Anything I should know about St. John's College?
February 6, 2007 9:13 AM   Subscribe

I am applying to the Graduate Institute at St. John's College and I know there are at least a few St. John's folk around here. What should I know before applying?
posted by khaibit to Education (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You should e-mail Ethereal Bligh. He is an enthusiastic Johnie who loves to talk about experiences there.
posted by dios at 9:23 AM on February 6, 2007

I have at least three friends who went to St. John's, both as grad students and undergrads and have met several other grads (I live well within driving distance to Annapolis.) They all seemed to enjoy their experience, as well as get a great education.

However, aside from my friends (who are unique enough in their own right) Johnny's have a reputation for being eccentric bordering on flat-out weird and I certainly have met enough to confirm that this is the case. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can also be exasperating, particularly if you are more straight-laced and more conservative by temperment. However, I can say I have yet to meet a St. John's grad that is either dumb or boring.

It's always been that way. My dad graduated from the Naval Academy in the 50s, and I asked him about St. John's once. He laughed and said, "Well, we saw them around town. They were all a bunch of beatniks then." It hasn't changed.

FWIW, Annapolis is also a great little town to be in.
posted by Heminator at 9:44 AM on February 6, 2007

I grew up on Kent Island. Annapolis is pretty cool.

That said, I know quite a few people who really wanted to go to saint johns before they visited. They get many homeschooled kids who missed out on the whole socialization aspect of public schools. So expect to be in contact with a lot of strange undergrads. Graduate school might be a whole different story...
posted by phrontist at 9:52 AM on February 6, 2007

I did my undergraduate education at St. John's, and graduated last spring. It a wonderful, if somewhat screwy, place. What is you undergraduate background? What are you hoping to get out of the master's degree? I think most of the St. John's experience depends on your own expectations.

I am not familiar with the graduate application process, but as an undergraduate applicant, I had to write three personal essays. Those essays seemed to act as a guage of my suitability for the education. I was a disillutioned intellectual, who had been unsatisfied with all my previous schooling. I loved reading and conversation. My essays just served to illustrate these points at length. The other admissions essays I've read were quite similar.

St. John's prides itself on being the only true education. I am now skeptical of that dogmatism, but it is certainly an excellent institution. Thoughout my four years there, I found myself intensely intellectually developed, but somewhat emotionally and spiritually stiffled. That would be my only word of caution. Take care of your heart. Otherwise apply away! Please e-mail me if you have more specific questions. I would be in interested in what other johnnies have to say about their experiences.
posted by amileighs at 9:56 AM on February 6, 2007

I did a section of my undergrad work at St. John's Santa Fe, and loved it. The people I know who have done the Graduate Institute have only told me good things about it. What campus are you considering?
posted by korej at 10:02 AM on February 6, 2007

PS: I would say a little less than half the students are undersocialized weirdos, but the others are cool, interesting people who just chose the non-traditional education route. I am an attractive, perfectly socially adjusted girl, who just wanted something different. I'll send you pictures if you need proof! :)
posted by amileighs at 10:03 AM on February 6, 2007

Best answer: Phew, here's a long one. Get ready for a big reading. Heh.

I went to St. John's (SF '04). The "propaganda" literature is generally pretty reliable-- being as how it's such a small school, it's hard for anybody there to miss the feel of the place-- but, as with any complex experience, it might be hard to nail it precisely. I could probably go on for a long time about it, but I'll try here to give a concise picture of what made St. John's College one of the best things that happened to me, and point out some things about the GI program (which many of my friends attended) that it seems like you should know.

