Graduation, like all else at St. John's, defies convention Wofford addresses 101 new graduates

May 18, 1992|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff Writer

Nearly 1,000 people gathered about the Liberty Tree on the lawn of St. John's College in Annapolis yesterday for the college's 200th commencement exercises.

As the bells rang two o'clock, 76 undergraduates and 25 graduate students marched to their seats on the green.

There were, appropriately for a graduation, plenty of beaming parents and a few oblivious noisy children. There were the black-gowned graduating students, a bit misty, like the weather.

But because this was St. John's, it was not quite like graduation anywhere else.

Here, students read approximately 120 books and documents that form the backbone of Western intellectual tradition, the "greats," such as the Bible, Plato, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Nietzsche.

The goal of this tiny college, a campus of about 400 students, is to produce independent thinkers.

This made even the commencement program, which listed the afternoon's events and the graduating students, unusually entertaining, as it also listed the senior essays each graduate wrote.

The titles ranged from the respectably intellectual-sounding ("How the Inadequacies of a Purely Formal Ethics Lead to Separation from the World") to the more esoteric teasers, such as "How Wine Spurs You On and Cheese, Too."

After the college's Brass Quintet opened the ceremonies with a stately rendition of "Trumpet Voluntary," college President Christopher B. Nelson announced a bit of a problem -- this was not, in fact, the 200th anniversary.

The college was chartered in 1784 but took about five years to raise enough money to open. The first class matriculated in 1789 and graduated in 1793, he said.

Last year's was the 199th commencement, and the year before was the 198th, Nelson explained. But this spring, when the administration checked the college annals for background notes, they came upon the correct dates.

"What was I going to do?" Nelson queried. "The programs were already printed. I suggested next year be the 200th and this year as well."

Nobody seemed to mind. The audience of young women in long print dresses and sandals and young men wavering between Ivy League and trendy clapped for those receiving awards, then settled in to listen to the commencement address by Harris Wofford, Democratic senator from Pennsylvania.

Wofford, the surprise winner in last fall's election and honorary alumnus of St. John's, spoke about "The Great Books and the Active Duty Citizen."

A civil rights adviser to Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, as well as to Dr. Martin Luther King, Wofford was an intimate friend of the founders of the Great Books program at St. John's.

His connection with St. John's began after World War II, when he met Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan, scholars who in 1937 as president and dean at St. John's had launched the New Program based on the seminal works of western tradition.

Wofford predicted that St. John's approach to education was the hope of the future.

He referred to the school's program, which has no departments but rather tutors who preside over classes in all disciplines. The school prompts students to introspection and genuine thought.

With the aid of this St. John's background, the senator said, the students could go against the odds of today's society and win.

He talked about the odds. One government study has predicted that by the year 2000, the average American will have seven careers in a lifetime, Wofford said. But the ability to think -- which the students are supposed to have learned -- will have prepared them, Wofford said.

The senator also warned the graduates against becoming "one of them, 'them' being the lack of ideas and leadership at all levels of our society."

He blamed that lack for the recent riots in Los Angeles, in which most of the rioters were young.

"Don't just look at the need for money," Wofford said. "Notice that not all the rioters were black or Hispanic or any ethnic group, but all were young." Without good leaders, the country is losing its youth, he said.

Wofford challenged the young St. John's graduates to become antidotes. Perhaps college graduates could donate a year of their time to addressing the nation's ills, he said.

"Someday," Wofford concluded, "the atom of power in St. John's is going to be split and transform American education."

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