Academia: Behind every late, great man on the St. John's College required-reading list is a great woman waiting to get on it.


March 03, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

ANNAPOLIS -- It's not true that St. John's College is afraid of Virginia Woolf. Nor scared of Emily Dickinson.

How about Simone de Beauvoir, author of the seminal book on feminism, "The Second Sex"?

About her, St. John's seems a bit leery. She's not likely to make it onto the college's venerable reading list anytime soon. Neither are Mary Shelley, George Sand, even Mary Wollstonecraft, with her "Vindication of the Rights of Women."

As for more recent female authors of great note, like Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, even the current dean of St. John's, Eva Brann, has been unable to get her on the list.

For over two years now, St. John's alumni have been debating the wisdom of adding more female voices to its Great Books reading list. To some, it is long overdue: Nearly half the students at St. John's are women, and feminism, they argue, is one of the most important bodies of thought in the past two centuries. To others, including books in the canon because they were written by women is an affront to what St. John's stands for.

The cultural wars have come a little late to St. John's. Feminism and multiculturalism swept over other campuses years ago, dramatically changing literature courses. More women authors came in. Many men -- most of them white and dead -- went out.

In this day and age to be averse or discriminatory toward women and their works is -- well, old-fashioned. Sometimes even actionable.

Old-fashioned is a term often used in connection with St. John's, a school that rises in idyllic remove above College Creek. It is a serene and peculiar place which claims to offer the purest non-utilitarian liberal education since Socrates gathered the brightest of Athenian youth and began to ask provocative questions.

Not about the past

"We are called names," says Brann. "Archaic. Old-fashioned. But I can say this: We never read a book because it's old. There is no school in the country less interested in the past." St. John's originated as King William's School in 1696. Eventually it became a college and changed its name to St. John's, after the biblical evangelist. It closed during the Civil War (as faculty members went off to their preferred sides), was briefly occupied by the federal Army, then reopened as a military school.

It remained such until war went out of fashion after the first big one of this century. Then, in 1937 under Dean Scott Buchanan, it turned to the higher verities and the great books that contained them.

Buchanan's reading list included Homer, Plato, Herodotus (it's heavy on old Greeks), Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche (and old Germans), Shakespeare, Locke, Freud, Conrad and on and on. William Faulkner, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass were among the Americans added later. Gradual changes -- not radical changes.

Those at St. John's believe the work of great writers and thinkers is undiminished by time and circumstance. Wars come and go, but who has ever written more thoughtfully about war than Homer? And isn't Aristophanes a funnier playwright than Neil Simon? Well, maybe it's a Greek thing.

In the 60 years since the St. John's canon was compiled, very few works by or about women have acceded to the list of a hundred or so authors read in seminar. The seminar books are those that all of the nearly 800 students on St. John's two campuses, in Annapolis and at Santa Fe, N.M., must read, talk about and write essays on.

If you want to graduate there is no eluding Leibniz; no escape from the leaden sentences of Karl Marx.

In Annapolis, books by three women are also among the must-reads: Jane Austen ("Pride and Prejudice"), George Eliot ("Middlemarch") and Flannery O'Connor ("Parker's Back").

It's important to mention here that Woolf, Emily Dickinson and the Greek poet Sappho are read in the language tutorials, where students concentrate more deeply on their work. But since tutors are given some discretion on which poet or author to teach in these classes (there are no traditional "professors" at St. John's, no lectures, exams, no separate departments, no majors), a St. John's undergraduate could go through four years without reading Woolf or either of the other two.

In Annapolis, that is. Woolf is taught in seminar in Santa Fe this year. And she did enjoy a spell on the seminar book list a few years back in Annapolis, when her "To the Light House" bumped Frederick Nietzsche's "Zarathustra." But after two years, wouldn't you know, the portentous Teuton came roaring back. Woolf returned to the language tutorials.

Johnnies at odds

The debate over adding more women to the list began in November 1995, with a proposal published in the university newspaper, The Reporter, from Mary Helen McMurran, a 1987 graduate of the Santa Fe campus.

She proposed 16 works by women; 63 other grads signed her petition. Letters in response flew fast and furious in subsequent editions.

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