St. John's College Santa Fe

Politics after the Great Books

By A.J. Peters

When I was a high school student, first becoming aware of colleges, I was enthralled by the image of campus protest and political action. At one school, I remembering picking up a community newspaper with a front-page story of a sit-in in the administrative building—of course, I don’t remember what the issue was—and looking at it as a symbol of the brave, wise world that awaited me. Now, as a senior at St. John’s, I find it hard (read: uninteresting, most of the time) to “talk politics”. Often such a talk seems to be a mere venue for educated people to flaunt themselves in a way that is fiery and proud, and frankly, silly-looking. Or other times, even when passions don’t flare, there never seems to be a real dialogue; each participant begins with a dogma, politely denies anything that would threaten the dogma, and then leaves. As pretentious as it may sound, I don’t seem to have the same frustrations while talking about political issues with other Johnnies. I have become so accustomed to the slow, thoughtful conversations I have here, where each idea is considered on its own merit and not on the basis of its speaker, and one is willing to take the risk of thinking in a foreign way, that I always expect a discussion to go like this. And when it doesn’t, I become bored or frustrated (or frustrated and pretending to be bored). Senior Peter Horton captured some of these sentiments particularly well in a recent letter to the Santa Fe campus’s newspaper, The Moon.

In my senior year of high school, I thought an important part of my identity was engagement with national and global political issues—engagement not in the sense of activism, but in the sense of making an effort to be informed and to have an opinion. I worried about peak oil, Israeli settlements, partisan gridlock. After I came to St. John’s, that impassioned-global-citizen mentality became slowly effaced from my mind. I think the main cause of this was a lack of time: as I tried to find ways to do my schoolwork without worsening my sleep debt, I slowly cut back on the amount of time I devoted to reading about the world, until the habit vanished entirely.
Through no design of my own, I’ve found myself becoming more aware of the outside world over the last few months. Perhaps as the beast of graduation begins to show its heads above the sea, with the trumpets sounding dimly in the distance, I’ve been moved to give some thought to the world to come, the so-called “real world” that awaits. Whatever subconscious impulse is to blame, as I sat listlessly in front of my computer during [senior] writing period, waiting for an essay to appear, I returned to the news as a way to feel some semblance of productivity. Coming back from writing period, the Lincoln and Frederick Douglass speeches and the Supreme Court decisions [in seminar] encouraged me to continue thinking about citizenship, being a part of a larger whole.
So I suppose that I’m at a crossroads. Has my period of disengagement been simply an adaptive measure to make it through college—do I want to return to my previous ways? I’m reluctant to say yes to that question, because in some ways I think disengagement has been good. A lot of my desire to be informed came from combativeness and vanity; I wanted to be able to argue about issues that I would never affect and that perhaps didn’t even have an effect on me. I hope that the issues I spend more time worrying about now, the issues of self-knowledge that the program exposes us to, are a less empty pursuit; in the Phaedrus, Socrates says that he ignores certain questions, like whether to explain the myth of Boreas (apparently a debate between science and religion), because he has not yet finished with the command to “know thyself.”
I want, even after leaving this school, to maintain a sort of isolation, a self-sufficiency of thought that makes thinking rewarding even if it doesn’t lead to winning an argument or solving a worldly problem. Yet I also believe a suggestion that has come up again and again in these four years, even in the Phaedrus, that one’s self is inevitably tied to others, and that trying to understand oneself has to involve trying to understand others and live together with them. In light of that, it’s hard to justify giving up on political engagement.

Give us your take in the comments.

The student writing staff of the johnnie chair blog

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