From the Tutor's Table

An Education is Not Programming


This is the second in a series of posts by Mr. Poppele, a tutor at St. John’s College, Santa Fe.


One thing I like about teaching at St. John’s is the great variety of students here. Our students come from all kinds of places, from big metropolises to small towns, from north and south, from Europe and Asia, and often other places. There is no “type,” not just geographically, but politically, socially, and economically, too. These differences make the students unique and interesting, but their histories are not as interesting to me as their present. Students come here not because St. John’s will do something for (or to) them, but because they want to do something for themselves: to learn, to think, to explore, and to challenge themselves and to better their understanding of the world. I see and enjoy their rich variety in the different ways that they think.

Students come to St. John’s because they are thoughtful and curious and have wide-ranging interests, and that’s what makes them interesting people. More particularly, some come to understand our common intellectual heritage, whether for social, political, or personal reasons. Some recognize that even for a most careers, further and deeper understanding is a better grounding than a narrow major would be. Some come for the sheer breadth and depth of inquiry. Every student here explores the wide range of human experience. We read from the great Greek epics to modern literature. We wrestle with the connections of mathematics to the world. We ask if music is more than a matter of ‘taste,’ and we deeply consider the the relation of scientific inquiry to the world of our experience.

We call our curriculum a program, but the word “program” has many meanings. I mean it in its simple sense, as an outline of our curriculum. More and more the word has come to mean what it means for computers: a predetermined procedure for achieving a predetermined outcome. Such a system is much like a conveyor belt or an automated factory, and it can look reassuring: if I put in some raw materials at one end, I’ll get some particular product out at the other end. Education is not immune to pressure for having fixed procedures and creating fixed products. All levels of education are facing increasing calls for standardization, both in methods and in outcomes. Maybe it’s a relic from B.F. Skinner’s behavioral conditioning, or perhaps it’s a self-defensive response to a legal environment which rewards procedures rather than judgment, or perhaps policy-making is simply easier if we think of people as machines which can be programmed.

In any case, education is not “programming.” Most young people know too well that regurgitating “facts” on a test is not a measure of learning. Students are often consoled that this is the price to pay for their degree, but let’s not call that education. At its best, such a thing becomes vocational training: the inculcation of a limited set of skills that are defined by the job market, and at its worst it becomes just an expensive piece of paper. St. John’s students are intellectually curious, and want more from college than simply a credential or a ticket to a job, and that’s again what makes them interesting.

Students who receive an education, instead of a training, go on to do all sorts of interesting things. Some St. John’s students go on to prestigious graduate programs in almost every field, and some others go to less prominent ones. Some seek (or find themselves in) fast-paced corporate jobs, but many others have become teachers, and some work in retail stores, and some on organic farms. As a teacher, I see the diverse range of things that our graduates do as a sign that we are doing well. We don’t mold our students into a predetermined form, but we can open new possibilities. Years ago the College had a quotation in its catalog from an alum: “On how to farm, nothing. On why to farm, everything.” To me that’s what an education is: it is not a narrowly defined “how,” but a broader ‘how to learn.’ It can’t tell us what to do, but it forces us to ask ‘why.’ For me, the variety of things that our alumni do is a blossoming or unfolding of the interesting, varied, curious, and thoughtful people that we have a chance to see while they are students.


Eric Hunter Poppele received an M.S.E. in Environmental Engineering from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from the University of Minnesota, and worked as a consulting engineer for several years between those two programs. He has been on the faculty of St. John’s College since 2003 and has taught all of the classes in the undergraduate program. This semester he is teaching Senior Seminar, Classical Chinese (in the Graduate Institute), and will lead a preceptorial on Turing’s paper on computability.

The student writing staff of the johnnie chair blog

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