Resisting vocational 'tide'

The Baltimore Sun

The commencement ceremony yesterday at St. John's College in Annapolis was an apt display of a school that prides itself on individuality and freedom through learning.

United by their years at a liberal arts school focused on a literary canon, the 128 graduates wore the traditional black gowns and awkward mortarboards. But their very different backgrounds and future paths were evident.

Baltimorean Caroline Barry's purple-stockinged legs poked out from under her gown as she walked in the procession across the school's front lawn. Native Hawaiian Justin Lee's family bedecked graduates with lush orchid leis as they burst out of McDowell Hall after the ceremony.

Such quirkiness was reflected in the senior gift: a $5,700 DVD collection to include titles such as The Princess Bride, Legally Blonde, Tokyo Story and Les Enfants du Paradis.

The discs will be housed in the alumni office, said Gina Lee, the assistant director of annual giving, who helped the seniors. "It'll be a lending library - an honor system, of course."

St. John's is known for its "great books" curriculum and for its old-fashioned approach to schooling. Teachers there are not called professors. They are "tutors," a nod to the lifelong learning process, said Patricia Dempsey, communications director. Students study Greek, mathematics and literature, all in small, discussion-oriented classes.

The school has rejected the U.S. News and World Report survey on the best American colleges and universities, saying in a letter to the public that the data used by the magazine "are not indications of educational excellence."

Anita Kronsberg, a tutor and assistant dean, said this graduating class was "excellent" and had a "real interdisciplinary spirit."

Max Socol, who graduated yesterday, said he chose St. John's because he was "disillusioned and pretty bored" by his high school experience in North Carolina.

Many other colleges he looked at, he said, "were like bigger high schools with older people." He said that St. John's stood apart.

Addressing the class was Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. St. John's, he said, was immune to the "rising tide of vocationalism [that] threatens to drown out any area of study that doesn't promise maximum return on the dollar."

"Fortunately for you, this college has not allowed you to accept that some areas of intellectual inquiry are simply beyond your reach," he told them.

He also acknowledged that some of their parents and peers "are indeed wondering just how you will make a living with your degree from St. John's."

Many of the graduating seniors seemed to be sidestepping the conventional "first job" in favor of something they thought could be intellectually rewarding.

Several planned to enter the Peace Corps or teach children in developing regions of the world.

Elisabeth McClure of Texas, who won two prestigious senior prizes, will spend the summer studying the phenomenon of disgust with a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Socol will move to Jerusalem to work on the peace process with a nonpartisan think tank called the Israel-Palestine Center for Research Information.

Gregory Singer of Annapolis, who took a year off school to deliver boats to the Caribbean, plans to obtain his captain's license and pilot in the Mediterranean.

And there's Barry in the purple tights. What does she plan to do with her future? She replies without hesitation: "I'm going to write the Great American Novel."

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