Graduates take pride in their difference

The Baltimore Sun

In the Great Hall of St. John's College, the graduates-to-be, some in patent leather heels and pearls, others in flip-flops and sunglasses, waited in a rigid alphabetical line with name cards on the floor dictating where to stand.

Faculty members prodded students with reminders of how to walk, which way to turn and the precise route to take across the lawn to their seats.

The tightly choreographed procession appeared to be as uncomfortable for this group as their hot, itchy polyester robes.

How strange, some of them muttered to friends, to be told what to do and how to do it just as they prepare to leave the small liberal arts college in Annapolis that prides itself in teaching students to think on their own and challenge convention.

Well, maybe convention was OK for a day.

At the college's 215th commencement ceremony yesterday, 102 bachelor's and 48 master's degree candidates emerged in crisp lock step from the same hall where they'd spent late nights swing dancing, putting on freshman year chorus recitals and various music concerts. The campus of 500 students had graduates this year from 27 states and Canada; 31 of them are from Maryland.

The senior class invited bioethicist Leon Kass as their keynote speaker. Author of influential works in biochemistry and genetics and former chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, Kass taught at St. John's from 1972 to 1976. Though he received formal training at Harvard University and the University of Chicago, Kass told the graduates, "Teaching here was the true beginning of my education."

"Unique among all institutions of higher learning, a St. John's education provides the best defense against the dehumanizing teachings of soulless scientism," Kass told graduates and their families and friends who assembled under a cloudless blue sky. "Only at this college do students and faculty still talk without embarrassment about the soul."

"Be strong," Kass challenged graduates. "Be brave. Stand up against fear and despair and cynicism ... and feed the flame of humanity that your education has kindled in you."

In Annapolis, people say St. John's students are a different breed. They're voracious readers, for starters, who delve into seminal works that shaped Western civilization. That delving means they learn Greek so they can fully understand Plato and Sophocles by the end of their sophomore year.

There are no majors here. No academic departments divided by subject. Classes are seminar-style discussions with as few as eight students and faculty members, who prompt discussion with questions rather than manage the talks with their own ideas or opinions.

Independence of thought is so much a part of St. John's DNA that college officials recently led a dozen liberal arts schools to boycott a U.S. News & World Report survey that asked the schools to rate their peers.

The faculty, though they're experts in certain fields, are often called to discuss matters out of their subject area. Oxford-educated Shakespearean scholar Jonathan Tuck, who has taught at the school for 28 years, spent the last semester discussing Albert Einstein with a group of students, for instance. Here, faculty are known as "tutors," not professors.

"Because we don't profess to know everything," Tuck said. "In fact, the students resent it if you try to be an expert and tell them what to do or how to think. We all learn the texts together. I don't motivate them. They motivate me."

That free discussion drew Chelsea Batten here, 2,700 miles from her home in San Diego. Disenchanted by a college experience outside Los Angeles, Batten, 24, said she was looking for a place where she could develop her writing.

At St. John's, she discovered a talent for acting. She had tutors who took the time to read her short stories. Private, shy and with a self-deprecating humor, Batten said she struggled to get used to a place where you know every one of your classmates and "there's no place to hide." The entire college was smaller than her high school graduating class, she said, and that smallness was disconcerting at times.

She wrestled with whether St. John's was the right place for her - even as she waited tables and sold $2.75 lattes to help pay her way. And each time she questioned this place, she says a tutor was there to reassure and encourage her.

The school has been so supportive, Batten said, that a tutor tapped her for a fellowship in Europe, where she'll spend a month in France, England and the Netherlands studying Rembrandt and Shakespeare. Afterward, she's planning to move to New York to act and write.

"It sounds so corny, but over these last four years, this place has helped me become the person I always thought I could be," she said.

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