St. John's College Annapolis The Program

President Nelson’s Convocation Speech – Why Liberal Arts?

By Rory Gilchrist

Christopher Nelson, president of our sister campus in Annapolis, Maryland, has published his convocation speech from 2012, entitled “I Got It! The Wipers Are Working!”

It’s a personal look on what an education such as the kind found at St. John’s has to offer, and how useful the skills and qualities the college endeavors to instill in its students prove in all disciplines:

I have been reminiscing lately, probably a sign of my age, but I came to recall an episode in my earlier life before I returned to St. John’s College as its president more than twenty years ago, when my second son announced: “Dad, I’m willing to talk with you about my college choices, but I’m not going to go to that school where my brother is (St. John’s College), and I don’t want a liberal education, whatever that is.”

This son happened to have an interest in automobiles, his uncle happened to be an automobile mechanic, and we happened to have an old junker in the driveway, a 1960-something Volkswagen bug. Almost nothing worked in the car; it wouldn’t go, and my wife and her brother were working to get the car to perform its principal purpose—going. My brother-in-law saw an opportunity to engage my uninterested son when he discovered that the windshield wipers weren’t working and asked my son to give him a hand.

“What would you do to fix this?” he asked.

“I’d get the manual out and see what it says,” my son responded.

“But there is no manual. What then?”

“Then I’d ask the guy at the repair shop.”

“But he’s not here, and we can’t get the car there. Do you think we can figure it out for ourselves?

“But I don’t know anything,” my son answered.

“Ah, that’s the thing. Let’s see if that’s true.”

Excerpted with permission from Liberal Education, Fall ’12. Copyright held by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Read the rest to discover if and how they get the car running again (spoiler alert: they do).

A criticism I often hear about SJC, or liberal arts colleges in general, is that they’re impractical. Sitting around a table and talking about the ramblings of dead white men is all well and good, but where’s the practical application for that? A doctor doesn’t need to know how to translate Baudelaire. A plumber is never going to use Plato’s allegory of the cave when he or she is fixing the garbage disposal. And that’s right, sort of. Only a small fraction of the content of the Great Books course is going to be frequently used in most jobs. But a liberal arts degree is not about a specific job. It’s about a career.

St. John’s teaches how to be wrong. How to try something systematically until it works. How to know when it does work, when to stop tinkering. To approach each other and discuss important topics respectfully and productively. But these skills are more than useful just in the abstract. They’re the skills you need if, say, you’re repairing a 1960s VW Beetle, and the only tools you have are what’s on hand, and your ability to use them creatively and effectively.

One of my favorite parts of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is Pericles’ Funeral Oration for the first Athenian casualties of the war. As well as praising its veterans, Pericles addresses the nature of Athens. He says that the Athenians have based their city on principles of democracy and freedom, and that as an essential part of those principles, “…instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.” [2.40]
That’s what St. John’s does too. Discussion is a peaceable intellectual exchange of ideas, and for Athenians as well as Johnnies, that is the source of all prudent action.

You can read the whole speech, as well as see what real live Johnnies have said about it, on the St. John’s College Facebook page.

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