The first thing the materials will tell you is that St. John's is "one college on two campuses." That means that the curriculum is the same, with small differences. Santa Fe has many classes that are longer, and some of the readings are different (Maimonides is not read, for example, in Annapolis.) However, the larger differences between the two campuses are not in the curriculum, but in the environment and culture; Santa Fe (or "Fe," as the students from Annapolis seem annoyingly to have taken to calling it) has a long, rambling, spread-out campus that is not centralized, and slopes up the side of a hill on the edge of Santa Fe, whereas the Annapolis students (or "Annapoloids," as Santa Fe students have named them) have a campus that is smaller and centralized around a quad. The Annapolis campus, being the eastern and older of the two, has something of an academic reputation it feels it needs to uphold; the Santa Fe campus is, like Santa Fe itself, a bit 'earthier.' I tend to feel that the Santa Fe campus accomplishes the St. John's mission a bit better, being more organic and less concerned with appearing to be an academic institution. The Santa Fe campus was opened in the '60's in order to accomodate growing applicants without expanding the Annapolis student body beyond the optimum 400 students.

The Graduate Institute was formed in the late '70's in order to present the St. John's material in a format that would fit better into the lives of those who had already graduated from college. As such, it's shorter, and streams of thought are sometimes truncated. For the very few who've graduated from college and can spend the time and money to return, the four-year program is certainly better; even that is usually criticized more for its brevity than its length. I certainly wish I could've spent more time on many of the things I did there. This is the way with books, and St. John's will teach you this in spades: you can spend as much time on them as you have.

This is not to say that the graduate program isn't worth doing; on the contrary, it's a fine course of study. But it is to say that you'll have to come to terms with a different kind of 'preparation for class.' I don't want to make assumptions about where you studied, but I've found that at most of the colleges I've had experience since St. John's I had at most two or three people to please in any given class. Usually, that number is closer to one: the professor. 'Preparing for class' at most colleges usually means reading the text with the questions the professor will ask in mind, or going over lecture notes from last week.

At St. John's, you aren't required to attend any lectures, and taking notes is strongly discouraged. The all-discussion all-the-time format means any person can challenge you on anything you say at any given time. And it really doesn't matter what the tutor thinks of you. I found this made my readings infinitely better; I'd be thinking of what twenty different people might say to the text when I read, and trying to decide how I saw it myself. Knowing that you'll have to defend whatever readings you have makes you much more careful. It also brings texts alive in a way that's really difficult for me to describe; it means a great deal to know that all of these people are reading along with you and talking about it. I have a feeling that's how human beings were meant to read in the first place.

Having to face your fellow students, day in and day out, and talk with them about such extremely controversial topics as death, religion, sex, love, God, et cetera tends to bring out the best and the worst in people. Undergraduates at St. John's start reading the Bible at the beginning of their sophomore year, after, as I tend to think about it, a year of 'warm-up' on the Greeks. This is an incredibly difficult time; in my classes, at least, I had people who argued that "God is either a complete and total asshole or a nonexistent illusion" sitting next to people who were extremely devout. (There's a Russian Orthodox contingent among the tutors in Santa Fe. I always found this somewhat refreshing; at the least, talking with thoughtful Christians was very nice.) You'll notice after a while that you'll meet someone who seems, on the surface, perfectly innocuous; later, a friend will mention him and say "holy fuck, that person is such an asshole!" Inner arrogances and weaknesses are revealed instantly by conversation, it seems, and at St. John's you tend to get aggravated by tiny habits of speech and the slimmest shades of condescension that you never found yourself noticing before. This is one of the things I liked most about it: you're forced to get to know all of the people around you intimately, and people who you'd never have talked to before are suddenly very dear to you, while those who you might've thought were incredible geniuses suddenly are revealed to be a little less than they seemed.

I mentioned before that the GI program has its particularities that you'll have to get used to. Another one, though I don't want to emphasize it, is this: I don't know if you've ever been a graduate student and dealt with undergraduates before, but at St. John's College, the relationship between graduate and undergraduate students is almost the reverse of that at other colleges. That is, undergraduates, sometimes rightly, see themselves as pursuing the true core of the St. John's curriculum, and believe that the graduate students are not. You'll make it farther if you come to terms with this: undergraduates are your equals-- if tutors can treat them as such, so can you-- and you can learn a lot from them. The most successful GI students I knew at St. John's were the ones who took this egalitarianism in stride, happily joining up with study groups and such, getting into as many undergraduate preceptorials as they could, and sitting down and talking with anybody interesting whenever they got the chance.

