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St. Johnís College

A Brief History

St. John's College traces its origins to King William's School, the Maryland colony's "free" school founded in 1696. The term free referred to the school's purpose: to make students free through liberal education, an aim that still holds today (the college motto is "Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque," "I make free adults out of children by means of books and a balance."). Like schools in the other colonies, King William's School was what we would call a grammar or prep school--it gave its young charges a solid foundation in learning which would serve them well as citizens of the colony.

In 1784 the state of Maryland finally (after seven failed attempts) chartered a college, which was named St. John's, probably in honor of St. John the Evangelist, a favorite of the Masons and of George Washington--both influential forces in the budding nation. The first act of the St. John's College Board was to consolidate with King William's School by merging the governing board, assets, and student body of the preparatory school with those of the new college. The guiding lights of King William's School had long planned to expand the school into a college.

The college experienced periods of tremendous growth and progress, alternating with periods of stagnation and near bankruptcy. The Depression brought deep financial trouble. The board had invested heavily in Annapolis real estate during the 1920s, even mortgaging college buildings. When the stock market crashed and their investment opportunities evaporated, there was not enough money to meet operating expenses.


The New Program

Rather than close the school the board decided on one last desperate measure. In 1937 they brought in Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan, two academics who had revolutionary educational ideas, to completely revamp the curriculum. Buchanan, who was appointed dean, thought that the traditional liberal arts could be used as a formal structure for learning; he devised a course of study with the great books as the basis for discussion classes. Another important feature of his plan was the inter-relatedness of the disciplines; he proposed a college with a unified, all-required curriculum and no departments or majors.

Under the leadership of Barr as president and Buchanan as dean, the St. John's great books program attracted nationwide attention. While the college had previously been mainly a local school, students from across the country applied to study the New Program. Although World War II meant low enrollments in the 1940's, by war's end the popularity of St. John's was established. Veterans and other students filled the classes; in 1951 women were admitted. Richard Weigle was appointed president in 1949, and he served for 30 years as the college grew into an important presence on the scene of American higher education. New dormitories were built, Mellon Hall and FSK Auditorium were opened in 1959, and enrollment was higher than it had ever been. In the early 1960's, rather than expand the campus, Weigle headed up an effort to build a second campus. A gift of land at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Santa Fe, New Mexico, by John and Faith Meem determined the site. Funding was secured, a group of tutors agreed to transfer west, and the second campus opened in 1964. The Santa Fe campus enabled the college enrollment to grow to 800--400 on each campus--without sacrificing the small classes and close community atmosphere necessary for the great books program. The curriculum is identical, enabling students to transfer between Annapolis and Santa Fe. The Santa Fe campus, already on firm academic ground, continued to expand physically, with additional dormitories and the Meem Library opening in the 1990's.

The college is now governed by one Board of Visitors and Governors and united by a single curriculum overseen by a Joint Committee on Instruction. There are two presidents - one for each campus - as well as two deans and other administrative offices.

One bold step followed by years of intensive study and development have brought St. John's to where it is today. If the college had prospered in the 1800s and survived the economic devastation of the 1920s, its desperate board would never have chosen to institute the New Program and a truly revolutionary step in American education would not have occurred. Today, through its unique all-required curriculum based on the reading and discussion of the great books, St. John's College continues to educate free citizens, just as its founders hoped it would.




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