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Has critical thinking vanished? A conversation with the president of St. John’s College (+podcast)

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In this Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, photo, St. John's College President Mark Roosevelt talks about trends in student tuition and spending by colleges in Santa Fe, N.M. The college with campuses in Santa Fe and Annapolis, Md., is reducing its annual tuition p

In this Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, photo, St. John’s College President Mark Roosevelt talks about trends in student tuition and spending by colleges in Santa Fe, N.M. The college with campuses in Santa Fe and Annapolis, Md., is reducing its annual tuition price, adding grants for New Mexico residents and plans to rely more on philanthropy to defer academic costs to students. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

AP

Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.

Boyd Matheson: Many Americans have become intellectually soft, floating about in their own echo chambers of self-selected news and social media channels. Critical thinking seems to be vanishing and civility and civil dialogue have all but disappeared. Could the solution be found at a college that doesn't even allow current politics in the classroom? The answer may surprise you. Mark Roosevelt, president of St. John's College, joins the conversation on this week's episode of Therefore, What?

I am incredibly excited today to be joined by Mark Roosevelt, who is the president of St. John's College, which has two campuses, one in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and one in Annapolis, Maryland. It's the third-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Prior to his tenure at St. John's College, Mark served as president of Antioch College and was superintendent of the Pittsburgh public schools. Mark was elected to the Massachusetts State Legislature in 1986, and later was the Democratic nominee for governor of Massachusetts. Mark, thanks for joining us today on Therefore, What?

Mark Roosevelt: Great happy to be here.

BM: You've committed a lot of your career to the education space and doing it in a little different way. Why education and what have you learned over the over the years as it relates to education?

MR: That's a big question. Well, education, when I was in politics, I was lucky enough to be named chair of the Massachusetts Legislature's education committee. And that kind of shaped my belief that education is the most important issue we have, even though as a voter's issue, sometimes it doesn't seem to be that important, unfortunately. And then I lost running for governor, as you pointed out. I actually lost quite badly and I woke up, I was 38, and I realized I didn't want to do it again. And I realized I wanted to spend my life — what I had left of my career — in education. And I first trained to be a large city school superintendent, which is a very challenging job, was lucky enough to be hired in Pittsburgh, learned a lot there which we can or don't need to go into depending on your preferences, Boyd. And then I was hired to recreate Antioch College, which had closed, and I did that for about six years. And then came to St. John's, which is a very different place for me, because I heretofore had been kind of a turnaround artist. But St. John's does not need a turnaround. So it's a different place for me, it's a very happy place for me, I'm hoping it will be my last job. It's a really beautiful place, which is an odd word to apply to an educational institution. But it is.

And so what I've learned, that I bring to bear here, is some of what you alluded to in your introduction, which is that in many ways, higher education in America has lost its way. And St. John's, on most issues, has been willing to sail against prevailing winds for a very long time. And we're very proud of that. And I think most of what we do that most other places don't do anymore is very good. Some of what we did and participated in, like the ridiculous escalation in college tuition prices, we now want to change.

BM: Let's drill down into that. For those who aren't familiar with St. John's College, how is it different from the typical college or university today because there's a whole host of us, I've been talking about how excited I was for this podcast for several weeks now. And I think I have an army of about 65 people who are ready to quit their jobs and enroll at St John's College. But for those who aren't familiar with your premise there, your history, give us give us a little back story.

MR: It's easier to answer, in simple ways, how we're alike, because we're so different. So I'll try to highlight the most important differences. We're very small. Our faculty are called tutors and not professors because they do not profess. Our classes are all seminars built around the Socratic method. Our curriculum is entirely required. So every student is doing the same thing in different seminars, but the same textural works. We are known as the great books school, meaning that we really do study firsthand, we don't read secondary sources, we read the actual books. Students will read 222 books during the course of their four years here. The only thing that great books does not really describe well is they also do significant work in math and science. So they will learn calculus, they will do differential equations.