St. John's meant a lot to me. Like a lot of students, I spent some time fantasizing about teaching there, even after I left. Hell, I still do.

If you have any more questions, feel free to post them. I'd love to help out. My email's also in my profile if you're shy.
posted by koeselitz at 10:06 AM on February 6, 2007 [3 favorites]

Herminator: "It's always been that way. My dad graduated from the Naval Academy in the 50s, and I asked him about St. John's once. He laughed and said, "Well, we saw them around town. They were all a bunch of beatniks then." It hasn't changed."

Indeed. In fact, if you're wondering, some of us figured out how it all works a while ago. It's like this:

The Middies (at the Naval Academy) think that the St. John's students in Annapolis are dirty hippies. The St. John's student in Annapolis think that the 'Fe students are dirty hippies. The Santa Fe St. John's students think that the people at the College of Santa Fe are dirty hippies. The people at the College of Santa Fe think that the St. John's students there are angry preppies. The Santa Fe St. John's students think that the Annapoloids are angry preppies. The St. John's students in Annapolis think that the Middies are just jerks.
posted by koeselitz at 10:12 AM on February 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Visit. I was totally smitten with SJC (Santa Fe) after reading all their propaganda, and then I went to see the campus and it really hit home that the school was smaller than my elementary school and less than a tenth of the size of my high school.

Literally, the moment I stepped onto campus I knew I couldn't handle how tiny it was. It went from being my top choice school to my bottom choice school in minutes.

Also, one thing that bugged me was that while I loved the discussion-oriented way things happened, the fact that the tutors weren't any more experts than the students a lot of the time gave me pause. I sat in on a class about Phaedre in which the entire class had mistranslated a French word that was fairly crucial to understanding the line they were talking about; they'd told me I wasn't allowed to talk in the classes I sat in on, and smoke was fairly coming out my ears by the time I got up and left.

In other words, if you haven't already, VISIT.
posted by crinklebat at 10:26 AM on February 6, 2007

Second visiting before embarking. I checked it out, found the size and some other parts of its distasteful, and went with the original great books curriculum.
posted by zpousman at 11:10 AM on February 6, 2007

On a related note: what are the typical next steps for people in the St. John's Graduate Institute? Is it a good stepping stone to a PhD or a teaching career, for example? I've been reading the Great Books on my own for several years now and love the idea of the GI, but given the cost of the program (both in terms of tuition and time) I have wondered about this.
posted by magnislibris at 11:32 AM on February 6, 2007

magnislibris: "On a related note: what are the typical next steps for people in the St. John's Graduate Institute? Is it a good stepping stone to a PhD or a teaching career, for example?"

Yes. In fact, about 70% of the GIs I knew there used it as such. It's not useful for much else, unfortunately. If it's 'useful' you're after, then the St. John's program, GI or otherwise, isn't really your best bet.

magnislibris: "I've been reading the Great Books on my own for several years now and love the idea of the GI, but given the cost of the program (both in terms of tuition and time) I have wondered about this."

That's understandable. At about $12,000 per year, you wonder if it will be financially beneficial. I believe it can be.
posted by koeselitz at 11:56 AM on February 6, 2007

I visited SJC (Santa Fe) as an undergrad, and was struck by the easygoing atmospher. However, it seemed to me like classes never really stopped for anyone who was living on-campus; the nightly recreation was to discuss the days lessons exhaustively over a beer and a bonfire.
posted by muddgirl at 3:26 PM on February 6, 2007

When I was at St. John's, at least, (in Annapolis, as an undergraduate, in the late '90s) the Graduate Institute seemed to attract an unsettling number of creepy right-wingers who thought they were helping to fight in the Culture Wars by going there. They weren't the majority of the graduate students, by any means, and there were also a lot of cool people there, but there were enough of them for it to be noticeable. I have no idea if this is still true, or if it's like that in Santa Fe. I wouldn't say it's a reason not to go there, but it's something to be prepared for. (Or, heck, maybe you're into that sort of thing.)

