs between the students rather than between the students and the tutor. This points to an important aspect of St. John’s pedagogy: we learn not just by listening but by speaking because it is through spoken articulation that students are forced to assemble disparate thoughts into coherent statement and to have their beliefs and conclusions tested and amended by others in real time. All relevant questions are deemed valid but all assertions and interpretations must be backed by evidence and argument.

Consistent with an observational approach, questions rather than answers form the basis of St. John’s pedagogy generally, including science instruction. One St. John’s graduate described to me how the school approached that staple of biology instruction, frog dissection. In a normal science class, students are prepped to look for certain things (“Find the heart; find the spinal cord; find the lungs”). St. John’s inverts this approach and asks students, “What do you want to know about the frog?” The formulation of the questions precedes the first incision because the incision disrupts the subject. Looking for one thing may obscure other things. The most important issue the student confronts is deciding what is important to know rather than getting answers to instrumental questions of how a particular organ or system works.

A complementary aspect of the St. John’s pedagogy is its emphasis on civil exchange. In the context of higher ed systems that are riven by intersectional conflict, the St. John’s approach is remarkable. Pano Kanelos, the president of the Annapolis campus (St. John’s is collectively made up of two campuses, the other in Santa Fe, New Mexico), noted that while other colleges and universities across the country had experienced a variety of disruptions, protests, and “silencing” of controversial voices, the spirit of open inquiry and civility at St. John has had the effect of channeling those social currents into constructive dialogue. But the Socratic system at St. John’s goes much deeper than just amelioration of strong and strongly held differences between students. The underlying purpose is to develop habits of “good disagreement”: reasoned exchange in which both parties’ primary value is the pursuit of truth rather than intellectual or political victory.

Inside the classroom, tutors and students adopt a formal style, addressing one another as “Mister” or “Ms.”. This is not an affectation but critical to de-personalizing disagreement. Another place you can see this relational strategy is the floor of the U.S. Senate where the rules require members who are often at daggers drawn to address one another through the Senate president and in the third person: “my friend” (often he or she isn’t) or “my esteemed colleague” (often used to veil feelings of contempt). These rhetorical gambits help redirect passions away from the person and toward the subject at hand. In the broader American culture of anger and confrontation these social lubricants are dismissed as hypocrisy. In reality, it is a form of civility that puts guardrails around conflict and helps hold democratic systems together.  

Entering the Time-Warp

A St. John’s laboratory session is something of a time-warp. Nominal time proceeds at its usual pace, but class time slows and intensifies. In the sessions I attended, the tutor provided a very brief introduction to the topic and then asked a question directed to an aspect of the paper under discussion. What ensues is what I call, “the Johnnie pause.” Silence in the classroom can be disconcerting, and St. John’s tutors are experts in allowing silence to do its work. It is possible to interpret the pause, as I initially did, as a lack of readiness or a failure to have “done the reading.” In reality, what the pause usually represents is concentrated thought, an effort to come to grips with the concept at hand and the tutor’s question. After a minute or two, a student hazards sharing a thought or question for further deliberation. This thread is picked up by another student to be affirmed, elaborated upon, or challenged. Gradually, the conversations develop momentum with the tutors intervening only if the discussion drifts too far into error or from the subject at hand. Depending on the class, this type of engagement goes on for two hours or more.

As the conversation of the physical phenomenon under discussion grows more complex, language is revealed to be inadequate to the task of describing abstract thought. At this point, students resort to drawing on the chalkboard to more clearly demonstrate their questions and hypotheses and the process of emendation continues in pictures. What this reveals is that scientific investigation is primarily a matter of imagination since the realities being investigated are frequently invisible and incompletely understood. Physical phenomena are described through analogy. During a discussion of complexities of electromagnetic lines of force, a student resorted to saying, “It’s like magic”, which has an unsatisfying feel but reflects the sense of wonder and discovery that drives the scientific process.

In the St. John’s pedagogy, scientific knowledge is not grasped but approached gradually from a distance and with the understanding that the observer will never quite arrive. In one lab, I saw students wrestle with the question of whether light is a wave or a particle with the class coming reluctantly to the same conclusion as Louis de Broglie, whose 1929 Nobel Prize-winning paper on the topic was the day’s reading: we don’t know for certain and probably can’t.

