A college that I did not get into

Four days ago, I wrote a post about an episode  of This American Life titled “How I Got Into College.” Actually, my post just contained a couple of small quotations, and I pointed out that they had nothing to do with how got into college; that’s something I’ve saved for another day. This post is getting closer to that topic, as it’s about a college that I did not get into — mostly because I decided at the last moment not to apply. It’s also the subject of Frank Bruni’s great column in yesterday’s New York Times.

This unusual college is St. John’s, with campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe. What appealed to me about it in 1964 was that it had a tightly integrated curriculum, emphasizing the classics but including required discussions of “philosophy, literature, history, mathematics, economics, political theory, theology, biology, physics, music, chemistry, and languages, offering a truly comprehensive liberal arts education.” As a prospective classics major with a deep interest in math and a broad interest in the entire intellectual spectrum, I couldn’t resist. What sold me was that all freshmen read Euclid’s Elements in the original Greek. What could be better?

At least for some people.

After reading Bruni’s column, I concluded that not much has changed half a century later.

So what made me decide not to apply after all? The program description certainly was enticing enough:

St. John’s has one academic program: reading and discussing the great books of Western civilization. Alongside names such as Plato, Shakespeare, Euclid, Nietzsche, Einstein, and Austen, Johnnies wrestle with ideas in interdisciplinary classes with fewer than 20 students. The shared academic experience includes no required lectures, majors, or back rows. Johnnies are original and unconventional, love big questions and discussion, and debate the thinkers, authors, scientists, philosophers, musicians, mathematicians, politicians, and more who changed our world.

(That’s the 2018 description — but I repeat that it hasn’t changed much.) As I say, this was enticing, at least to my 17-year-old self. And as I complete more than four decades of teaching math, it’s still enticing, especially when I read the mathematics component of their program. Here are seven excerpts from titles of their lectures, classes, and senior essays:


At this point you’re waiting to learn why I didn’t apply, if the description and math topics still make me salivate to this day. The answer is simple: no choices, no electives. Every student takes the same courses as every other student, for four consecutive years. I just wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment, even if I loved the whole idea. And in fact I ended up as a linguistics major, and that wouldn’t fit at St. John’s, even though every student studies Greek and French, as well as the parts of philosophy that relate to linguistics. So I’m probably better off having picked Harvard rather than St. John’s.

Probably. But part of me still wonders.




Categories: Teaching & Learning