A Tutor's Trek
To St. John's College
It was 1956
when Bill Braithwaite first saw "The St. John's Story," a promotional
film about St. John's College. He was then a junior at a military
prep school; he is now a tutor (what St. John's calls its professors)
at St. John's. It sounds like a simple progression, but four decades
passed before Braithwaite attended his first class at Annapolis'
"great books" college.
"I remember it vividly," Braithwaite says of the film. "It gripped
me powerfully and irresistibly. I wrote a letter of application
that afternoon." What could be so compelling about a college promo
film? In this case, it was the academic program that St. John's
offered: an all-required course of study centered around the reading
and discussion of the great works of the Western tradition. The
chance to study the writings of thinkers like Plato, Shakespeare,
Galileo and Einstein is what brings nearly all St. John's students
to the college.
Although Braithwaite's application was accepted, the half-scholarship
he was offered fell short of his needs; he enrolled instead at
the Virginia Military Institute on a full four-year scholarship.
"I went to Sparta instead of Athens," says Braithwaite, referring
to the two cities of ancient Greece, one famous for military discipline,
the other for its intellectual life.
After VMI, Braithwaite spent three years on active duty in the
Army. That, combined with his high school and college education,
gave him 10 years' experience in military environments. Not an
uncongenial match, he says: "I've always been interested in questions
of honor and virtue. The first books I can remember reading are
Beowulf and the Song of Roland, books about heroes, about courageous
men of honor. The military attracted me with its demand for honor
and courage, its atmosphere of competition and rivalry."
Braithwaite's life in the military, however, was spent behind
a desk, although he served in the Vietnam era. He suspects he
would have stayed in the military if he had seen combat. Instead,
he became a trial lawyer, which he calls a more domesticated form
In early 1971, just out of the Army, Braithwaite was a young lawyer
practicing in Chicago when he learned about the University of
Chicago's great books program, run by educational reformers Mortimer
Adler and Robert Hutchins. He and his wife enrolled and found
they liked the program and their instructor, George Anastaplo,
whose four children went to St. John's. Braithwaite remained in
the program for about a dozen years, even teaching in it from
time to time.
Eventually, Braithwaite's study of the great books led to a career
change: In 1979, he left the courtroom to become a teacher at
Loyola School of Law in Chicago. He also began working with Mortimer
Adler's Paideia Program, which introduced the seminar-style teaching
used at St. John's into Chicago public schools.
As the years passed, Braithwaite's teaching of law and his study
of the great books began to converge. He used the great books
in his classes at Loyola, teaching a seminar in natural law in
which the class read the Declaration of Independence
and Aristotle's Physics. He taught a logic course using
Euclid's Elements as the text. He became increasingly
interested in professional ethics and moral philosophy. "I read
Kant, Aristotle, Aquinas," he recalls. "Questions of honor and
virtue kept coming back. It became clearer to me that the question
of how to live life was a question I wanted to answer."
And so, in the early '90s, just as his oldest son Matthew was
entering St. John's as a freshman, Braithwaite found himself thinking
about a second career change. Matthew urged him to consider applying
to teach at St. John's but Braithwaite thought the college would
be hesitant to hire someone who was 56 years old. In addition
to anticipating a reluctance on the part of the college, Braithwaite
had his own reservations. His wife is from the Midwest and everything
she loved was there. His third son was about to start his senior
year of high school-a bad time for a family to move. And last
but not least, the career change would involve a second 50 percent
pay cut (he took the first when he became a professor at Loyola).
With six children to support, Braithwaite was considering taking
a job where his starting salary would be less than it was when
he began practicing law in the early '70s. "That's not everybody's
idea of worldly success," he points out.
Despite his reservations, Braithwaite applied to be a tutor and
was accepted. His wife agreed to come to Annapolis. His son decided
to finish high school a year early. And the pay cut, well, all
things have their trade-offs. For Braithwaite, the trade-off was
well worth it. He treasures the opportunity to spend his days
in the company of young people who are as eager as he is to study
Western Civilization's most important texts as they examine how
best to live.
"How should you live your life?" he asks. "No other question really
matters. For the past six and a half years I've had the chance
to think hard and deep about that."
Last spring, Braithwaite received tenure. "I fell in love with
St. John's at 17 and had to stay away for as long as the Israelites
wandered the desert with Moses," Braithwaite says. "But finally,
as an older man, I got to realize the love of my life."