There is a tension in that statement. We crave certainty, and in the provisional nature of truth one detects the risk of relativism: there is no truth. Yet the thrust of the St. John’s program is that final knowledge, while it is held to exist and must be pursued, cannot be possessed. The more we move toward the possessive understanding of knowledge, the more mystery is discarded and knowledge takes on the instrumental character of post-Cartesian thought. In his 2010 Dean’s Statement, St. John’s tutor and former dean, Michael Dink, wrote about the school’s approach to the relationship between science and the humanities. He said the school’s seal “does not represent an achieved synthesis, but a deep and perplexing question…that prevents [the New Program] from being either an attempt to retreat from the modern world or…an uncritical, specialized engagement with it.” Out of this tension, Johnnies are nudged to move from an instrumental understanding of knowledge (“What can I do with this?”) to a deep appreciation for the beauty, complexity, and ultimately mysterious nature of what we know and how we know it.

So What?

It is all very nice, you might say, that this tiny liberal arts college in Annapolis, Maryland is engaged in an extended process of esoteric inquiry. Interesting, but what practical relevance does it have? A churlish Johnnie might respond with a sigh, and say, “Typical post-Cartesian.” The real response is that the St. John’s approach to science education has deep practical implications for preparing men and women for careers in the sciences, and, by extension, how science itself develops.

The observational approach to science appears to play a significant role in some impressive employment outcomes among St. John’s graduates. When I spoke with Jaime Dunn, Director of St. John’s Career Services, she offered that the most surprising aspect of her job was how many Johnnies chose vocations in science, technology, engineering and math. A casual review of available data appears to confirm this insight with significant numbers of St. John’s grads taking positions in medicine, medical research, data analysis, finance, and computer science, a rather counterintuitive outcome for a “great books” program. To borrow a sports analogy, St. John’s as an institution appears to punch above its scientific weight class. According to Dunn, in the case of computer science, a St. John’s degree leads graduates toward IT systems architecture which taps into the Johnnie-trained capacity to observe and assess systemic challenges. As entry level IT occupations are automated, the need for systems architects and analysts will continue to grow.  Added to this capacity for high-level conceptual development are the habits of mutually respectful exchange and collaboration mentioned above. According to employers, these types of soft or noncognitive skills, along with clear spoken and written communication, are the most important deficits among American workers.

This nexus between the St. John’s program and information technology, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning may turn out to be especially important. Amy Webb, a professor of strategic foresight at the NYU Stern School of Business and author of The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans & Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity, argues that the lack of diversity in the tech sector is a threat to long-term human well-being. While she centers her concerns around racial, ethnic, and gender diversity she argues that the relative absence of humanities education among computer programmers is also a significant problem.

The tech “tribe” Webb describes is rigorously and exclusively focused on training students in technical skills and has resisted efforts to broaden technology education to include study of philosophy and ethics. The long-term threat she identifies is the way the “go fast and break things” mentality of the tech sector is often blind to ethical considerations about how technology can negatively affect human beings. As machine learning takes off and AI develops more power to alter, renew, and extend itself, the instrumental values built into early versions of algorithms will be replicated in later, more advanced versions. Cross-fertilization between AI systems will further embed these values in other systems. To use a Johnnie-like analogy, algorithms begin to look like DNA. Early mutations may be helpful or harmful but regardless they will impact the entire genotype and perpetuate themselves in unpredictable ways. All of this calls for a slower and more deliberative approach. What’s lacking in the tech sector is the kind of philosophical reflection offered by St. John’s and the liberal arts generally which would help raise the too-often ignored “Should we?” alongside the ever-present “Can we?”

This returns us to where we started: the St. John’s seal with its balance and books. Shouldn’t the College founders have put wisdom at the center rather than measurement? Perhaps the seal acknowledges that, for better and worse, the scientific enterprise of counting, measuring, and using is at the center of Western society and is now the true global values-set. That enterprise has been tremendously powerful and delivered unprecedented levels of wealth and material well-being. But, as Webb argues, its success and power are also potentially threatening to human flourishing. The open books that surround the balance are not subservient to the strength of post-Cartesian science but serve as a warning and a protective hedge of observation, inquiry, and critique. Stringfellow Barr, one of the founders of the St. John’s said in 1938, the purpose of what he called the New Program “is to prepare students for the business of living as distinguished from the business of earning a living.” It is designed to create free adults and responsible citizens with the intellectual tools needed to think critically about all the questions that confront the individual and society—including the place, purpose, and limits of scientific knowledge in the midst of our rapidly accelerating technological revolution.