So the premise of the school is that human beings do better if they understand how their culture and their civilization arrived at where they are. So we basically study what made Western civilization primarily what it is today, how we got there. So it moves chronologically from "The Odyssey," Homer is the first reading, all the way up through Heidegger and Einstein in the senior year. So it's tough, Boyd. It's probably the most rigorous college in the country. The classes are very small, so there's no place to hide. We have no adjunct faculty, we have no lectures. Our faculty do not lecture. A question is different here, which is kind of interesting to think about. A question is sort of a journey, an invitation to go on a journey. It's not that the faculty member knows the answer, and wants to find out if the students know the answer. So it's hard to overstate how different we are. Our faculty teach across the curriculum. Most have PhDs in philosophy. I think the second one would be political science, but they also teach math. And they also teach the science classes. So we're a community of learners. Both campuses are small, about 400 students. Classes are all small, all discussion based, and we're all searchers. The faculty are searchers, the students are searchers, we're just searching to understand as best we can, who we are, and how we got here.

BM: I love that the difference between being a searcher, a tutor, or a professor, we can probably spend four hours just in that space.

MR: And it would be fun.

BM: It would be fun. It would be very good. So for some of our listeners, who maybe aren't super familiar with the Socratic method, or have forgotten what that learning looks like, give us just a little framing there in terms of what that looks like. I want to use that as we dive into some other topics, including civility and politics and a few of those things.

MR: Well, it's basically a questioning form of dialogue. So every seminar begins with a tutor asking an opening question that is supposed to frame that evening or that day's seminar. So if you're doing Tolstoy's "War and Peace," it might be like, why is it called "War and Peace"? What does that title mean? And what does it tell us about what Tolstoy is pursuing here? It's using questions to provoke searching. And to provoke a focused kind of searching. And the class, if it works well, Boyd — to make another metaphor — it's almost like improvisational jazz. Each student sort of riffs off of what the previous speaker may have said.

BM: Love that, that's so different than what we seem to be doing at a lot of college campuses today, which is to get the thinking to fit into a certain box or frame. And so I want to drill down on that a little bit. Because often we do hear this call that we need more critical thinkers in the world, or we need to think critically about things as if that's something we either are born with, or pull off the shelf. How do you approach it there at St. John's, in terms of really honing in developing that critical thinking skill set?

MR: Well, I think it happens in everything they do, just the questioning and the ability to overcome your fears. I mean, for example, a lot of students come here and they may be a little bit math-phobic. A lot of us are, right? I was. But the classes cause you — I was in a math class the other day, and they were saying if A1 and A2 contain all numbers, OK. All numbers are contained within either the set of A1 or the set of A2. If you make A3, or you make it 3 trillion, are A1 and A2 equal? Now my mind doesn't wrap itself easily around that kind of question. But once you listen to the students go at that you're seeing critical thinking happening, and examination. The next question they asked was, did geometry ruin arithmetic? Now I don't even understand the question, right? I mean, I don't even understand what they're getting at. But it's tough stuff. It's provocative stuff, but provocative not in the way, perhaps, of what's happened to our political discourse, but provocative in that it causes your mind to go places it just doesn't ordinarily go.

BM: Yeah. And that's an important part of learning and unlearning and relearning and advancing, is to be able to get comfortable in that uncomfortable space of not knowing or not having a platform or a position to just lock yourself into. That requires a little bit of courageous vulnerability, which is interesting. So let's drill down on that a little bit, Mark, as it relates to the current political climate. You don't do politics in your classroom. And yet, I am a passionate believer that you have tapped in over and over and over again to what I think is really at the core essence of how we solve the political problems and the political dialogue in the country.

MR: Well, that's an interesting one, because we are a fairly nonpolitical environment. And yet, one of the things we hope our students get is the ability to talk across difference. Not by entertaining political subjects, but just by the books and the issues the books raise are hefty and sometimes controversial. If you're dealing with "Don Giovanni," you're dealing with sexual misconduct. So it's not that some of the issues aren't political in a small "p" sense, right? And what we hope happens, and I'm pretty confident does happen in the seminar room, is that people learn to be respectful of other people's point of views, they learn to listen. So this difference between civility and civil dialogue. Civility just means being polite, and I think that's important. But civil dialogue is something beyond that. It's the ability to maintain courtesy and respect across difference, and that is certainly what we seem to have lost in our larger body politic. And we do believe that our seminars provoke those skills.