Definitely go for a visit. It's probably the best way to get a sense of what the program's like.

I'd second what koeselitz said about the relationship between the undergraduates and the graduates.

Oh, also, do you use a lot of qualifiers in your speech right now? "It seems to me", "at least usually", "as far as I can tell", that sort of thing? 'Cause you totally will, and, as I'm sure Ethereal Bligh can attest, it'll drive some people crazy.
posted by moss at 5:16 PM on February 6, 2007

My friend the Johnnie asked me to add this to the thread:

Some Cursory thoughts on SJC:

I attended in the mid 90’s and have these impressions to share.

In theory, the curriculum is wonderful. The problem is, in practice,
there’s no way in hell to read all those damn books thoroughly. Thus, even
among tutors, there’s a high degree of dilettantism. But they are all
dilettantish in the way Thomas Jefferson was.

But take care, it isn’t all poetry and bull-session philosophizing; there is
heavy lifting. Math and science are a significant part of the curriculum.
Medical school is a frequent destination for Johnnies. The sciences damn
near wiped me out: the calculus and physics component junior year is not for
the faint of heart. The name Heisenberg still gives me nightmares. Oddly
enough, I am now in a job that requires fluency in the sciences.

The social scene. Like Reed and Middlebury colleges, St. John’s attracts
the sort of student who wouldn’t survive pledging the Kappa Sig house at
State U. I am, however, told that the students get more main-stream every
year. Some see this as regrettable, others, like me, are happy about it.
But that said, you’ll never meet a smarter or more curious student body
anywhere. The students at St. John’s are genuinely interested in getting an
education, in the classical sense of the word, and not just padding their
resumes. Unlike Reed or Middlebury, you won’t get shouted down if you
violate the norms of political correctness. As a conservative Republican, I
never, not once, encountered political correctness at SJC. Fact is that
nearly 90 per cent of the books on the program would be consigned to the
flames if PFAW or Common Cause had their way (they'd spare Rousseau, Marx,
and maybe Hegel). That tends to keep political correctness in check on
campus. The standard at St. John’s seems to be that if you can defend your
side articulately, thoughtfully, and honorably, your ideas deserve a

The midshipmen across the way. My favorite drinking buddies were
midshipmen. In return for giving them a place to stash their malt liquor in
my dorm room, they would often help me with my calculus homework. There is
fraternization between Johnnies and Middies. Since the 1970’s there’s been
something of a rapprochement between the two schools, mostly due to the
annual St. John’s-Naval Academy croquet match. A naval academy professor
even advised me on my senior thesis paper (for which I received honors from
the college). During my 4 years at SJC, there were several Johnnie-Middie

The Graduate Institute is a bit lighter than the undergraduate program. But
it is nonetheless worthwhile. A good friend of mine who took his BA from
Harvard went to the Graduate Institute afterwards because he felt he didn’t
get a real education in Cambridge. This friend went on to greater glory at
Yale’s graduate history program, and is now a top ranking official in the
Bush administration.

There’s a lot more to say, and I’ve said a lot already, so I’ll just finish
by saying it’s the greatest little college around.
posted by Heminator at 6:06 AM on February 7, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you all for your feedback. This has been extremely helpful. As a point of interest, I was looking at the Santa Fe campus with an eye toward doctoral studies in the future, likely in comparitive religion. Again, thank you.
posted by khaibit at 7:32 AM on February 7, 2007

moss: "When I was at St. John's, at least, (in Annapolis, as an undergraduate, in the late '90s) the Graduate Institute seemed to attract an unsettling number of creepy right-wingers who thought they were helping to fight in the Culture Wars by going there. They weren't the majority of the graduate students, by any means, and there were also a lot of cool people there, but there were enough of them for it to be noticeable. I have no idea if this is still true, or if it's like that in Santa Fe."

