Jeffrey Selingo — author of "There is Life after College" and former editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education — questioned the benefit of a business degree for undergraduates his January 28 Washington Post article, "Business is the most popular major, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good choice."
Everywhere Selingo travels he is asked about how best to choose a major, and his answer is fairly uniform: “Find a major that will challenge you to work hard and spend time on specific tasks, such as writing, reading, or math programs, and one that will present you with opportunities to learn from the best professors…”
That is why studying the great books, in some capacity as an undergraduate, might not be such an impractical response to selecting a major. What prevents some students from considering the possibility of a great books program is lack of knowledge of how such a program works. The details of the workings of a prominent great books program might open some eyes.
St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe (NM), provides a four-year great books program investigating and discussing the great works in literature, philosophy, history, social science, mathematics, natural sciences and music. In the words of St. John’s brochure these works, "illuminate the persisting questions of human existence and bear directly on the problems we face today."
The seminar is the heart of the curriculum. Each seminar contains 18 students and two tutors (St. John’s nomenclature for faculty), who lead the discussions over the homework, which consists of 80 pages of reading, depending on difficulty level. There are two rules of engagement: all opinions must be heard and every opinion needs to be supported by an argument. Furthermore, no discussions are preset: there is no right opinion or interpretation. Should the faculty leaders enter a discussion, no special consideration is given to them: reason is the only recognized authority.
Preceptorials are given after the end of first semester in which one work, such as "Faraday’s Experimental Researches in Electricity and Magnetism," is explored in depth for seven to eight weeks and students, usually no more than ten, give a final presentation or a paper to cap the session.
Tutorials, consisting of 12 students and a tutor, emphasize methodical and careful study of language, mathematics, music, requiring students to constantly discuss and write about concepts and applications encountered.
At St. Johns, mathematics is not artificially separated from the liberal arts, but is rather an intrinsic means of understanding the universe and verifying the foundations and thinking in crucial fields of reasoning, such as in the natural and social sciences. The treatises range from "Elements of Euclid" and the "Conics of Apollonius" to "Principia Mathematica of Newton" and Lobachevski’s approach to non-Euclidean geometry.
Equally interesting is the music tutorial, which features the study of music theory and an understanding of musical literature, containing Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion," Schubert’s lieders and Mozart’s operas. Instead of reading critiques of the music, the students listen to compositions and become familiar with their elements prior to discussion and analysis.
The laboratory fills in the natural science portion of the great book’s discussion. In the labs, students will pursue topics in biology, chemistry, physics through the textual inquiries devised by Galen, Harvey, Newton, and Bohr, to name but a few. Then, using laboratory instruments, students note the limitation of the measurements and instruments, the principles, assumptions and observations involved, consider alternative methods of experimentation while analyzing procedures and sources of error.
The entire curriculum for St. John’s great books program can be accessed in its Statement of the Program at www.sjc.edu/application/files/3014/8478/1768/St_Johns_College_Statement_of_the_Program.pdf. It warrants a visit, especially if you’re contemplating what a college education might be and what graduate studies and careers are pursued by the St. Johns alumni.
Its students do consistently score above the national average on graduate level standardized tests. Seventeen percent even go on to business careers. Yet, more importantly, what many graduates of great books programs share is the confidence, capability and understanding to tackle a world of problems: the true measure of the efficacy of a college education.
Ralph Becker, founder of Ivy College Prep, LLC (www.ivycollegeprep.net) and a resident of Long Beach, has been counseling students for the last 12 years. A former Yale Alumni interviewer, he holds a certificate in college counseling from UCLA Extension, and has published SAT* Vocab 800.