4 years studying - then 1 hour talking

The oral examination is the capstone of a St. John's College education

April 17, 2005|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Tobin Herringshaw, a self-assured senior at St. John's College in Annapolis, spent much of last winter absorbing Aristotle's views on form, structure, tragedy and transformation in ancient Greek.

So when the time came to don a formal gown and discuss his senior essay on Aristotle for an hour with three college tutors and 25 or 30 friends, he felt ready.

"So many call him the father of drama - and they all get it wrong," Herringshaw told the panel. He laughed when his examiners said afterward they looked forward to reading his published works.

Herringshaw had just completed a turning point that all 90 or so seniors on the serene, stately campus go through in springtime.

In the rigorous Great Books curriculum that St. John's College has adhered to since the 1930s, classics, math, philosophy, science and literature are all learned in a certain order, with essay-writing and small class discussions the main mode of learning. The poems of Chaucer, the writings of Darwin on evolution, Lincoln's speeches and even basic principles of quantum physics are required reading.

Proud of its rich past, the centuries-old college has several reminders on campus of one graduate who famously had a way with words. Lawyer Francis Scott Key, Class of 1796, wrote the 1814 poem "The Star-Spangled Banner" that later became the national anthem.

Many students say they become attached to the college's cherished customs, such as the senior class ringing the tower bells at midnight after handing in their senior essays. The oral exam, the sequel to the bells celebration, is considered critical to completing the St. John's experience because it is a verbal defense - or exploration - of the senior essay finished in January.

On Thursday, senior Daniel Russell was running a bit late for his big senior moment - a discussion of Plato's Republic - but he didn't let that faze him when he walked into a room to don a cap and gown.

His father, George Russell, a faculty member, confessed to being "a little nervous" and handed his son a soda. Outdoors was a sunny April afternoon, but indoors in Woodward Hall was a palpable hum of Plato-related energy.

Awaiting the scholar were tutors David H. Stephenson, Mark Lutz and Bill Pastille, all in academic robes. By years of protocol, such formal attire accompanies the senior oral examination.

"It's [meant] to add to the dignity of the occasion, to make sure every senior takes it seriously," said Sam Kutler, who has taught there for 43 years.

Tutors - as faculty members are called - also take pride that the centuries-old college has retained a ritual that seems postmarked from the Renaissance. Stephenson, a tutor since the 1960s, said few other colleges in the country give undergraduate oral exams as a kind of intellectual coming-of-age.

"The tassel [goes] on your right," the tutors advised Russell almost in a practiced unison. And then they were ready to march, all four, into the King William Room where an audience - Russell's parents and a collection of two dozen friends - sat, ready to listen for an hour.

The public nature of the talk is important to introducing a senior's ideas, nurtured in solitude and private settings, to the wider community, college officials said. So seriously does the college take the oral exam that nobody is allowed to enter or leave the room once one has begun.

When Daniel Russell was done discussing justice as seen by Socrates, his mother, Mary Ellen Russell, beamed.

"That was a discussion I always avoided at the dinner table," his father - whose main field is philosophy - joked.

Tom May, a tutor for 25 years, said the ability to articulate complex ideas clearly is a sign that the student is ready to step out into the world. "It's been four years of thinking aloud with other students," he said.

College President Christopher Nelson is scheduled to be an examiner Wednesday when senior Natalie S. Rinn, from St. Cloud, Minn., takes her turn. Nelson, a Class of 1975 graduate, takes part in at least one senior essay oral exam - for which students receive merely a satisfactory or unsatisfactory grade.

Rinn's essay takes the Jane Austen novel Mansfield Park as its focal point. Nelson has said its main character, sweet and innocent Fanny Price, is perhaps his favorite Austen heroine.

"So I was the one he [Nelson] got," Rinn said. "It will be a conversation. I won't be stuck with pins and needles.

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