As many of you know, the Program at St. John’s is core. That means we all take the same classes at the same points in our education. For example, Euclid is taught to ALL the freshman every freshman year. This basically means we do not have electives at all. But for 10 weeks during your Junior and Senior year you will replace your Seminar with a “Preceptorial.”
A preceptorial is the closest thing to an elective at the College. It is a 10 week class that is taught in the Seminar style and is usually smaller than the average seminar with one tutor and 8-10 students. It can cover anything that any of the current seminar tutors want and since our faculty do not teach to their field in the program normally, this is a huge deal for us. Also unlike seminar the preceptorial is not confined to just literature and philosophy. In the past two years there have been math and science oriented precepts too; Color Theory, Rocket Science, and Psychology to name a few. To quote the website, “Preceptorial topics range from Program works, such as Plato’s Republic and Machiavelli’s The Prince, to contemporary masterpieces such as Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
But did you know the preceptorial almost didn’t exist? According to members of both the IC [Instruction Committee] and the SCI [Student Committee on Instruction], when it was first introduced to the IC as an idea by Dean Curtis Wilson in 1958 it was very controversial, and was rejected multiple times. This excerpt from The Colonization of a College, a book detailing “The beginnings and early history of St. John’s College Santa Fe” includes information about preceptorials that could prove this hearsay true. It reads:
In the academic year 1962-63 preceptorials were introduced. For roughly eight weeks from mid-December to late February junior and senior seminars were not held, and students distributed themselves by choice into preceptorial groups of four to six persons. The aim was to give students and tutors alike an opportunity for closer study of a particular book or subject than was possible in the seminar. A partial listing of preceptorials for the first year included the following:
Shakespeare and the Roman Plays For and Against the Actual Infinite
On the Will (Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and William James) Goethe as Scientist
Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason
Dostoevski’s Brothers Karamazov
The Federalist Papers and Modern Democratic Theory
The Common Law
The program was judged so successful after a two-year trial period that the preceptorial became a permanent part of the St. John’s curriculum.
It looks like Curtis Wilson was Dean in Annapolis from 1958-1962, and then John Kieffer became Dean in the fall of 1962. This means that most likely, conversations about instituting Preceptorials took place during Wilson’s tenure, and the classes themselves were actually instituted later under Kieffer.
The absolute best classroom experiences I’ve had at the college were during my Precept(s). You’re in a room full of students and professor spellbound by the conversation. Every student is focused on the text and is present in class because they chose it and the tutor passionately teaches it because it’s personal to them. It is —definitively— the best thing we do as a college.