But I will say this, because I don't want to sound pollyanna-ish. Outside of the classroom we're not immune from the politicization that has taken over this country. And the very malignant dialogue that happens. For example, I appeared on Fox News, I appeared on the "Tucker Carlson Tonight" show and a good many of my younger alumni wrote pretty aggressively expressing their disagreement with my decision to be on Tucker Carlson. And they didn't always exhibit the behaviors that we want to see. So I hope we're not pretending anything here. I think we help people develop those skills. But wow, the currents in American life are so deep and so troublesome that we're not immune.

BM: Yeah, for sure. And I think this surely is not an exercise in "Kumbaya" moments or group hugs or just pretending we're all pollyanna, but I love this idea of courtesy across differences. Tell me a little more about that. Or tell me how you see that manifest on your campus or in your seminars and these discussions between your students?

MR: Well, you see it primarily in the classroom, in the seminar. That if somebody says something that is challenging and that you don't agree with, you're supposed to learn the skills of how to confront that disagreement respectfully, and to phrase your question or your comment on the other person's perspective, exhibiting that respect. And it does happen and it happens a lot. I think the question for us is, you know, how do you take that classroom civility and bring it out into the world at large, which is not easy, but at least our students develop the skills to do it. If they can maintain that attitude that governs the classroom and bring it into other aspects of their lives.

BM: And I think you've done that, even on campus. I know you've had a wide range of political thought — people from Justice (Sonia) Sotomayor from the Supreme Court. I know she was on campus. I know you've had conservatives like Michael Mukasey and others. Tell us about that process and experience and what learning did that create for the students to have people with very strong political opinions or political presence on campus?

MR: Well, we don't often have speakers like that, they were both unusual, but we are proud of how it went. Look, I mean, like most younger people on college campuses, our students lean left. They don't lean as much left as students do on other campuses and our faculty are more diverse in their politics than other faculties are. But Sonia Sotomayor was certainly greeted with great affection, Judge Mukasey was greeted with respect, he gave a extremely polemical speech, to which he was not protested at all. And he received some certainly edgy questions. But afterwards, when I spoke to him, he fully acknowledged and fully understood that there were very few other college campuses in this country he could have given this talk on and not had disruption. So our students did exhibit great respect. And I guess they were grateful for the opportunity to hear him. How many of them agreed with what he was saying about various political issues? I don't know. But certainly, nobody turned their back, nobody held up signs, nobody booed, nobody shouted, and he would be welcome back to campus again.

BM: That's good. And again, I think that being able to really have that kind of courtesy across the differences is so important. So I want to transfer into kind of the business space for a moment, because I think if you have a brand from St. John's College out there in the broader world, it's people in again, a wide range of businesses, and neuroscience, and social entrepreneurship and everything in between. Your students, your graduates have this reputation of really being fearless in terms of going into the unknown territory, to be able to ask what I call the secondary questions. I used to always call it "The Wizard of Oz" question, the because, because, because, because questions to get down to the deeper meaning, the bigger approaches. Tell me what is your experience, from your graduates' perspective? What kind of reputation do they have in terms of leading these kind of crucial conversations for businesses?

MR: Well, our graduates do, as you suggested, they work in every field imaginable. And if you ask me, I think the pendulum is swinging back towards people understanding that a broad liberal arts education is probably the best education for an economy and a world that is changing so fast that the jobs that most of our students have haven't even been invented yet. But I guess our graduates are known for questioning. They're known for probing, they're known for not accepting the answer, "oh, we do it that way." "Because we've always done it that way." I think that they also have — one of our graduates created the TV show "MacGyver." And I guess MacGyver is a detective who uses whatever is at hand to try to solve the problems in front of them. That's how we like to think our graduates are built. To take a problem, complicated problem, and use whatever tools that are at hand to try to solve it. And they apply that from winemaking to medicine, to academics, to all kinds of fields.

BM: I love that, the MacGyver of problem solving. You could put that on a T-shirt. So let's continue down that path just a little further, because as I see some of your graduates out there. I think one of our favorites around here is Sen. Ben Sasse, who did some graduate work there at St. John's College. And you look at how he approaches questions in a little bit of a different way. It's too easy for us to go straight forward with the standard question/answer kind of things. I mean, even in political hearings, and court cases, and again, business presentations, you just see a different approach. Why do you think that's so essential, as you mentioned, as the world continues to change so fast? What advantages is that giving to a student coming out with that skill set?

