Seniors at St. John's must defend major paper


April 27, 1995|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Staff Writer

Taking precisely measured steps, Emily Axeford Murphy advanced in cap and gown into the Prince William Room of St. John's College library this month. Her name was called out by a faculty member, but this was no commencement ceremony.

This was trial by ordeal.

Ms. Murphy had to face a three-professor panel that tugged at the stray threads that threatened to unravel her painstakingly woven paper on the abolitionist crusader Frederick Douglass, President Lincoln and their stances on American slavery 125 years ago. Her topic is considered quite modern by classmates, many of whom focused on Plato, the Bible or "The Canterbury Tales."

The oral exam is a rite of spring at the small Annapolis campus, where every senior must complete a major paper and subsequently defend it in an oral examination before gaining the coveted diploma. For Johnnies, as they are called, it is the defining moment of their academic careers, a challenge open to the campus community and witnessed by their closest friends.

Yet on that bright afternoon, Ms. Murphy had more immediate worries, she recalled later. "My main worry was not actually the questions but whether or not I was going to trip over the rug or spill my water," said Ms. Murphy, a 22-year-old from Wellsboro, Pa. "I was so nervous."

Fifteen other students -- one in shinguards and soccer cleats -- sat in the bookshelf-lined room. Fittingly, most of the books were from the Greek philosophers. No one besides the panel and Ms. Murphy uttered a word during the hour.

The St. John's tradition was first brought into the Colonies by scholars echoing the centuries-old practices of European universities, and it is maintained mostly in testing the mettle of graduate students and honors students. That makes sense: the tiny Annapolis campus is in the top 10 percent of U.S. colleges and universities in terms of the percentage of its graduates who earn doctorates.

Only at a handful of American colleges do all undergraduates defend a major senior project.

Administrators at St. John's consider the oral exam a welcome rite of passage, the logical extension of the students' written work. "Oh, they get anxious, but I don't think they see it as a test," said St. John's President Chris Nelson, a member of the class of 1970. "They're opportunities to have serious public conversations where what you have to say is at the heart of the discussion."

That's true up to a point, students said, but they also view the exam as exquisite torture. "You already have butterflies two days before," said senior Justin Maddox, who was playing croquet on the lawn with fellow students. He has previously passed an exam on Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."

The exam becomes fun, he said, because it is an intense, intellectual discussion about something with which a student has fallen in love. "There are also moments when you feel like you're in a boxing match," Mr. Maddox said. Enduring the hour means a student will graduate, and is usually grounds for a round of beers at Griffin's or the Ram's Head Tavern a few blocks away.

The red Persian carpet that covers the floor in the Prince William Room is worn from the feet of generations of St. John's students who have offered themselves up for testing. But this archaic tradition stems not from the 1700s, but from 1937. That's when the school, a college and sometime military academy of little distinction, adopted the New Program, a curriculum focusing on "Great Books" and classic writings from Western civilization.

Leaders at the school feared that it was in its death throes, and imported the "core curriculum" emphasis of scholars from Columbia University and the University of Chicago. A 1940 feature article in Life magazine secured national attention for the school. The conscription demanded by World War II further threatened the school, as it graduated classes of eight students in 1943, five in 1944 and three in 1945. But enrollments picked back up after the war. The school now boasts a student body of 400 in Annapolis and roughly 400 more at its sister campus in Santa Fe, N.M.

Ms. Murphy showed some apprehension in the first few minutes of her exam. Her hands trembled slightly as she sipped from a glass of ice water, and she struggled a bit with the questions of her instructors. They, too, were wearing black robes as they sat beneath an oil painting of King William III, the British monarch after whom the college was first named when founded in the late 17th century.

But soon after the start of the exam, the St. John's senior immersed herself in the material rather than her situation, and more deftly parried the professors' queries.

"The Constitution recognizes slavery" with its original provision that slaves counted as three-fifths of a white person, said instructor Walter Sterling, a Johnnie who faced his own oral exam 30 years ago this spring. "If the Constitution recognizes slavery and I'm Frederick Douglass, I'd hate the Constitution."

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