Thursday, June 07, 2007

St. John's College

St. John's College, Annapolis, is a horse of a different color. I had known it as the "great books" college. I had not visited before. We had a fine long discussion with two enthusiastic students, one introvert and one extrovert. This is a good combination -- I recommend it to all admissions offices.

St. John's is for people who seriously want to understand the Great Conversation. It has no sports, no Greeks, none of the trappings of college life which can become so important to students who are not at college primarily to deeply engage ideas. The whole curriculum is really a long and detailed philosophy seminar.

From the pounds of college mailings I got when I was in high school, the only one I remember was from St. John's. It was entitled: "College as Paradise." I was sorely tempted. In the end, I chose Swarthmore because I was very interested in contemporary politics.

Endub is ... thinking about it. She really liked the seriousness, and the close community. She does, though, want to make a difference in this world, and is still unclear on how the Johnnies make the connection. This one may take a second round.

One of the most intriguing things that both young men said, in answer to my daughter's question, "Who should not come to St. John's?" was "people who are intellectually arrogant." They said this very diffidently and humbly. They told the story of someone who dropped out of St. John's after one term. He had already concluded that he hated Aristotle, and Aristotle had nothing to teach him. He also objected to the tutor's (not "professor's") insistence that he go back to the text to see what Aristotle himself said. Instead, the disgruntled student wanted answers now. The two admissions workers were taken aback at the idea that one could come right out of high school, begin to learn Greek, start to read Aristotle, and conclude that you could already know enough about him to know that Aristotle had nothing to teach. I admire their humility in the face of such a challenge.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


Haverford is an excellent liberal arts college. It is also the arch-rival of my alma mater, so I am obliged to look askance at it. Nonetheless, I have to admit that it is an excellent liberal arts college. It has a restrained beauty, a strong Quaker tradition of reaching common understanding, and a honor code culture that is deeply embedded in student life. The plain stone Pennsylvania architecture is deep in the Gruntleds pre-verbal understanding of what true beauty is.

As the great sociologist E. Digby Baltzell argued years ago in Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, Quaker culture militates against individual superiority over others. This was confirmed, indirectly, by Haverford's unusual motto: Non doctior, sed meliore doctrina imbutus, which roughly translates, "Not more learned, but steeped in a better learning."

Endub will give it another look.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Lafayette College looks pretty good to us. Endub will be back for another look in the fall.

My background is Quaker, but Mrs. G. and I are both Presbyterian now. We both went to Swarthmore, a Quaker-founded school, and now live happily amidst Centre, a Presbyterian-founded school. Child #1 is now at Swarthmore.

What has been interesting to see in Endub's search is that, after sifting many fine colleges all around the country, she kept being drawn to the Presbyterian and Quaker institutions. It was that insight that led us to give a hard look at Lafayette in the first place. Lafayette has historically been connected with the Presbyterian Church, though the tie is very loose these days. She is somewhat liberal, but wants to have a diverse world to talk to. Lafayette is liberal the way most liberal arts colleges are. Our tour guide, though, a nice young woman named Amanda, said that the healthy dose of engineers kept the student body more balanced. This sounds like a good thing.

So the search continues. But Endub is minding her Ps and Qs.

Monday, June 04, 2007


We are on the great college hunt for child #2, the wonderful Endub. Today we visited Bucknell. It is a very nice little university -- a biggish college of 3000+, heavy on engineering and business, with a few graduate programs. Lewisburg, PA is a lovely little town. One interesting feature of their pitch: they want the well-rounded student. Most places that we have visited set themselves up against the Other Places that want the well-rounded student, whereas College of the Day is for unique individuals who can develop their quirkiness. I thought the college of well-rounded students was a straw man, but I was wrong. And it is a good thing that in the great ecology of American higher education there are such places.

They also talked about how small they are. Since this is the largest institution that we are likely to look at -- two or three times the size of the liberal arts colleges on our list -- this was an enlightening self-conception.

Bucknell University is a fine place. It was a bit weak in the visual arts, and not quite ideal for the Christian bohemian that we have raised, but a quite good place.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

How Many Callings Can I Have?

Under postmodern conditions, it is hard for young people to believe that God has a calling for their lives. The hard part is not that God has a calling, but rather that God has a calling -- just one -- for your whole life.

This reflection is the fruit of a conference on "Re-Forming Ministry." We have been charged by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to think about how to support pastors in congregations today. We have spent some time on thinking about the meaning of God's call, and whether we need to rethink the church's traditional conception under changed conditions today.

I am mostly skeptical of any postmodernism, but I have come to believe that we have begun to enter a condition of postmodernity. One consequence of this change for the church is that the notion of one fixed calling for life is hard to believe, and worth reconsidering. The Reformed notion of a calling for each believer still shows its roots in the medieval Catholic notion of a calling for priests, monks, and nuns to a special ontological status. Yet the rest of Reformed practice treats our calling not so much as a change in our essence as it is a particular task that God has commissioned us to do.

It is a short step from thinking about the call as a commission, to think about a call as one commission, which may be followed by other, different commissions.

The advantage of thinking about a call as a commission is that it allows for changing from one big job to another without seeing that change as a failure. Many seminarians have turned to ministry as a second career. One of the intriguing ideas to come from this meeting for me is to think that ministry might be a first career, which could legitimately be followed by a second calling to a second career. And so on.

I am still chewing on this idea. Your comments are most welcome.