Hitting the Books

"Blind-sided." Judith Seeger, assistant dean at St. John's College, says that when she was first teaching at St. John's, she was blind-sided. Repeatedly. "Every day, again and again," she recalls in a voice tinged with nostalgic fondness. "I'll never have that experience again," she adds with a sigh of regret.

The opportunity to be repeatedly blind-sided isn't what the typical scholar looks for in an academic position, but St. John's has never been accused of harboring typical scholars. Among its faculty is a World War II spy, a poet and astrophysicist with a quasar discovery to his credit, a brain surgeon with an appetite for philosophy, and a polyglot who moonlights as a psychotherapist. So Seeger, who spent the formative years of her academic life in a Brazilian jungle and regrets the end of her knockdown initiation into the world of St. John's, is really just one of the crowd.

In the spring of 1963, a copy of the Saturday Review turned up in the common room of Seeger's freshman dorm at Harvard University. The issue included a full-length feature about St. John's "great books" curriculum. Seeger read it, determined that St. John's was an interesting place, and then got on with her academic career. "But I didn't forget St. John's," she says.

After completing her undergraduate degree in Latin American history, she married Tony Seeger, a social and cultural anthropologist. The couple moved to Brazil to pursue their graduate work---he in the cosmology of Native American groups and she in oral traditional ballads. "We went to Brazil with no children and a three-year commitment. We came back with two children after seven years," Seeger says.

After several years teaching at Indiana University in Bloomington, the couple moved to the Washington area. Tony became curator and director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (he's the nephew of folk singer Pete Seeger) and Judith became a tutor (what the college calls its professors) at St. John's.

Although Seeger was by then an accomplished academic with a book and several scholarly articles to her name, she had read less than one-tenth of the works on the St. John's curriculum. Hence, the blind-siding.

The academic year at St. John's runs at a breakneck pace. In the first month, freshmen find themselves learning Ancient Greek while reading hundreds of pages (in translation) of Aristotle, Plato, Homer, Euclid, Aeschylus, and Archimedes. New tutors put in hard hours to keep ahead of their students: the all-required great books curriculum is all-required for the faculty as well. Tutors must teach (and therefore learn) the entire curriculum. Russian scholars teach quantum physics. Organic chemists teach Ancient Greek. Music scholars teach general relativity.

For Seeger, this was not a problem. She describes it as a major benefit of her job: "We read the books an educated person should read. I'm getting educated and getting paid for it."

Seeger's "Johnnie-come-lately" introduction to the great books is not an indictment of her intelligence: she's a Harvard graduate with an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Rather, it is an illustration of the shape of American higher education. The books that an educated person should read are segregated into separate departments at most colleges and universities. Heisenberg is squirreled away in the physics lab. Lobachevsky hides in the math department. Spinoza is the reserve of philosophy majors, and Flannery O'Connor is the exclusive property of American lit.

St. John's, by contrast, has an interdisciplinary approach to education. There are no departments or majors. The works of Plato are often cited in lab, and Shakespeare is discussed in music class.

So far, Seeger has taught nearly the entire curriculum---math from Euclid through Lobachevsky; Ancient Greek, French, and English poetry; science from Archimedes through Einstein: music from Palestrina through Stravinsky; and seminar from Homer through Heidegger. The only classes she hasn't taught are junior-year French (the one subject she was familiar with when she came to St. John's), and the second semesters of senior math and senior language. These she was just about to begin when duty called: she became assistant dean in January 2001 and had to give up her senior math and language classes to take the job.

Assistant dean is a critical but undervalued position at St. John's. Except for the purely academic matters that are the dean's responsibility, the assistant dean is responsible for nearly everything that goes on in the students' lives---housing, food, discipline, health, security, classroom attendance, and extracurricular activities.

There are usually no applicants for the post. In an institution where the mind is king and the real world can seem an afterthought, it is hard to find volunteers willing to handle the nitty-gritty of making the college work. Instead, the faculty is scrutinized for a candidate with the right combination of patience, maturity, empathy, resourcefulness, and backbone to do the job.

Despite the position's perennial unpopularity, when Seeger was tapped for the post, she agreed to take it almost immediately. "I see it as a service to the community," she says. "I feel I owe a lot to the college and this is my chance to pay the community some of what I owe it."

While there was never a class to prepare her for days full of vaccination reports, dorm construction meetings, party request forms, student art exhibitions, and roommate disputes, Seeger identifies two life experiences that prepared her for the job.

The first is her work as a counselor at the summer camp in Vermont owned by her husband's family: "I helped the kids deal with homesickness, learn to live together in close quarters, and understand how to get along with others. Doesn't that sound like college?" The second was living in the jungle. "I've seen people be born, I've seen them die, and I've seen a lot of stuff in between," she says. "I learned how not to be surprised by anything. Or rather, I learned how not to look surprised."

When she is not writing for St. John's College, Susan Borden is a freelancer specializing in business communications.


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