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Useful But Free: Reflections on Education at St. John’s and Beyond

By Adam Maraschky


 

After graduating from high school, I thought I was done with multiple choice tests and slide show presentations. My application to St. John’s College was accepted before I had the chance to apply anywhere else, and I was happy to be saved the trouble. St. John’s looked like an ideal sort of education to me—one without textbooks, the point system of grading, or the boring lectures. I was sold on the Program and didn’t want to continue with what I thought was my tainted high school education.

I spent the rest of my senior year in high school proud and disengaged. I dropped all five of my AP classes, thinking I didn’t need them. I was going to St. John’s—they didn’t care about all that and, at the time, neither did I. Looking back, I found out that the education I got in high school was worthwhile and useful, though perhaps neither beautiful nor especially liberating. Now I see that my whole attitude then was brash and short-sighted. I was under the impression that a St. John’s student could do anything he or she wanted. And, to some extent, that is true. But it certainly isn’t the whole story. The B.A. in Liberal Arts, as a degree, might not immediately mean a whole lot to the average graduate school or employer, especially in this job market, regardless of how forming and wonderful an education it is. Our task, I think, is to show by example what the value of a liberal education is. Some say, “Stay useless,” in good fun, but I don’t see a problem with being employable. The useful is, after all, part of the good. Be useful, but stay free.

A number of St. John’s College alumni are hired as teachers by charter schools such as Great Hearts Academies. I know an alumnus who went into welding. Some of my classmates went straight to graduate school, e.g. the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. But graduate schools for medicine, the physical sciences, and often even business and economics require specific course work that is not covered by the St. John’s Program. Occasionally Johnnie alumni are lucky and get into PhD programs after, say, a few calculus courses, or basic chemistry. Aspiring doctors often attend pre-med post-baccalaureate programs to take organic chemistry and a few other classes. Other B.A. Liberal Arts trustees choose to get a second bachelor’s degree in physics, for example. I was recently hired as a materials engineer at a company that manufactures thermoset composites. This small sampling of my classmates does not nearly exhaust the possibilities. From what I can tell, there really is a Johnnie doing just about anything you can think of. But if you ask her how she got there, the answer might surprise you.

Part of why I’m writing this is as a heads-up for those who might want to continue their education after St. John’s: see what you need (grades, test scores, courses) in order to get into the programs you are interested in before your senior year. That way you have a chance to have something else lined up for yourself, in case you are caught off guard. I’m generally not for being told what to do, but this is the kind of advice I was and am still glad to get, the sooner the better. And perhaps you won’t know what you want to do until after you graduate. In that case, try things out so that you get a better idea of what you like.

As a side note, some might advocate preserving innocence for young students. I’m just not sure that naïveté is something we, as a people and as a college, can afford. Maybe I’m being a little dramatic here but I do think the success of our alumni is important for the success of the liberal arts. By success here, I mean confirmation that what we do at St. John’s is worthwhile in the world. It doesn’t necessarily mean wealth or fame. I find that the world is kind of a harsh place after graduation ,and I want to help other Johnnies be ready for it, if I can. The new sense of responsibility and freedom can be very exciting and thrilling, but it can also paralyze you with fear and anxiety. Young graduates are very repressed yet privileged people. We have no money—often debt, in fact—no credit, and little experience. We complain of unpaid internships, the rising cost of student loans, and the miserable job market. Among all this angst about unfair treatment, we should still take a moment to be thankful for the educations we have received. We have been empowered with free-thinking, the ability to communicate complex ideas, and an enthusiasm for learning just about anything.

Financially, an education is a long-term investment, not a quick return. There’s no need to think of education’s value in terms of money at all, but we do because an education is expensive.  Either way, an education is a gateway to work experiences that are otherwise unavailable. Some companies might not consider you for a job if your degree isn’t in a hard science. On the other hand, the qualities of a St. John’s graduate are exactly the sort that employers are looking for: good communication skills, ease of learning, creative problem solving, and intellectual maturity. These qualities are discussed by recent articles from Salon.com’s Shannon Rupp  and Santa Fe campus president Mike Peters. Since these traits are not necessarily linked to a degree, the point is that you should learn to sell yourself as a different sort of student and employee. Although this isn’t hard, it might at first be uncomfortable. Melt the hearts of employers with your humanity and impress them with your mind.

The St. John’s education has already been invaluable to me, and, I think it’s safe to say, to all of my 2013 classmates. I remember toasts from our senior dinner that resembled something like wedding speeches—confessions of devoted love for one another, the tutors, and the books. The level of solidarity a class reaches after four years is pretty incredible. This education changed our lives in impossible ways, and I could not imagine what we would be like right now without it.

What’s more, it’s not like we have been on our own in finding our way in the real world. I want to underscore here the importance of Career Services at the College, while enrolled and after graduating. Alumni meetings, internship programs, and counseling sessions were essential parts of my time at St. John’s, because they helped me figure out what I want to do. My intent for the rest of this post is to share some of what I have learned through my Hodson Internship and Pathways Fellowship.

I found that I wanted to go into science and engineering while I was in my late sophomore and early junior year. I started my preparation by doing an internship at the University of Maryland the summer after my junior year. My interest in light and energy technology developed in lab class that year. I searched for a professor who was working on solar cells near Annapolis and found one who was willing to work with me. During my time there, I did experimental research on topics about which I knew very little, using a scanning electron microscope and chemical deposition machines. To be honest, lab work is not as glorious and sexy as it looks like (at least to me, it is slow and somewhat dull), but I sure learned a lot and got an inside look at what graduate experimental research is like.

A small number of Johnnies are spending this summer studying additional courses at other colleges and universities. The Pathways Fellowship is a new program at the College that sponsors students to study courses not offered at the college. Since I had the good fortune to study AP chemistry in high school, I chose the course that is next in line, organic chemistry. It had been a dream of mine since before St. John’s. I like thinking about the shapes of molecules and the way they interact. So I applied for the program, intending to take the course as preparation for materials engineering in plastics. The fellowship covered about half of the cost of the class. (If I had been considered in-state, the stipend would have covered all of it.)

Taking the class is for me a bit like getting to go on a date with a girl you liked long ago but never had the chance for some reason. Then you find out she’s really not all you imagined her to be and you get a little bored. Okay, so I’m making that up; it’s never happened to me. Honestly, I do love some parts of the subject, but the class structure only makes me miss the St. John’s mode all the more. From what I can tell, none of my fellow students actually like the class. It’s essentially a chore for them, a hoop to jump through for a grade. Even worse, it’s something they don’t even like to try to make fun or interesting. I find I like the material best when it’s still in the book. This causes me to frown, having spent the last four years actually getting to talk about ideas from books.

In the evening session I’m in, many of the students are older, and you might think that makes them more serious and competent. In many ways this is true, but it also means that they have babies or jobs or both, and don’t have as much time to study. Strangely enough, the person who “teaches” the class for more time than the professor is only a junior in college. And despite my inner Johnnie complaints, I have made some friends in the class, and that makes the three-hour labs much more tolerable.

Aside from all the details I could give about this class in particular, I would like to claim that St. John’s has made it easier for me. I’ve heard horror stories about how hard o-chem is, but I’m finding it to be kind of simple compared with Hegel or Faulkner. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot for me to learn—because there is. But St. John’s has helped me to distill information in a way that I can better understand things for myself and explain them to others. This skill is not something which is easy to cultivate and I am extremely thankful for my teachers, the Great Books. And now that I’m back in the world of education that is dominated by the pursuit of points, I am happy to have a job.

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