By Robin Lancaster
I first met Mr. Higuera when I visited St. John’s back in high school; at the time, I was nervous, and not quite sure what to expect. What I found was a frank academic who was genuinely interested in my academic goals and really wanted to make sure I knew which of them St. John’s was capable of meeting. About a week ago, I sat down with Mr. Higuera at the same table in the coffee shop where we sat almost four years earlier to talk about what it means to be a tutor.
First some basic facts: Mr. Higuera has been a tutor at St. John’s for almost 35 years. He has his Bachelors from Cornell University, and his Masters and Doctorate from the University of Toronto. Wondering how it is that a person comes to be a tutor, I asked him about his studies before he came to St. John’s. He gave me a quick rundown: “I went to a Jesuit high school, so they tried to get me to appreciate theology and philosophy. It sort of worked. In college I was a classics major, but then I realized what interested me most in the Greek and Roman authors were issues of morality and politics. So I switched majors [and schools, from Cornell to Toronto] to political theory. Then I ended up here.”
But how and why did that “ending up here” happen? For him, the answer seemed to be in the nature of the program. He found that his research in grad school did not quite fit into any department, but, like many of the large questions of life, spanned many disciplines. The program here not only fit that bill but it also provided a further advantage, in that it would allow him to work with another of his favorite areas of study which had been placed by the wayside in order to pursue grad school. “I always loved math and physics, and I’m very good at them. I felt like there were philosophical issues in science I would never get to explore if not for a place like this.”
So I understood what had brought Mr. Higuera here, but what had made him stay for close to 35 years? I order to figure this out I asked him some questions about what his favorite aspect of being a tutor was. He said, in typical fashion, that his favorite part was working with college students. For him, college students have a “freshness, a sense that great things are at stake.” This seems to be a shared sentiment among the majority of tutors and students. The vitality that people genuinely seeking an answer bring to the table is what keeps the program running. It is hard not to get caught up and swept away in the energy of someone who feels they are making a genuine discovery. Given that such discoveries happen in almost every class, the program tastes very sweet for those who love to learn.
Finally, remembering not knowing what to expect from a tutor I asked Mr. Higuera what a prospective student, or even a current student for that matter, should know about tutors in general. His answer confirmed what I had come to believe of tutors for the past two and a half years. He pointed out that tutors come from a great many different backgrounds which contribute to the many different styles which a student will experience in their four years. Tutors are given a lot of room to maneuver and create their own style and emphasis, this means that even though we will ostensibly study the same things, no one Johnnie’s education will be exactly that of another. Tutors and students together will bring their different perspectives and interests to the classroom. Despite these differences among the tutors, Mr. Higuera pointed out that one of the defining characteristics of the tutors is their absolute commitment to the program. Now this commitment has many dimensions beyond the obvious. Certainly most tutors seem to believe that the books we read here provide a very valuable service to a student interested in reading them but the commitment of the tutors extends beyond the reading list. Mr. Higuera described this in terms of the tutor’s relationship to the students, not as the dictators and dispensers of knowledge, but rather as experienced partners in learning: “I guess we really aren’t experts, like professors, a lot of the younger tutors are learning right along with the students. They are not experts, not professors, they are really part of the group.” I know from experience that not only is this true but it is also an essential part of being a member of the St. John’s community. We read so much and spend such little time with each thing that we cannot claim to be experts in really any of the texts which we read. However, we do come to be experts in the skill of deriving much from a text in a short amount of time. It makes great sense to me that tutors should simply be much greater experts in this skill.
Despite this, I have been asked on several tours whether it can really be a benefit to the classroom to not have an expert to set the record straight, so I asked Mr. Higuera his thoughts about it. “To tell you the truth not everyone can pull it off, so we pick our prospective tutors very carefully. They have to be ready to be corrected, love to learn, be very curious, be willing to improvise, and not panic when they don’t know what’s going to happen.” Ok, so we select them very carefully to be able to survive a situation in which they are not an expert but how is that beneficial to their students? For Mr. Higuera the answer lies squarely in the goals that the program sets for each class. “We don’t teach you anything because you’re going to need it for grad school, we teach you because it’s worth knowing.” With such a goal in mind: “We don’t want tutors to be authorities, because we want our students to think for themselves. The tutors’ thought should not be authoritative, it should not be something to be memorized by the students.” For Mr. Higuera, as well for me, the aim of St. John’s is not to provide the student with information simply for utility’s sake, but rather to provide the student (and the tutor) with an arsenal of worthwhile questions and the skills to find their own answers. In his last piece of advice Mr. Higuera seemed to speak both for the tutors and for the program as a whole: “We don’t want to weed you out, we want to stretch you. You just have to trust your fellow students, your tutors, and the program; that’s what community is.” And community is what St. John’s is.
If you have any questions about the program, tutors, or anything else feel free to contact me: