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The New School’s Place in the Free School Tradition


The New Program of St. John's College is popularly known as:

The Great Books Program

St. John's College believes that the way to a liberal education lies through a direct and sustained confrontation with the books in which the greatest minds of our civilization have expressed themselves, and through rigorous exercise in translation, mathematical demonstration, music analysis, and laboratory science. To that end, the College offers a four-year, nonelective program in which students read, discuss, and write about the seminal works that have shaped the world in which we live.

The books that are at the heart of learning at St. John's stand among the original sources of our intellectual tradition. They are timeless and timely; they not only illuminate the persisting questions of human existence, but also have great relevance to the contemporary problems with which we have to deal. They therefore enter directly into our everyday lives. Their authors speak to us as freshly as when they first spoke. They change our minds, move our hearts, and touch our spirits. What they have to tell us is not something of merely academic concern, or remote from our real interests. At St. John's books are not treated reverently or digested whole; they are dissected, mulled over, interpreted, doubted, often rejected, often accepted. They serve to foster thinking, not to dominate it.

The Seminar

The seminar is the heart of the St. John's Program. Its business is the discussion of the books. Two tutors preside, but the seminar is almost exclusively student conversation. One tutor begins the seminar with a question on the assigned reading, a question to which he or she may have no answer; thereafter the tutors do more listening than talking. The seminar presupposes that students are willing to submit their opinions to the scrutiny of their colleagues. It requires that everyone's opinion be heard and explored and that every opinion be supported by argument and evidence. The role of the tutors is not to give information nor to provide the "right" opinion or interpretation. It is to guide the discussion, keep it moving, define the issues, raise objections, and help the students in every way possible to understand the issues, the author, and themselves. If the tutors, as they may, take a definite stand and enter the argument, they can expect no special consideration, for reason is the only recognized authority. In the main, the aims are to ascertain how things are, not how things were; to develop the students' powers of reason, understanding, and communication; and to help them arrive at rational opinions of their own




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