Wow. That's interesting.

In Santa Fe, the GIs tend toward flaky, Santa Fe-type spiritualism. (Which I have to say I kind of like.) It makes sense; people hate institutional politics in the West. (Which is another thing I like.)
posted by koeselitz at 8:28 AM on February 7, 2007

So I also mentioned this question on my blog, and I got a couple of long responses.

From a friend who started there in 2000, but left in sophomore year:
As someone who left SJC five minutes before he could be kicked out, I think it's important to know that not all intelligent, intellectual people survive at St John's. In my experience, it's essentially impossible to know who will. Crucially, it has no correlation at all to how awesome you think the Program is. I'm still more in love with SJC than some graduates I know.

I sometimes fantasize about one day having the money to blow on the GI. But I don't know, I always sort of felt like it was a pale shadow of the undergraduate Program. I had very few interactions with GIs while I was there, and St John's is, as someone else said, as much about what happens outside of class as in it. Plus, the GI is so so small, I'm just not sure it could ever hit a critical mass. Finally, I think a seminar made up of successful adulty types who can afford to indulge themselves with a master's degree with almost no practical value to speak of would be lacking something. An element of insanity, perhaps; I just don't see that the insane people would be able to afford the GI. I've known a couple GIs, and they seemed like fine people... but they didn't really seem like Johnnies.

Also worth mentioning is that SJC has started tightening up undergrad admissions, which has kept out the interesting people and led to a major squareifying of the campus. I don't know how much impact that would have on the GI, but I simply can't believe that the sobriety that's now been imposed on the undergrads (at least in 'Naplis) wouldn't affect even the graduates.

All of which is to say that the Great Books Program is arguably the best liberal arts education available in any institution in the United States, and that if you are one of those people for which it is right you will benefit enormously from it.

And from one of my classmates:
From a St. John's B.A. who spent time on both campuses in the 90s, and graduated with moss:

I don't know which campus you're interested in, so I'll presume that's up in the air.

All else being equal, it is probably easier to be a
graduate student in Santa Fe. The Graduate Institute began on that campus, and has a more established identity and culture there. Undergraduates are very much the main thing on both campuses, but the de facto caste system is a little less pronounced in Santa Fe.

The expansiveness of the Santa Fe campus helps. The Annapolis campus is densly populated, and it will be hard to get away from other people, especially the undergrads, while you're on campus.

All else is never equal, of course. If you like the East Coast, water, and a walkable town, you'll want to be in Annapolis.

If you like the West, desert sun, mountains, relative isolation and outdoor recreation, you'll want to be in Santa Fe.

Housing is likely to be a little cheaper and easier to get in Annapolis, and much of the stock of local rentals is within walking distance of campus.

If you want to do the Eastern Classics program, you have no choice but to go to Santa Fe, as I'm sure you're well aware.

As has been said before, visiting campus before matriculating is essential.

If you haven't, call the Institute and ask them to put you in touch with a couple of current students. They'll be able to speak to your curiosity and concerns. Even if I were to return to St. John's as a graduate student, I'd do this. I have concerns as an adult that I simply didn't have as a 20-something undergrad who lived mostly on campus and worked student jobs.

You'll save yourself a lot of grief if you don't like what you hear from the students. OTOH if you like what you hear you'll have someone to meet when you visit.

The degree has very little commercial utility by itself. Most people don't understand what's behind it. (This is true both for both the B.A. and M.A.) It is what you make it.

For me St. John's was a good fit, and I wouldn't trade my experiences and the skills I gained for any other education. It won't take you long to determine whether or not it's fitting for you. If it isn't, don't spend a minute or dime more on the place.

Good luck!

And it was also pointed out that there was a somewhat related question last year--not quite the same as yours, but it might still have some useful advice.
posted by moss at 11:00 AM on February 7, 2007

« Older How to easily search/replace in MySQL database?   |   Taxman Cometh Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.