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 of combat.

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."


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