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A Quiet Counterrevolution (spring 1999)
St. John’s College
THERE IS A CERTAIN IRONY inherent in asking someone from St. John’s College whether there have been any significant changes, since the defining philosophy of the institution is to stand on the most deeply held traditions.
Perhaps the most notable change in recent years involves the use of computers. In 1999 National CrossTalk reported that the Santa Fe campus had only 15 school-owned computers, but that is hardly the case today. “Students come in with computers as a tool, part of their everyday lives,” said Larry Clendenin, who graduated from the college in the late 1970s and is now director of admissions for the Santa Fe campus. “At least two-thirds of our incoming freshmen are bringing personal computers with them,” he said.
The Santa Fe campus has a computer lab with more than 50 machines, and the library also offers both PCs and Macs. “All of the rooms in residence halls are wired, so students have access to the World Wide Web,” Clendenin said. Computers and software have found their way into the curriculum, he added, but he was careful to clarify that they are used only “as a support.” St. John’s College is “still a pencil and paper place in the classroom,” he said.
According to David Cherry, admissions counselor at St. John’s campus in Annapolis, computers are now “ubiquitous, if only because of the popularity of the net.” But he added that it is “still rare for computers to be used for curricular purposes,” and that it would be inappropriate for a student to submit a paper as an e-mail attachment. “They print it out, and hand it to their tutors in person,” he said.
As we reported in 1999, the number of students who express an interest in applying to St. John’s continues to increase. But, since the college jealously limits enrollments to between 450 and 475 students at each campus, the only way for it to grow would be to establish a third campus—a distinct possibility, although there are no current plans to do so.
Both campuses boast new residential facilities, and are now housing a higher percentage of their students, currently about 70 to 75 percent. “Santa Fe is an expensive place for students to live,” said Clendenin. “It’s our desire for all the students to be able to reside on campus if they want to. And we have additional residence halls planned to begin construction next year.” According to Cherry, when two new residence halls were recently built on the Annapolis campus, “within a year, every room on campus was booked.”
When it comes to St. John’s “Great Books” curriculum, of course, any changes are reviewed very carefully, with deliberations involving the Faculty Committee on Instruction and the Student Committee on Instruction. And the pace of change is glacial. In 1999 we reported that Flannery O’Connor had recently “made the cut,” with the inclusion of some of her short stories in the curriculum. Eight years later, when Cherry was asked about recent changes in the required readings, O’Connor’s was still the first name cited. “That gets you into the 1950s,” he said. “We also took out ‘Prometheus Bound’ (by Aeschylus), and put in Aristophanes’ ‘The Birds.’” Martin Luther was recently replaced by John Calvin, Cherry said, and he hinted that there is some serious talk of removing the “Rat Man” case history from the Sigmund Freud reading.