St. John's College offers 'Life of the Mind' series

Retired economist S. Ramachandran recently spoke at St. John's College in Annapolis about money's "magical qualities," how it often creates illusions that surprise and misguide. Before that, faculty member Joseph Cohen invited his audience to consider how old the human race is and when people started thinking.

The discussions are part of an annual summer lecture series at the college called "Life of the Mind," an offshoot of St. John's eclectic approach to scholarship where all students study Western classics with no majors and no departments.

The series allows St. John's students to stay immersed in Western works at a time when people of all ages are compiling summer reading lists. The series is hosted by the school's Graduate Institute and school officials say that it is also designed to keep its unique college community close knit during the summer, when no undergraduate classes are offered.

"There are all these connections in this body of Western knowledge, and the more you learn the more interesting the next thing you learn is," Lorette Cameron, a graduate student from Pelham, N.Y., said after Cohen's lecture.

"I am reminded by this series that in the 19th century large numbers of people used to flock to public lectures given by the likes of Emerson and William James," added Cameron.

The series began last month and is slated to run through Aug. 3. Lectures are held each Wednesday evening at McDowell Hall and are followed by roundtable discussions that sometimes go well into the night.

During last week's lecture "What is Law?" St. John's faculty member Joe Macfarland spoke about what law meant for Aquinas and Aristotle, saying that the two spoke similarly about law with regards to practical matters but differed when it came to the nature of law.

This week, St. John's faculty member Dan Harrell will speak on "Two Ideas of Liberal Education."

"It's all a matter of promoting interest and promoting conversation," said Cohen, who probed the works of philosopher Baruch Spinoza and Greek mathematician Euclid in a lecture about the starting points in mathematical and philosophical thinking.

"If you go back 60,000 years, 100,000 years, at some point in the evolutionary development people started talking to one another, or they did something that was the beginnings of the flourishing of communication," Cohen said. "Then that gets us into the deep questions about language and how it's tied to thinking, how it's related to the world."

In a lecture titled "Illusion of Money," Ramachandran spoke about the innovations in money usage over the years, including how gold and paper notes came to be used as money and how their usage developed.

"The main advantage of money really is that you can transact with strangers," said Ramachandran, a former senior economist for the World Bank. "Even if you don't trust a person, if you trust the paper that they hand you, you will still undertake trade."

"The main point I was trying to convey was that money is not wealth. Wealth is really created by people when they produce more," added Ramachandran. "People produce more when they trade, and all forms of trade of any type generate wealth, because it makes people more productive."

St. John's graduate student Sarah Snyder of Windsor, Pa., said the lecture series has become quite popular locally during the summer months, adding, "It's called the 'Life of the Mind' for a reason.

"If you're part of the community on campus, it's a no-brainer. It's part of why you came here," Snyder added. "But if you're just a member of the community, what do you have to lose? It's just 40 minutes, and you get a broadening of your understanding."

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