By Ehsan Nasiry
Karl von der Luft is a January freshman who started his educational journey at St. John’s College last spring. The January Freshman program allows students to complete their studies at St. John’s in an accelerated three and a half years, meaning that while fall freshmen were on their summer vacations, Mr. von der Luft and his classmates completed their second semester of Freshman year to start as sophomores in the fall. He has successfully completed his freshman year, and has won a prize for his seminar essay. I sat down with him on Tuesday to talk about his journey at St. John’s and the keys to his accomplishments.
Mr. von der Luft was born in Washington State, and prior to St. John’s lived in California and Utah. Before moving to Santa Fe, Mr. von der Luft worked as an Emergency Medical Technician in a maximum-security prison near Salt Lake City.
Mr. von der luft had a different approach when I first asked him why he chose to come to St. John’s.
“Martin Heidegger says in an address from 1955 that ‘man today is in flight from thinking.’ That flight does not seem to have abated in these sixty-three years. If thinking is something peculiar to human beings, a flight from thinking will be a flight from some essential part of our Being. This is a predicament, and it shows itself in the kind of calculative thinking that undergirds many modern educational institutions. I came to St. John’s because I want to think, and to spend my time thinking. The program here properly facilitates an engagement with great thinkers. This itself is not thinking, but it may serve as the most appropriate ground for thinking.”
Thinking and engagement with the great thinkers are the essential cores of what we do in St. John’s College. Reading the great books provides the opportunity for every individual to get involved in this engagement. But, as Mr. von def Luft notes, it is still up to the students and tutors around the table to do the work of this engagement.
“I want to emphasize that it is very possible that the engagement with these books remain a superficial thing for students here. It would be strange indeed if this were not the case, for if the teacher induces thinking as the midwife induces labor, it is a prerequisite that she who is so induced be pregnant in the first place. The seed cast is one thing, and the ground on which it lands is another. It is possible, then, that an intelligent person engage with the program in a calculative, unthinking way. But I would say this is far less easy here than elsewhere. So I would ultimately answer that the program and the culture of the college are great obstacles in my own flight from thinking.”
Being a January Freshman has its challenges and benefits. Attending classes while everyone else is on their summer vacation, doing a greater amount of work in less time with fewer breaks, and the hot weather in Santa Fe are some of the things that can make being a January Freshman even more rigorous. However, for Mr. von der Luft, there are more advantages than difficulties.
“The particular nature of the JF year has not posed a problem for me. I actually enjoy the solitude during the summer. In my opinion, solitude can be a gift to students who are seeking to confront seriously those problems that the program forces us to confront. The JF program is also more immersive than its counterpart, and this requires students to take what they’re doing more seriously.”
Being unique in every aspect, St. John’s has not disappointed Mr. von der Luft. The extraordinary curriculum and being located in a beautiful city like Santa Fe, have created more values for Mr. von der Luft.
“The Santa Fe campus is gorgeous, and certainly does not make it harder to live here. I often go up into the hills behind campus with a book and spend a couple hours before seminar in the afternoon and evening.”
I asked Mr. von der Luft about his favorite book that he has read throughout freshman year.
“It is difficult to choose one at the expense of another. Aristotle’s Physics is a very profound work, and I have re-visited it during this break. But if I were to pick a book that might seem unlikely, it would be Thucydides’ History. Thucydides is a keen and resolute thinker, and his work is as much a universal philosophy of the human being qua political animal as it is a particular account of a war.”
St. John’s is about reading, thinking and questioning. As students of the great teachers we mostly spend time reading the books. However, we still have time to enjoy the sunny days of Santa Fe. I asked about Mr. von der Luft’s hobbies.
“I love reading, and much of my free time goes to reading non-program works. I also enjoy hiking the trails around the Santa Fe campus, and this is very rejuvenating. Coming face to face with nature puts you into question in a manner that other experiences may not. I also listen to a lot of music, so I’ll often sit by the pond and absorb Bach and Wagner. We usually make music into a passive activity, and subordinate it to whatever we are ‘actually doing.’ But attending to it on its own terms and for its own sake has done much for my aesthetic education.”