Fostering liberal arts

At St. John's College, students have Georgia on their minds

March 22, 2009|By Lindsay Kalter | Lindsay Kalter,lindsay.kalter@baltsun.com

Thousands of miles away, in the mountainous capital of the historically conflict-ridden country of Georgia, there sits a college that was recently founded on the pedagogic principles of a single institution - Annapolis' St. John's College.

The Organization for Liberal Education in Georgia, a student group at the Annapolis school, will be host for a jazz benefit Saturday to raise money for a summer trip to the New Gelati Academy in Tbilisi, Georgia. The proceeds will pay for a group of students and teachers from St. John's to travel to the 10-month-old college and help establish a learning environment modeled after St. John's College, which emphasizes independent thought and intimate class discussions on Western literature.

The event, "Georgia on My Mind," will provide musical entertainment by pianists Hod O'Brien and Luke Russell for $20 per ticket, or $25 at the door. OLEG members hope to raise $10,000.

Noel Brockett, a senior from New Britain, Conn., and co-founder of OLEG, said the country has roots in liberal arts education. But he said education there has suffered after years of social and economic hardship linked to Soviet rule.

He said that in Georgia, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, "many of the streets are named after poets and philosophers. ... If your idols are poets, you're obviously going to have to be doing some reading."

Brockett helped found OLEG Inc., which is separate from the college group and in the process of gaining its nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service. Proceeds from the event will be given by the OLEG student group to OLEG Inc., and 10 percent of the money will be used to help fund future projects.

Lancelot Fletcher, founder and dean of New Gelati, is developing the school's liberal arts curriculum. The college, which is part of the Grigol Robakidze University, has four students and seven teachers. Fletcher said he hopes the faculty will double before the St. John's group arrives. His primary goal is to revive liberal arts education in Georgia, he said.

"In Georgia, unlike the U.S., education is pretty much controlled by the government," he said.

Although a Bachelor of Arts is not yet recognized in Georgia, Fletcher said he hopes to gain permission from the Ministry of Education within the next year to grant the degree.

Nini Aduashvili, a Georgia native and sophomore at St. John's who co-founded the OLEG student group with Brockett, was introduced to the concept of liberal arts education while applying to schools in the United States. When she applied to Yale, she met with Fletcher, who was one of Yale's alumni charged with interviewing prospective international students. As associate director of the American-Georgian Initiative for Liberal Education, Fletcher encouraged her to apply to St. John's College, which he considers the best liberal arts school in the United States.

Aduashvili became instrumental in the inception of New Gelati, and helped craft the school's curriculum.

"When I came [to St. John's], I already had this vision of founding a liberal arts college in Georgia," she said. "When I came here, I started sharing with people about my country, especially after finding out that they didn't know much about it."

In addition to promoting liberal arts education in Georgia, members of OLEG hope to bring aspects of Georgia's culture and history back to St. John's students.

Charmaine Benham, a sophomore from Oakland, Calif., and OLEG's assistant executive director, said the group has received support from local businesses. Kilwin's Chocolate on Main Street in Annapolis is donating its ice cream sales from the evening of the event to the organization. City Dock Coffee is also allowing OLEG members to sell tickets in front of the Annapolis cafe, giving a free coffee with each purchase.

Brockett said he hopes a liberal arts education will empower the people of Georgia and provide new opportunities to a struggling population.

"We want to show that this style of education works," he said. "It can produce people who can lead organizations and make things happen."

if you go

Who: Pianists Hod O'Brien and Luke Russell

What: "Georgia on My Mind," a benefit jazz concert

When: 7 p.m., Saturday, March 29

Where: Francis Scott Key Auditorium, St. John's College, Annapolis

Why: Benefits the Organization for Liberal Education in Georgia for the New Gelati Academy, Tbilisi, Georgia

Tickets: $20 in advance at www.jazzforgeorgia.com; $25 at the door

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