Little is politically correct at campus

ST. JOHN'S HOLDS TO ITS CANON

April 01, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

The assignment for freshman math was to compare an octahedron to a sphere, a complex, geometric proposition developed by Euclid, a dead white European man.

At St. John's College in Annapolis, no one questions the political correctness of studying the theories of the third-century B.C. mathematician.

In an era when many colleges and universities are revamping their curriculums to include perspectives from non-Western cultures, women and minorities, St. John's is continuing its own, defiantly classical course. Its reading list of 130 great books in Western civilization includes only a handful by women authors ,, and even fewer by blacks.

NB There are no multicultural requirements, no consciousness-rais

ing courses, no ethnic studies programs. There are no humor classes with references to cartoon strips. There are just the classics.

Students learn ethics from Aristotle, politics from Machiavelli, evolution from Darwin and drama from Moliere. All the texts for the unorthodox undergraduate program were written centuries ago by thinkers who often are referred to in the present, not disparaged as dead white European men.

"I myself have always leaned toward a politically incorrect

viewpoint when it comes to academics," says Susanna Beiser, 22, a junior who is learning Hebrew to read the Old Testament. "I have never questioned that what we're reading is the core curriculum people have been studying through the ages."

Ever since Stanford University replaced its freshman Western civilization course with a multicultural program in 1988, the nation's most prestigious institutions have been re-examining their academic canons. "Our culture has grown from a number of different roots and has populations within it that are not purely European," says Dr. Paul Seaver, who directs Stanford's"Cultures, Values and Ideas" program. "We got rid of the prescribed reading list as a sort of canonical series of texts. The result has been a series of innovative courses that have a broader approach."

Classes that incorporate non-Western perspectives are now in vogue at Dartmouth, Wesleyan, Brandeis, Tufts, University of Michigan and other schools. Malcolm X is studied with Plato; Homer's "Odyssey" is compared to Toni Morrison's "Beloved," and the role of women in medieval Germany is explored at the University of Maryland.

The multiculturalism movement has been criticized by traditional scholars, who question whether colleges are weakening their curriculums with shallow, ideologically rigid courses. "What you often find is they're using the study of other cultures as a kind of pretext for battering our own culture over the head," argues Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars in Princeton, N.J.

St. John's, which shrugs off the pressure for cultural diversity and more practical education, might seem out of sync with today's academic trends.

Yet it's in the midst of an enrollment boom. Applications for the demanding, $22,000-a-year program have increased 50 percent over the last decade, to their highest since the 1960s.

The continuing tradition

St. John's standards have changed little since 1937, when Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr introduced the fixed, four-year program to save the college during the Depression.

They drew on their days as Rhodes scholars to transform what was then an average small college that dated back to 1696. The influences of the program's founders persist to this day.

Mortimer Adler, the elderly guru of the University of Chicago's great books program, visits every spring, and seniors don academic robes for their oral exams.

College President Christopher Nelson, who graduated from St. John's sister campus in Santa Fe, N.M., emphasizes that the curriculum is not stagnant. An instruction committee ' recommends changes to the reading list each year, especially with the 20th-century works. The others are perennials.

Both he and Eva Brann, the school's philosophical dean, argue that the required readings are the basis of modern science, technology and politics. They scoff at revisionist historians who question the European intellectual tradition. And they say there's barely enough time for the cornerstones of Western civilization, let alone a scholarly study of Eastern texts.

"People think of us as inflexible, and indeed we change less than others," Mr. Nelson admits with a slight grin. "But our curriculum demands that we respond to change, not with a knee-jerk reaction, but with careful consideration."

Students can study writings by non-Western thinkers or women in eight-week courses during their final two years, he says. And the Santa Fe campus, which opened in 1964, has a new graduate program in Eastern studies.

Otherwise, St. John's demands the same math, science, language and humanities courses of all 400 undergraduates. All professors teach the same classes, from Plato to quantum physics.

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