By Asher Parker
I sat down the other day with Mr. Sterling, dean of the Santa Fe Campus, to try and get his take on a portrait of the culture and life here at the College.
The following has been edited both for length and for clarity.
Mr. Sterling is a graduate of the College, with time on both campuses. Himself the son of two alumni, his father an Annapolis tutor, and now himself a tutor for 15 years, he says that “the College was a big part of my world from the start. I know that sometimes people think that that makes one overly partisan, and I do love the College and owe a great deal to it, but I think it also allows me to see all the flaws and criticisms, perhaps better even than others. But it also led me to want to do other things for quite a while before I could even begin to consider joining the faculty.”
Having completed his Master’s in philosophy and while working on a doctorate at Emory University, Mr. Sterling went on to teach at several other colleges before he returned to St. John’s. He admits that from all his time steeped in academia he’s “always bristled a little bit at the Ivory Tower,” and long felt the need to live “in the world outside of it,” a feeling from which he spent three and a half years as the director of adult education at Project H.O.M.E., a non-profit working with the homeless and low-income residents in Philadelphia, years that he “still counts as amongst the most important and meaningful of [his] life.” The experience left him with a strong sense of service and a care for the world outside of traditional academia, which he has brought back with him to St. John’s.
When I asked him what that meant for him, particularly in the face of claims that the work of the College might seem to some to be a luxury, he answered emphatically that “the work of the College is not a luxury. Liberal education is St. John’s vocation. But what does that mean? We all live by opinions, prejudices that we haven’t thought through. Anyone, at any time or place—that’s our first education. And that’s not to say that there’s anything shameful in that; it’s how we all begin. But I think that Socrates and the whole Western philosophical tradition is right that in some sense a human being is one who has thought through the opinions, beliefs, judgments, that they live by, and who has taken thoughtful responsibility and active ownership over that; that’s the aspiration of liberal education. At the College we take up the works that go further than you’re able to go at first by your own initial means, the works that ask the range of fundamental human questions. And without the College saying that we have authoritative answers on the other side of that inquiry, and although we end up each of us with different answers to those questions, I firmly believe that the time we spend together with these books humanizes and ennobles us, on balance, and puts us in a position to take thoughtful possession of our lives. You’re living a less fully human life if you haven’t had the opportunity to do that, and not everybody gets that opportunity. And maybe it takes a lot of material conditions, and in that respect I wouldn’t use the word luxury, but I would say maybe it takes some amount of accident, some good fortune, and so it’s unfortunate that many people are unable to do it, but it’s not a luxury; it’s a calling that I think every human being as such is called to.”
When I asked him what marked one as a good fit for St. John’s, then, if liberal education was in some sense the calling of all, Mr. Sterling replied, “I think that St. John’s stands for the view that really what matters most is the inkling of curiosity or questioning—and there are some folks for whom the technical demands of Einstein and Hegel prove to be insurmountable, but we think that that bar is probably lower than most people think, at least to be able to access the works and what’s at stake in them profitably—not that everyone can master them to the same degree, but St. John’s, I think, interestingly, and maybe non-classically, at least in the case of the Greek philosophers, takes a fairly democratic and egalitarian view as to how much raw natural ability is needed for a classical liberal education to be fruitful. The work you’re willing to put in means a lot.”
When I asked him what the work we do here means to him in light of the fact that as well as his “natural disposition for the life of the mind, [he] feels an anxiety to be out in the world,” he answered with a paraphrase of a predecessor of his as dean. Namely, that to the tradition’s question of the active life versus the contemplative life, “the College answers ‘neither.’ The College comes down on the side of the examined life: whether that be the life of the citizen or the scientist or the philosopher. The examined life encompasses activity and contemplation, and I think that the College profits from that.”