Mark Roosevelt: I think it gives them a lot of advantages. One of the things that happens, I think, to most of our students is, say they overcome their fears, whether it's because they thought they were mathphobic, and they end up being able to stand up and do a differential equation on the board in front of their classmates or articulate what Euclid did. So they develop both — this is seemingly contradictory, Boyd, but very important. I think they develop humility. Because I think one of the things that a good liberal arts education should do is shake zealotry. Right? It should really cause people to question such sureness. So that's one thing, which I think is very important. By the way, if I actually asked what outcome I would most want, I think humility is a huge positive, but the second is confidence that they can use the skills they've developed to get someplace. That's seemingly contradictory to humility, but I don't see it that way. So whether you're a Ben Sasse or whether you're an employee at a tech company, trying to solve a problem, I think they use the skill. But the skill is in a group setting, a lot, which I think is important. So they've learned to be in a group of about 15 people who are trying to understand something complicated, that Hegel may have written, and to do so together. So that when one person adds a little building block, another person build on it. That's very different from how many people have learned to work, right?

BM: It most definitely is, and really understanding that — I love that you use the term humility because it really is a different approach in an age where so often what is portrayed is instant certainty, your students are doing the opposite.

MR: I hope so. You know, it's an interesting thing because I still think — I mean I think humility is perhaps the most undervalued human asset. I ran for governor, you brought that up, I lost very badly. That was very painful. I think I'm a much better person for the experience of having been given a beating.

BM: Celebrating that scar tissue is a good thing. And I think too, the other thing that I've noticed with some of your graduates, is there are people who can walk into a room, everyone knows they're the smartest person in the room, and everyone leaves at the end feeling a little bit dumber. And then there are people who walk into a room, everyone knows they're the smartest person in the room, but everybody leaves feeling a little smarter and a little better because of the conversation that was had.

MR: Yeah, yeah. And the thing about trying to believe you're the smartest person in the room is worth getting over. Right? And then thinking differently about how can I contribute to the room collectively, being smarter, is a different mind frame.

BM: Exactly. I love that. I heard a description of a prominent man in our community here in Salt Lake City, who is one of those who would clearly be the smartest person in the room. But someone commented that they had never heard this gentlemen ever say he knew something. You know, you always have those moments, people are telling you something and you can finish the story, or you already knew it, or whatever. And they've never seen him interrupt anyone and say, "Oh, I know that," or "Yeah, I read that," or, "yeah, I saw that." He always lets them go and then extends the conversation with, what I think is the real art, is the art of the secondary question.

MR: Such a nice point, Boyd, let me riff off that just for a second. So in the classroom, students are taught not to interrupt, but they're also taught not to speak for so long that they deserve interrupting, you see what I mean? Because those are two different things.

BM: That is an excellent point. Very good. Well, Mark, this has been a fabulous conversation. We are to the point in our program that we actually call the Therefore, what? and I'd love to get your take. People who've been listening for the last 25 minutes here. What do you hope they take away from this? What do you hope they think different? What do you hope they do different as a result to engaging with us today?

MR: Well, that's a big one. I guess we can all of us, including myself, just take a moment to pause and shake our own zealotry. Shake our belief that we've figured it out, because we haven't, none of us have figured out why we're on this earth, what our purpose is, and it's all very humbling to contemplate those questions. And maybe the next time they approach a controversial conversation, they'll just be a little more willing to listen and hear out what the person is saying. Who may be saying something I don't like or that even offend them, and give it a deeper chance. The other thing, of course, I'd like your listeners to consider is if they know someone for whom this education would be right. And we are, as you've pointed out earlier, Boyd, not that well-known an institution and it takes a lot of courage for students to come here. They won't be able to hide, they have to work really hard. So I guess those would be the two things

BM: Fantastic. Mark Roosevelt, president of St. John's College. Thank you so much for engaging with us today on Therefore, What?

MR: Thank you. Boyd, this was fun.

BM: Remember after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is Therefore, What? Don't miss an episode. Be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on Deseretnews.com/podcast and subscribe to our newsletter This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, thanks for engaging with us on Therefore, What?

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