When we were newly married, Christine and I took a trip to Annapolis and walked around the campus of St. Johns College. I fell in love. “What if we could go to the Graduate Institute here?” I dreamed. “What if we both became tutors and taught here?” I dreamed further. “And what if…?” At that point in my revelry, Christine intervened and urged me to stop, thinking I was being carried away to some unreasonable place. Christine is a poet and capable of dreaming, but she knows that I sometimes dream up folly.

Not all my dreams regarding St. Johns have been fulfilled, but one has. I did, about seven years after the conversation above, enroll in the Graduate Institute at St. Johns. The timing was very good, for I was in the thick of graduate studies in seminary and still a bit sophomoric, thinking myself wiser than I was. St. Johns addressed that. Sitting around sturdy old (very old) tables like the one pictured above with engaged, thoughtful and challenging students, I learned something about myself. Observing the guidance of skilled tutors who took us through the texts of Melville and Shakespeare, l learned something about teaching.

I learned that I often spoke before I should. I learned the pertinence of Jame’s admonition to be slow to speak and quick to listen. I learned to follow the dance steps in a collaborative conversation, gaining an intuitive sense of when to follow, when to compliment, when to occasionally risk an initiating move.

I learned what it meant to be assessed not by a number or letter grade, but by thoughtful words. There are not numerical or letter grades at St. Johns. So how did I know where I stood or how I was doing? By what people said–both my classmates and my tutors. At St. Johns, we would write several short papers in one class, which we could copy for every student. We all read each other’s papers and then incorporated both the ideas in those papers and our thoughts about them into our class conversations. In one class dedicated to Shakespeare, I did write a long paper for the tutor (Elliot Zuckerman). Mr. Zuckerman (everyone is “Mr.” or “Miss” at St. Johns) read my paper and wrote extensive notes assessing, challenging and occasionally commending it. I recall the two pages of notes stapled to the back of my paper. At the bottom of the page following his comments, there was…nothing. No grade, no number. I read everything he said with great attention, focus and interest. For the first time in my life, I was completely engrossed with what a professor thought of my work.

Then there was the Don Rags–the stated meeting with your tutors to discuss your work and class contributions. My tutors met for about 20 minutes before I was invited into the room to discuss…me. Then they invited me into the room and they told me what they thought… using words. I know they commended me in a few ways, but I forget those comments. I remember very well, however, what they said I could do to grow and improve: be slower to speak and quicker to listen. This stuck with me, and still rings in my ears. Until they said it, I did not realize this about myself. Once they said it, I instantly knew it to be true and began a kind of lifelong repentance. This crucial admonition came to me because of a college (and tutors) that actually wants to communicate truth about education and learning with honest, charitable words.

Some of the most delightful academic (I should just say human) conversations I have ever had occurred during my time at St. Johns. As the classical renewal continues and grows around the U.S., Socratic discussion and teaching is being recovered with it. How does one lead a good discussion surrounding an important text? How do we create an atmosphere where the love of truth, goodness and beauty transcends concerns for status, grades and props? St. Johns holds some of the answers to these questions, simply because it has not departed from the tradition of classical learning that never considered assigning someone a number or treating one as such.

Many of my dreams have slid into folly–but the dream of going to St. Johns helped confront a sophomore.

Update (April 2017):  I am also glad to report that our classical teacher training site, ClassicalU.com, is creating a Level Two course on Socratic DiscussionHow to Lead Effective Seminars and Socratic Discussions, featuring two St John’s tutors, Eva Brann and Hannah Hintze. There are also four live seminars with several St. Johns students led by Hannah Hintze. It is expected to release on April 25. To peruse 20 of our other current courses—all with free previews—visit the website: ClassicalU.com.