Continuing, he told me that “whether you’re called to an academic career or to business, to farming or to politics, I think that liberal education can undergird all of those lives—and they’re all better for it. The College benefits by being stubbornly neutral to the range of human lives. What we ask of our students is, to paraphrase another predecessor of mine, Eva Brann, that just as in life you think, or at least always should think, before you act, so should you look to your time here at the College as a time to think of everything, to think as much as you can before you act with the rest of your life. I believe with every fiber of my being that in modern life we’re in a cacophony of information and acceleration, at least at the surface—and to be able to have something of a withdrawal before you return back to it, to be able to have space and time to think based on the deeper sources we have to guide us—that can only be beneficial. And that’s a great worry for modern life: that less and less is there space for real thoughtfulness. The College is unique in that way: we do ask you to withdraw, to go out of the world for a time, that when you emerge again into it you’re better for it, that you can live more deeply, live a more human life for it.”
“But what is the place of what we do here in modern American life?” he continued. “Do you keep up study groups and the reading as you did here, or do you carry forward instead what you learned here in your character and in your comportment? It’s an interesting question, and I don’t have a fixed view of it, but I think that our alumni tend to mainly carry with them the features of a liberally educated person: your ability to assess opinions, to know what’s possible in certain domains. Or, to paraphrase Aristotle’s On the Parts of Animals: there’s a general sort of education that allows one to judge the speeches of the experts without being an expert. And I think that properly unpacked that’s a very powerful way of looking at liberal education. The examined life: to be able to see what’s rhetoric and what’s argument, to be able to see the assumptions that lie behind, say, a scientist making a political claim or a politician a scientific claim. Liberal education is the education, not the scientist’s education nor the politician’s art, that allows you to see freely behind what’s at hand, what’s at stake. It frees you to be able to learn, to see what you don’t know, what you need to know, and how to learn it. It tends to inoculate you against the bondage of ideology, groupthink, and oversimplification. It really does free minds. Things like that, I think that’s what Johnnies carry with them from their time here at the College out into their lives. And I hope and I believe they experience that as empowering at all levels: at work, with friends, as parents, as spouses, and as citizens.”
Towards the end of our conversation, I brought up the lack of authority that the College dwells in, the ambiguity which it allows. I asked Mr. Sterling what he thought of the education we gave our students in the face of the disbelief in authority and grand narrative in which our society lives.
“There’s a concern with modernity, a concern of a kind of leveling of all possible lives. When the individual human being finds himself in the posture of not believing there’s any elevation, height, dignity—any standard to which he’s held outside of himself—and that could be God, that could be the philosophic life, that could be aristocratic virtue, that could be the beauty of the work of art, or, perhaps more trivially, it could be an aspiration for athletic excellence—but some sense of standing against a measure that goes above and beyond you, I think that we lose our humanity; I think that we’re humanized by being called upward in various ways. So I think that many of the risks of modern life consist in our ceasing to have that vertical axis, the horizon of height and elevation. And one could hear that in a Nietzschean idiom or in the idiom of one of my favorite philosophers, Emmanuel Levinas, for whom that’s really an ethical responsibility to others. That could be elevation; you don’t have to hear it at all in an aristocratic way. But I think without that we’re at risk of nihilism or of reversion primal impulses that cheapen us.”
“So one question about the College: does the kind of radical questioning we engage in here make one more susceptible to that unmoored, dangerous quality in modern life? Or does it provide a kind of antidote to it by giving you access to one or another plausible, but maybe also true, checks to that?
“But it does the opposite as well; that’s to say we often take in 18 year-olds who already believe that they’re the measure of all things, and we put them before works that do go above and beyond them, and they experience that in our shared reading of those works, and I think that’s humbling for many of them: that for the first time they start to think that there might be something outside of them that can bring them up. I think that that was my experience here.”
“And so there is a certain risk in the unmooredness, but I think that that’s simply a risk of being alive, a risk of our existential situation. And I think on balance that the College gives you access to more remedies than to more of the poison.
“From another angle, it seems that the spiritual climate, in the Hegelian sense, of Western man has shifted even since the Program was instituted in 1937. But as educators, we attend to that, to the cycles and epicycles. Sometimes we face an overabundance of orthodoxy and other times of skepticism. But we shift and meet our students where they’re at. And the Program itself and the heterogeneity we circle through accommodates that.
We don’t have creedal answers to how we do that, but we do have the living spirit of the community, and we listen to that.”