the johnnie chair

{a student-run blog about life at st. john's college, santa fe}

2048 meets Great Books authors

Posted on April 14, 2014

Screen Shot 2014 04 14 at 5.10.26 PM 2048 meets Great Books authors
If you’re like most of campus, the wildly popular game 2048 is your favorite procrastination time-suck at the moment. Something about all those accumulating numbers, it’s just so very, very satisfying. But the novelty of it is beginning to wear off… getting a little bit two thousand forty-LATE, you might say. Well, as we know, the Great Books aren’t ever going out of fashion, so today the Johnnie Chair is proud to present to you the Johnnie version of 2048. Start off with the Illiad, get to Socrates… see if you can make it all the way up the Program to Heidegger.

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Bookshelves

Posted on April 14, 2014

I just convinced Sarah and Aidan to let me interview them about their bookshelves and experience at St. John’s for an email to prospective students. I’ve got some pretty awesome friends.

Aidan Bookshelves

What’s the difference between attending St. John’s College and just reading the books on your own?

I actually can’t tell if St. John’s is more about the conversations we have about the books we read, or the books we read themselves. The way a class goes can totally change the way I feel about a reading, and that’s something that I wouldn’t get anywhere else. On the other hand, it can be nice to be able to have your own private and naive opinions on a book you really like. At St. John’s you kind of get forced to lay all those cards on the table.

Have you done any cool study groups at St. John’s? What do you like to read when you’re not reading for class?

I did a study group on William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which is probably the single hardest thing I’ve ever read. I made it through the whole book with the group, but understood maybe 5% of what happened. I like to keep Wallace Stevens, Monica Ferrell, and Michael Palmer by my bed most of the time. Ursula K. LeGuin, as well.

Aidan Bookshelf Bookshelves

What are some of the books you look back on the most—whether to reference in a paper or just to revisit for pleasure?

Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, Augustine’s Confessions, and Huckleberry Finn.

Okay, how about a haiku that describes St. John’s:

How many Johnnies
does it take to screw in a
lightbulb? ∞ = 1 = 0.

Are you counting ∞ = 1 = 0 as three syllables? 

Fine, how about this one:
Set the alarm for
eight twelve: I’ll let this one
seep in while I dream.

Sarah Bookshelves

What was your first Aha! moment at St. John’s?

It is all one long Aha! moment. I know that is not a satisfying answer but it is true. In freshman year it was amazing to me how connected all the subjects seemed. Everything is intrinsically linked, nothing is disjointed. That is satisfying.

How did you know St. John’s was the place for you?

I knew that I wanted to study the history of Western thought and I wanted to study it rigorously. I had attended another liberal arts college before St. John’s and it felt like a big joke to me—it was all looks and very little substance. I wanted to  be able to laugh and learn, take the program seriously but not take myself too seriously, work hard and feel like I was getting somewhere intellectually. I didn’t want to be pigeon holed as a certain type of thinker. I wanted a place with structure because I think it is very hard, if not impossible, to really get far intellectually without it. St. John’s was a place that I felt could offer me the opportunity to realize these goals. I was right.

Sarah Bookshelf Bookshelves

What’s the deal with some of your non-program books, like Shop Theory or Wonders of the Human Body?

My partner and I are interested in the way things work, by the intersection of craft and philosophy. He is a blacksmith and so we have many blacksmithing books on our shelves, like Shop Theory. We both come from “maker” families: my dad is a boat builder, mom a baker; his dad is a graphic designer, mom a painter, but trained as a typesetter. Our lives are very influenced by them. In many ways, our bookshelves seem to reflect that influence.

What types of books have you read at St. John’s that you wouldn’t have chosen to read on your own?

Oh so many! But the one that immediately comes to mind is the Bible. It was such a challenge for me. Reading the Old Testament for so long, yet not having the time to really synthesize and digest all the information in it felt a little like getting beat up. It was exhausting. But I ended up writing my enabling essay on two Psalms, 90 and 91. I felt like I owed it to myself to attempt to understand something from the Bible, if only thirty short lines. It was a very gratifying process. It made me feel much more at ease and made me want to re-examine what we had read in first semester sophomore seminar.

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Inspiring words from a Johnnie-to-be

Posted on April 10, 2014

A friend of mine who I was lucky to meet during his visit to SJC as a prospie just decided to enroll here. He’s pretty chuffed about the decision (as we think he should be), so I’ll let him tell you about it in his own words. This is his facebook status from earlier today:

After careful deliberation, it is with great excitement and joy on my part to announce that I will be attending St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the fall. How could I realistically turn down four years of thorough primary source study within the liberal arts and Western Philosophical canon? I’m more than ready, quite eager, to embark on four years of intensive conversation, dialogue, and thought. I have never been to a more organic or intellectual environment in my life, and I am proud to say that I have the privilege of attending St. John’s.

Aww, stop it. We’re blushing. Glad you had such a great time visiting, and super pumped to welcome you and all the new freshmen this autumn.

If you’re still deciding whether the Program that teaches you how to think rather than what to think is right for you, remember that you may make your deposit at any time!

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Ooooh, shiny…

Posted on April 10, 2014

If you’ve searched for St. John’s within the past week or so, you probably noticed our new website. It’s been launched after a large-scale redesign as part of the continuing question of how St. John’s should be spreading the word about what we do here. Of course, we at thejohnniechair think that the internet should be a big part of that, and students, tutors and the wider college community gave valuable input over many, many months as to what it should look like. It’s not perfect yet, and there’ll be many changes gradually implemented to get everything just right.

