50 years of ‘a learning community’

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SANTA FE, N.M. — Some colleges have a big rock where students dump paint and write slogans for the football team or their graduating class or their fraternity/sorority.

St. John’s College in Santa Fe has the Ptolemy Stone, where students chart eclipses and other astronomical events.

That, in a nutshell, might illustrate what sets St. John’s apart from the mainstream of U.S. higher education.

Not to say the students don’t have fun. They have their traditional senior prank, where they descend on a seminar near the end of the school year and rout the students to the Great Hall to watch the seniors’ satirical review of the past four years, theatrically poking fun at tutors, fellow students and campus life in general.

St. John’s is celebrating its 50th anniversary in Santa Fe this year. The original campus in Annapolis, faced with increasing interest from potential students, decided to establish a branch out West, with classes starting at that new Santa Fe campus in the fall of 1964.

Philip Chandler, a member of that first class and now a lawyer in Alamogordo, describes a different Santa Fe, where many streets were unpaved and the campus was far from downtown, with none of the houses that currently surround St. John’s.

“The setting was extraordinarily beautiful, more so than it is now,” he wrote in an email.

Describing Santa Fe as not yet “discovered,” Chandler added, “Families who had lived in Santa Fe for generations had not yet been forced out of the old neighborhoods on the east side by skyrocketing property values.

“Colorful local characters like (the late artist and eccentric) Tommy Macaione were easy to spot; the town was not subject to traffic jams; there were no gross hotels downtown; and Cerrillos Road was not a parade of strip malls,” he said.

Dissecting ideas and arguments

So why would a school on the Eastern Seaboard look to set up a campus in the high desert, with no big city amenities nearby?

There wasn’t room to expand at Annapolis, said Heather McClure, a St. John’s librarian who had researched the history. And, Library Director Jennifer Sprague added, if the Annapolis campus got too big, it would dilute the climate of a connected learning community that is sought at St. John’s.

Richard Weigle, college president at the time, “was firm in the idea that a St. John’s education needed to be open to more people,” Sprague said. “He actually had the idea of having multiple campuses.”

Only this second one came about though, chosen from some 40 possible sites, according to a St. John’s quarterly publication from June 1963.

It gives a number of reasons, including “the need for a good liberal arts college in the Southwest, independent of the government or the church”; strong local support; Santa Fe’s cultural treasures, such as museums, artists and the opera; proximity to the scientific resources of Los Alamos National Laboratory; and a nice climate.

Robert McKinney, owner and publisher of The New Mexican, played a pivotal role, the librarians said, marshalling supporters to lure the college. There’s even a story that he used his influence to divert an airplane carrying St. John’s officials headed to California to land in Albuquerque, then gave them the grand tour.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that famed architect John Gaw Meem offered to donate some 200 acres in the Sangre de Cristo foothills.

So, with faculty imported from the Annapolis campus and 88 students, the new St. John’s opened. Four years later, about 35 graduated.

St. John’s offers a Great Books curriculum, with students reading and dissecting ideas and arguments from some of the greatest thinkers of all time. Faculty members are called tutors because they are intended to help students with their own discovery, rather than giving them facts and explanations to parrot back.

“St. John’s is primarily a learning community; it is only secondarily a learned one,” Chandler wrote. “Some of the tutors are world-class scholars, but all of them who remain for the long haul are wonderful teachers. They inspire students with the goal of life-long learning … .

“The habits of mind – particularly the willingness to learn for and by oneself, as well as from others – that one develops at the college stay with one through life. And these habits of mind form the basis for judging the truth and the persuasiveness of whatever lays claim to one’s attention,” he wrote. “In sum, St. John’s prepares one to lead an examined life.”

Campus has become ‘somewhat stuffier’

Many new buildings and many more people have come to St. John’s since those founding years. It currently has 178 faculty and staff, with 450 undergraduate and graduate students.

Programs have proliferated, with many offered for the community outside the campus, such as the Summer Classics program, the Greek Institute, the Summer Academy for High School Students, Tecolote: a teacher training program, and the new Film Institute.

Some 800 alumni live in Santa Fe and northern New Mexico, with another 400 statewide, according to a news release from St. John’s. Its economic impact is estimated at $21 million annually.

But despite the growth and the loss of the stables where students could bring their own horses or ride some provided for them, some things have remained the same.

On a Saturday evening in February, each senior has to turn in an essay to the college president, who solemnly reads out the title to gathering students, said McClure. In celebration, each senior then rings the bell in the campus Bell Tower.

Later, an oral exam is held for each senior in the library, attended by classmates who listen to the grilling. “They’re really good at supporting their classmates, so there’s a real celebration when they’re done,” Sprague said.

Yet Chandler, who also served as a tutor at St. John’s after completing his Ph.D. in history and has led an alumni seminar for the past six years, says there are some things about the feel of the campus that have changed.

Students are less outdoorsy, one of the early characteristics that distinguished the St. John’s student body from the one in Annapolis, he said. “One of my classmates used to run up the trail to the crest of Atalaya and back every morning,” he said.

And, “though the Coffee Shop is still a meeting place for students and tutors, its vibrancy, like that of all other venues around the world that once were havens for serious conversation, is being sapped by the intrusion of laptops and tablets.”

Overall, “it has become somewhat stuffier, partly as a result of the desire on the part of Annapolis campus faculty to rein in a certain free-spiritedness that characterized the early (Santa Fe) years,” and partly as a result of increasing tuition and restricted financial aid leading to an influx of more students from well-to-do families, leading to a more conservative student body, he said.

Then again, despite the civil unrest and protests of the ’60s, Chandler acknowledges that the only protest he recalls at St. John’s consisted of “many of the male students placing themselves just inside the entrance to one of the women’s dorms, daring the administration to expel us … .”

“As the result of this earth-shattering protest, some visitation hours were allowed,” he added.

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Students take advantage of pleasant weather to hold class outside St. John’s Weigle Hall. (Courtesy of St. John's College)

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Around 1987, St. John’s students confer at the Ptolemy Stone, used to track astronomical events. (Courtesy of St. John's College)

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At a campus where the Great Books curriculum is taught, students hold “The Canterbury Tales” at the ready during a St. John’s College seminar in 1980. (Courtesy of St. John's College)

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Architect John Gaw Meem, left, and St. John’s College President Richard Weigle look over land that Meem donated in the early 1960s to create a new campus in Santa Fe. (Courtesy of St. John's College)

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