A Lifelong Love of Learning:
Joan Silver, Director of the St. John's College Graduate Institute
Although they play a different role at St. John's College than faculty do at most American colleges and universities, many St. John's tutors took a traditional path to the college. They earned advanced degrees in a specialized field, wrote dissertations, and then applied for teaching jobs.
Joan Silver took something of a different route to her position as a St. John's tutor and current director of the college's Graduate Institute. Ms. Silver first became a tutor while she was an undergraduate student at St. John's, when some of her tutors recognized her ability.
And although she later went on to earn a doctorate in theology, along the way Ms. Silver spent time as a gardener, a bookkeeper, and a clown named Bernice. Her rich and varied experiences have all contributed to the outlook Ms. Silver promotes as director of the college's graduate program, which attracts students from age 20 to age 80.
"You should never stop learning," Ms. Silver says. "Both reading books and trying out new things are ways to find out who you are."
This philosophy is also why Ms. Silver was drawn to teaching at St. John's. At this small but significant college, where the discussion-based program is based on the classic works of Western civilization, tutors are "model learners" whose role is to guide students on their own self-directed paths to becoming educated citizens. Faculty give up their specialty and teach across the curriculum, which includes music, mathematics, Greek, French, science, literature, and philosophy.
A California native, Ms. Silver originally enrolled as an Asian studies major at Pomona College, then went to the State University of New York's Old Westbury campus to finish her bachelor's degree. At the time, Old Westbury was a new, self-proclaimed experimental college that combined reading great books with public service.
"It was meant to be a wedding of St. John's and the Peace Corps," Ms. Silver says. "I met interesting people, read books in seminar, and fell in love with Plato and reading the great books."
Reading and discussing original texts, meeting a number of St. John's graduates, and later meeting St. John's tutor Eva Brann at Old Westbury led Ms. Silver to enroll as a freshman at St. John's in Annapolis. Even with a bachelor's degree in hand, she explains, "I wanted to read all the books in the program, to do the whole undergraduate curriculum. And I wasn't disappointed-it was wonderful."
As much as she enjoyed the program, Ms. Silver was running out of money for her education and wasn't sure how she could continue at St. John's. One day she was called into the Financial Aid office, where she learned she had a full scholarship, an anonymous gift from a classmate who wanted to see her continue at the college. "It was extraordinary," says Ms. Silver.
Her second piece of good news at the end of her freshman year came after her don rag, an oral student evaluation that is considered more important than grades at St. John's. "Miss Brann said, 'we have decided, if you stay, you can teach.' When I was a junior, I began teaching one class, freshman math," Ms. Silver explains.
While continuing to teach, Ms. Silver decided to work toward a master's degree at St. John's. She continued to take some classes in the program and studied Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit with Miss Brann every Monday and Thursday evening in Miss Brann's kitchen.
"I wrote a thesis, had my oral exam, earned a master's, and taught one more year full time," Ms. Silver explains.
To broaden her horizon, Ms. Silver went to teach at St. Mary's College in California, which has a great books program similar to that of St. John's. Still, she wanted to explore whether teaching was her life's work. So she took a break from the classroom, worked first as a gardener and then as a bookkeeper, and enrolled in a clown school in Berkeley, Calif.
Ms. Silver wasn't interested in the American birthday-party idea of a clown. "I modeled myself after the European concept of a clown, the fool's tradition-like Charlie Chaplin-that dates all the way back to the Middle Ages." Her clown persona, "Bernice," enacted stories. One of her teachers encouraged Ms. Silver to go out and explore the city as a clown, so Ms. Silver would dress up in her clown outfit-featuring a crushed hat with pink and purple flowers-and take Bernice to the people.
"I was eager to go out and experience being the underdog, being one of the people who are part of the outcast class in this country," she says. "People have many sides to them, and the side that I explored as Bernice meant that I became more willing to be myself."
She continued to work on her academic studies, completing a doctorate from the Graduate Theological Union in 1993. During the summers, she had continued teaching at the Graduate Institute in Santa Fe, and in 1989, she became a full-time tutor there. In 1996, she came back to join the faculty in Annapolis.
Last summer, Ms. Silver was chosen by a committee of Santa Fe and Annapolis tutors to a three-year term as director of the Graduate Institute. The institute started in Annapolis in 1978, and today it has 80 full-time and 11 part-time students enrolled in a program leading to a Master of Arts in Liberal Arts degree. Graduate students read many of the same works as undergraduates do, but the programs differ in several ways. The graduate degree is earned through completion of four segments in one of five areas: Philosophy and Theology; Mathematics and Natural Science; Literature; Politics and Society; and History.
In the next few years, as she leads the graduate program, Ms. Silver will be at the forefront of discussions centered on improving the Graduate Institute. Changes such as requiring an introductory first segment to give graduate students a common intellectual foundation for further studies have been considered. "It's very healthy for us to continue to look at the program in a critical way," Ms. Silver says.
Initially started as a summer program, primarily for teachers, the master's program still attracts educators who attend full time during the summer months. But its student body has changed over the years. More students just out of undergraduate programs are enrolling, along with adults who are pursuing the graduate degree for personal fulfillment. "Many who enroll in the institute feel that their education, up to that point, has not been sufficient in some way," Ms. Silver says. "In exploring these texts and discussing them with others, they get a chance to examine the underpinnings of their thought."
More information on the Graduate Institute is available on the college Web site at: www.stjohnscollege.edu.