The Program

Wisdom from the Past for Freshmen

By Michael Hansen

As I start my junior year, I cannot help but notice the influx of many new freshmen. This year’s incoming class, which sizes up to about 155, brings a huge wave of brand new faces to the campus. Those grades on either side of me are well known, that is to say, the seniors and sophomores offer almost all familiar faces. The freshmen, however, seem a little further away, despite our polity’s inter-connectedness. Upperclassmen of the past have always had the responsibility of offering wisdom to those new young men and women who enter the gauntlet that is St. John’s College. Even though I don’t know many of the freshmen, I think about how the wisdom of the past would be beneficial to myself as one. So I dug around some ancient Gadflys (A student publication on campus) and found these snippets which are insightful.

One such upperclassman wisdom is on impermanence at St. John’s.

“Freshmen: Hey, Hello, welcome, etc.

A new beginning is a thrilling thing. Savor, cherish – be immersed. No matter where you’re coming from, the place you’ve arrived is unlike it.

As a freshman I would have been annoyed and mildly offended to be told that St. John’s would help me realize what aspects of myself I wanted to shed. But that is what I want to say to you. People say this all the time about St. John’s and about college generally – but they usually put it in a different way: St. John’s college will change you. This is true, but it’s a cliche, and the deceptive thing about cliches is that you are so sure you know what they mean that you don’t pay attention to what they are saying. If St. John’s is going to change you, and that’s supposed to be a good thing, then there must be something defective about you- something that ought to be changed.

But this is not quite what I mean. I do not mean that you are stupid and St. John’s will make you smarter, that you are lazy and St. John’s will make you work harder, that you are vicious and St. John’s will make you virtuous. I mean that you are a human being with qualities, opinions, and habits. And if you not only attend St. John’s, but immerse yourself in it, you are likely to gain a fuller understanding of what those qualities are and which ones you’d like to keep and which you’d like to leave behind. Why? I think St. John’s demands self-examination and self-conscious metamorphosis. Whether you’re coming from high school or another college or somewhere else, coming to a new school is a fundamental paradigm shift. New people, new setting, new experiences. You will make a million tiny choices, each boiling down to: adapt or abide; change or remain. In the classroom, the Program will demand that you confront your prejudices and preconceptions.

Consider this new beginning a step toward fully knowing what it is about yourself you want to persist, what makes up the core of you. Hold on to that. And be excited to see what becomes of the rest of you.”

 Another senior writes on the merit of St. John’s, and incidentally describes the beauty of the path that you have begun.

“Welcome to St. John’s. It’s lovely, isn’t it? The college’s isolation from the outside world is deceptively important to the program. Bearing that in mind, I would like to talk to you about something I find immensely important: defending what the program does. Not just for us as individuals, but for society as a whole.

I’m pretty sure that every single Johnnie has had to defend the program before skeptics ranging from friends and family to strangers and employers who gawk, aghast, at the thought of declaring no majors, of taking no tests, of hearing no expert lecturers, of reading apparently old, useless, decrepit books by old, useless, decrepit authors-until it occurs to the interlocutors to ask that really, really frustrating question:

“So what do you guys learn?” – As if we don’t.

My answer usually goes something like this: Rather than learning a very small portion of a very particular subject, we spend time wrestling with-and eventually unlearning-many of the prejudices and superstitions we have been carrying around for the better part of two decades. We do this by sitting around a table and hashing things out with the aid of difficult primary texts (and without watered-down scholarly analyses); this process gives us a strong set of communication and critical thinking skills, applicable to any field. Instead of being forced to commit at the ripe age of 20(ish) to a major that we will, statistically speaking, change an average of five times throughout our college careers, we get four more years to discover ourselves, and what we really want, all the while developing vital skills.

This explanation doesn’t even address the legitimate and valid ways that Aristotle and Einstein, Plato and Nietzsche, Dante, and Plutarch, and all the rest provide genuine insight about what we are, what we want, and why we do what we do; about what truth is, about why bad things happen to good people, about why we are here in the first place. Their answers- and just as important, their questions- reveal to us our own wounds and defenses, losses and victories and struggles, and potential yet to be actualized.

We must believe in ourselves and the program enough to know that St. John’s is perhaps the smoothest road to becoming a critical thinker.”

 Lastly, a comment on developing at St. John’s.”

“Don’t be afraid to be honest! … so many times it can feel like you’re ‘sending signals into the aether’, but you just gotta do it. Don’t expect to come to SJC and immediately be as competent as your hopes have been. This is school; it’s learning. Which can be grueling sometimes, but mostly exhilarating. That said, take the time, as freshman year develops, to start noticing your limits, and caring for yourself.”

 In contrast, some wisdom from a freshman in the past:

“If I had a dog, I would name it synecdoche, so I could tell it, ’synecdoche, get your ass over here!’”


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