June 22, 2017

Many of You Will Hate This School

This post was last updated on June 24th, 2017 at 09:49 am

Imagine a school that makes students take the same courses at the same times as everyone else. Also, this school uses little or no technology. This school does not utilize contemporary texts and in fact, does not even aspire to contextualize these ancient texts to the modern world. You’ve probably dismissed this school as irrelevant and without much understanding of the real world.

You’re probably wrong.

St. John’s College seems to be offering much of what many educational reformers are trying to reform. They unabashedly hold on to traditional methods like the Socratic approach and offer no computing classes, no contemporary studies and have no minors and majors. Everyone graduates with the same degree. So much for personalized learning.

This article shares the details of what they refer to as “The Program”. Let me share the highlights and things that struck me:

Fixed curriculum:

Starting with the Greeks and working through the 20th century including some “recent” science readings from the 1950s and 1960s, the curriculum is rarely altered.

It seems like they’ve determined which works best foster deep thinking and discourse and simply stick with those. Contrary to even more innovative practices like global competencies, it seems they begin with content and allow that to foster meaning and debate.

Context is viewed as ideology, something that St. John’s believes distorts true education and the ability to form one’s own opinion…. St. John’s is not a cloister, and of course students and faculty are well aware of the history and social settings of their studies. But an attempt is made to focus on the texts themselves, and understand their content, meaning and merit deeply through debate. This is what creates independent thinking.

Community:

Everyone doing the same thing at the same time is generally thought of as a product of an outdated, industrial system designed to create factory workers. While that’s partly true, there remains something powerful and valuable about experiencing things together.

Since everyone takes the same courses, freshman immediately can strike up a cafeteria conversation with a sophomore or senior who’s already taken the class. The Program is what binds the St. John’s community, and what also binds alumni: everybody has studied the same texts, whether they graduated in 1962 or 2015.

Our current efforts to make learning more personal but let’s not forget that learning together is what allows for collaboration, debate and even joy to emerge.

everyone in class is a teacher, everyone a learner. (cc @gcouros)

Nothing is for Everybody

While I’m reading about St. John’s with intrigue and agreement, I don’t think all schools should be like this. I think all schools should be unique and represent an approach and philosophy that work for some, not all students. They too admit this.

Clearly St. John’s is not for everyone. First, you need to be a voracious reader to cover the Program texts at a brisk pace. You also need the capacity for and love of writing because St. John’s requires a lot of it. It helps to feel comfortable speaking in public, since so much of St. John’s learning occurs out loud around a table with your classmates and tutors.

I share this article and concept as a warning to those who bash many of the concepts this school is built upon. In addition, the idea that learning can occur without technology, coding or even current affairs and text seems archaic or even irresponsible. I applaud anyone who wants to offer a unique experience and is fully aware of what it is and what it isn’t. From there, students understand what benefits they’ll receive. In general, the return to the arts and a true liberal arts experience makes me hopeful. Even our most revered innovators of our time agree:

As the vociferous Shark Tank host and entrepreneur Marc Cuban has recently observed about business careers: “I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. [You need] someone who is more of a freer thinker.”

Even further afield, recently, former Google and Microsoft executive Kai-Fu Lee, an expert in AI, told Quartz that, “Given AI is more objective, analytical, data driven, maybe it’s time for some of us to switch to the humanities, liberal arts, and beauty.

What I’ll conclude with is, I believe there are many methods and approaches that I’d consider “good teaching and learning”. There are likely many approaches I’ve not yet encountered. But when thoughtfulness and purpose and student well-being are evident, good things are very likely to occur.