Statement of the Program

The following is the introduction to the Statement of the St. John’s Program of Instruction. The first statement of the program was penned by the dean of the college, Scott Buchanan, when the “new program” was established in 1937. It has been gradually revised by subsequent deans over several decades as the Program has taken definitive shape. The Statement describes the first principles upon which the education is designed and conducted, and it gives concise descriptions of each part of the undergraduate program (the Seminar, Language and Math Tutorials, and Laboratories) and of the Graduate Institute program. It is essential reading for all members of the community, including current and prospective students. The full text of the Statement may be found at the link below.


St. John’s College is a community dedicated to liberal education. Liberally educated persons, the college believes, acquire a lifelong commitment to the pursuit of fundamental knowledge and to the search for unifying ideas. They are intelligently and critically appreciative of their common heritage and conscious of their social and moral obligations. They are well-equipped to master the specific skills of any calling, and they possess the means and the will to become free and responsible citizens.

St. John’s College is persuaded that a genuine liberal education requires the study of great books—texts of words, symbols, notes, and pictures—because they are both timeless and timely. These books are the most important teachers. They illuminate the persisting questions of human existence and they bear directly on the problems we face today. They express most originally, and often most perfectly, the ideas by which contemporary life is knowingly or unknowingly governed. Their authors can speak to us almost as freshly as when they spoke for the first time, for what they have to tell us is not of merely academic concern, nor is it remote from our true interests. They change our minds, move our hearts, and touch our spirits.

The books speak to us in more than one way. In raising the persisting human questions, they lend themselves to different interpretations that reveal a variety of independent and yet complementary meanings. And while seeking the truth, they please us as works of art with a clarity and a beauty that reflect their intrinsic intelligibility. They are, therefore, properly called great, whether they are epic poems or political treatises, and whether their subject matter is scientific, historical, or philosophical. They are also linked together, for each of them is introduced, supported, or criticized by the others. In that sense they converse with each other, and they draw the readers to take part, within the limits of their abilities, in a large and continuing conversation.

This conversation, however, is unavoidably one-sided. The books can only repeat what they have to say, without furnishing the clarifications that we desire. To overcome this limitation is the goal of the St. John’s seminar. Here a number of students of varied backgrounds, faced with a text that may present unfamiliar thoughts, attempt to discuss it reasonably. It is presupposed that the students are willing to submit their opinions to one another’s questions. The demands of the individual and those of the group are in continuous interplay, setting limits within which the discussion moves with the utmost possible freedom. The discussion may concern itself primarily with trying to establish the meaning of a poem or the validity of an argument. It may concern itself with more general or with very contemporary questions that thrust themselves forward. The students bring to the seminar the assumptions they have derived from their experience in the contemporary world. Through discussion they acquire a new perspective, which enables them to recognize both the sameness of a recurrent problem and the variety of its historical manifestations.

Principally, however, the aim is to ascertain not how things were, but how things are—to help students gain understanding and make reasonable decisions in whatever circumstances they face. And it is the ultimate aim of the Program that the habits of thought and discussion thus begun by the students should continue with them throughout their lives.

Most of the teaching at St. John’s takes the form of a discussion. The conversational methods of the seminar are carried over into other classes. As much as possible, the actual instruction in all seminars, tutorials, and laboratories is made to depend on the activity and initiative of the students. The tutors function as guides, more intent on listening to the students and working with them than imposing upon them their own understandings.

St. John’s seeks to restore the true meaning of liberal education. The primary function of the liberal arts has always been to bring about an awareness of the forms that are embodied in combinations of words and in numbers so that they become means of understanding. Traditionally, the liberal arts were seven in number: grammar, rhetoric, logic—the arts of language; and arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy—the arts of mathematics. In more contemporary terms, the liberal arts bring to light what is involved in the use of words and numbers in all kinds of discursive thought, in analyzing, speaking, and writing; and also in measuring, deducing, and demonstrating.

There are many ways to develop these arts. The curriculum emphasizes six of them: discussion, translation, writing, experimentation, mathematical demonstration, and musical analysis. They all serve the same end: to invite the students to think freely and critically for themselves. By these means, students will be able to envisage actual situations, to deliberate by articulating clear alternatives with the hope of arriving at a proper choice. The acquisition of these intellectual skills will serve the students who have learned them throughout their lives.

Knowledge advances and the fundamental outlook of humanity may change over the centuries, but these arts of understanding remain in one form or another indispensable. These arts enable all human beings to know the world around them and to know themselves in this world, and to use that knowledge with wisdom. Under the guidance of these arts, they can free themselves from the constraint of prejudice and the narrowness of beaten paths. Under their discipline, they can acquire the habit of listening to reason. A genuinely conceived liberal arts curriculum cannot avoid aiming at these most far-reaching of all human goals.

The aim of the education offered by St. John’s College is the liberation of the human intellect. This is an education for all, regardless of a person’s race, sex, national or ethnic origin, age, religion, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression. By reading great books and struggling together with the fundamental questions that they raise, students and their teachers learn from their differences and discover more deeply their shared humanity. In this and other ways, a diversity of background and experience enriches our community of learning. Because it offers an education for all, St. John’s College has sought and continues to seek to make its program of study known and available to people of diverse backgrounds.

Download the full Statement of the Program