My favorite part of the new website is the Intellectual Explorers microsite. Check out that link to see videos of students talking about what they’re most passionate about, in there own words. Check out Zoe’s chalk-talks of the program by year, then see what other videos interest you. (You might even find a few videos featuring some of this blog’s contributors….)

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So You Want to Work at Google? Good Thing You’re at St. John’s!

Posted on March 10, 2014

In a recent conversation with Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, the man in charge of hiring at Google—Lazlo Bock—describes why Google is becoming less interested in big name schools, test scores, and GPAs when considering a job candidate. His reasoning seems avant-garde at first, but it’s almost exactly what St. John’s has been focusing on for years.

For every job, though, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information.

The learning ability that Bock speaks of is the very thing at the heart of the St. John’s Program. It’s what you develop when you’re repetitively pushed outside of your intellectual comfort zone and forced to think for yourself. It’s what some educators call divergent thinking. Or what President Nelson described in his convocation speech, as he watched his son fiddle with the broken wipers in their 60s VW Bug. Pulling together “disparate bits of information” is what St. John’s is all about. Or how about this one:

The least important attribute they look for is “expertise.” Said Bock: “If you take somebody who has high cognitive ability, is innately curious, willing to learn and has emergent leadership skills, and you hire them as an H.R. person or finance person, and they have no content knowledge, and you compare them with someone who’s been doing just one thing and is a world expert, the expert will go: ‘I’ve seen this 100 times before; here’s what you do.’ ” Most of the time the nonexpert will come up with the same answer, added Bock, “because most of the time it’s not that hard.” Sure, once in a while they will mess it up, he said, but once in a while they’ll also come up with an answer that is totally new. And there is huge value in that.

It’s a great reminder that for all the holistic intentions of St. John’s, the Program is immensely practical as well. Sure, it’s probably not as easy to go this route, but it provides us with a manner of thinking that is increasingly coveted in a world of people who have confused the memorization of manuals with being “smart”.

The world only cares about — and pays off on — what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it). And in an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, it also cares about a lot of soft skills — leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. This will be true no matter where you go to work.

Read the rest of the article here.

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Notes on Dialogue

Posted on February 25, 2014

Perhaps the first obstacle to writing even these random notes on dialogue is that the very word,  dialogue, has been temporarily turned into a cliché. Everybody is loudly demanding dialogue, and  there is not much evidence that most of us are prepared to carry one on. Indeed, to borrow a  traditional phrase from professional diplomats, conversations have deteriorated. But both radio  and television, whether public or commercial, remind us daily that a lonely crowd hungers for  dialogue, not only for the dialogue of theatre but also for the dialogue of the discussion program.

So begins Stringfellow Barr’s dialectical manifesto, Notes on Dialogue (and in fact the first reading of the first mock-seminar that all new Johnnies have). Barr ought to know a thing or two about dialogue, too—he brought the Great Books Program to St. John’s and was the first president to serve the college for nine years after its institution. His Notes offer a glimpse into the motivations and the perspectives that crystallized the Program into existence. Barr’s overarching thesis is that all humans instinctively and persistently crave dialogue. And real dialogue at that, too; he’s quick to disparage pseudo-conversation and pseudo-conversators. If you’re trying to score points by using long, fancy words and mere rhetorical flourish, then you’re not really communicating, are you?

And yet as long as there have been humans hungry for genuine discussion, there have been those who have gotten in the way of it. Sophists, they were called, in Ancient Athens. Socrates (who’s like, the biggest dude in Western philosophy, ever) confronted these sophists, meeting the volubility and the ambiguity that Sophists were famous for with nothing other than a courteous commitment to finding out the truth.

Just as we are taught to hate not the sinner but the sin, especially if it is our own, so Socrates never attacks Thrasymachus. Indeed, he never attacks his ignorance and presumptuousness. He merely dissolves the opinions Thrasymachus spouts so loudly, so rapidly, and so volubly. That Thrasymachus recognizes the mortal danger in Socrates’ questions and, indeed, that painful scalpel, irony, that Socrates uses on on his opinions (and consequently, given Thrasymachus’ pride of authorship where his expressed opinions are concerned, on himself, his honor, and his fame as a sophist) comes out in Thrasymachus’ sarcastic allusion to “your famous irony.” That Socrates knew that his irony “put to the question,” a euphemism the Spanish Inquisition would later in history use for the act of torturing the accused, is shown by his likening himself to a gadfly that stung the noble steed, the Athenian democracy. That the steed knew too is shown in Plato’s Apology, where Socrates was sentenced to death for putting Athens to the question.

120E99D0 17FF 179E 96DBF49D5D6433F71 Notes on Dialogue

Stringfellow Barr, c. 1936. What a handsome chappie.

If Stringfellow’s words seem flat-out adulatory of the Socratic method of conversation, well, that’s because Socrates really had a point. It’s hard to go wrong by following his lead; beginning in ignorance, pursuing a conversation to wherever it leads. But this is the beauty of a dialectical conversation: No one attitude is the right one to take. Barr had his interpretation on what a good conversation looked like, you will have yours. Just because this opinion is held by one who say, founded the college as it stands today, doesn’t mean that the only possible good way of thinking about these things. Dialectic is an experiment, conducted in real-time. Collectively, we’re all figuring out to have a conversation as we’re doing it. And if that’s not what Socrates was truly getting at, then it’s at least a good place to start.

What say you? Read the Notes on Dialogue on the website, then add your voice to the conversation-on-conversation in the comments below.

 

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