Why so contrarian?

St. John’s College takes great pride in having been described by the New York Times as “the most contrarian college in America.” But it’s a tricky, sticky word, “contrarian.” It carries all sorts of different connotations, depending on the reader, so it may be hard to discern what exactly it is that St. John’s is so proud of being perceived as, what image exactly we are so proud to put out to the world.  

Perhaps this is the contrarian spirit St. John’s College seeks to embody: The spirit of the questioner, who allows no authority to tell them what is and isn’t okay to ask, to think about, to wonder and to question. Who rejects the idea of established wisdom, of “because I said so,” of the textbook, the standardized test, of the “that’s the way it’s always been.” 

The first idea that the word “contrarian” puts in your head might not be such a pleasant one. The word is easily conflated with “argumentative,” and we are often taught to think that being argumentative is a bad thing. An argumentative person is often seen as a problem child, a squeaky wheel, a boat-rocker who ought to sit down. 

But is it really that bad to be argumentative? While arguments that are driven by hostility can clearly be a bad thing, not all argumentativeness is driven by the desire to hurt others or tear apart their opposing beliefs. Some can be driven, instead, by a passionate personal belief, or a desire for justice, for the truth to be seen, even a desire for one’s own perspective to be simply considered equally to that which one is arguing against.  

A voice willing to argue against a popular opinion or an accepted apology can save lives. A person willing to point out breaches in crucial safety procedures, like a leak in a sailing vessel, despite having to step out of the chain of authority to do so, could prevent accidents that might lead to tragic, avoidable loss of life. Is it so bad to be argumentative, if people avoid losing their lives to accidents because you were willing to fight for their safety?  

What use is an education, in the first place, if we start off with the idea that all knowledge is already discovered, locked away in an untouchable ivory tower, and merely being handed down to us? No, that is not what learning is, or at least not what it should be. While there are some truths that even we at St. John’s must accept, a great body of knowledge passed down to us from the ancients that we impart onto our students, we still must find our own way there, through the process of question. 

We use no textbooks; we do not have professors that announce to you what it is that you must believe to be true. From your first day at St. John’s, we must teach our students again to question.  

Children are born knowing how to question. We see it from the time they’re able to speak. At first, they want to question everything, want to know how everything works. “Why do I have to? Why is the sky blue? Why? Why?” But gradually, we lose that enthusiasm for knowledge. It’s not because we don’t want to know about the world anymore. Surely there are bigger, deeper questions that would tantalize the adult mind just as much as these ones did for our young minds. Rather, it’s that we no longer believe that those around us allow us to think in the same way we once did.  

The standardized education common in many countries these days emphasizes information recall and the ability to memorize facts and learn “correct” answers by rote. Schools expect students to regurgitate names and dates. Even in fields like literature, which we should properly see as subjective, students are often graded on their ability to give a “correct” interpretation. A student who can memorize facts, figures, and formulas will go far under a regimen of standardized testing, while one with a more creative mind, given to analyzing the “why” of the world around them may not, despite being just as intelligent and putting just as much mental effort into their studies. 

St. John’s aims to emphasize a less usual style of learning, and in turn of teaching. In a Johnnie’s college career, there are only two on-paper tests of the sort that require memorization, figures, and formulas: one in music theory at the end of the first year, and one in algebra at the beginning of sophomore year. Both can be retaken several times, and a passing grade is all that is required to proceed to the next year. The ideal Johnnie is someone who cares more about the why than the what, someone that will take an answer and probe deeper to uncover the reasoning behind why it might be true or false — rather than just accept what they are told is correct — and someone who prizes recall over understanding.  

An analytical mind, one that loves numbers and hard logic, can of course thrive at St. John’s, just as well as one more given to creative and literary thinking. It is simply a matter of using that mind the right way. A mind that is good at rote memorization is likely to also be one that is good at logic, and logic is an important part of the St. John’s curriculum. This mind must simply be to start using their talents for inquiry as well as recall. A logical mind applied to Euclid’s constructions, or to Plato’s ideas of right and wrong, or Aristotle’s ideas of the nature of the metaphysical divine can be just as wonderfully useful as a creative mind coming up with their own ideas on those topics.  

To be contrarian means to regain the skill of asking “why,” which we all had so naturally from the time we were born and as we grew into curious children, and which the society we grew up in tried to take from us later on. It means to reject the orthodoxy of what is right, what is true, and what is worthy to be taught, and to see for ourselves how we can answer these questions. 

Not only are our students asking “why,” but our authors are, too. In this Great Books curriculum, the authors were themselves most often radical in their own time. Some among them, predominant examples being Socrates and Galileo, were put to death by their contemporaries as their ideas were considered too dangerous, too radical, too liable to corrupt the youth they taught. Contrarians like Hamilton and Jefferson founded a new country, contrarians like Woolf and Austen made us question the nature of love and family, contrarians like Douglass and Baldwin reshaped the experience of race in America.  

As contrarians discussing great contrarians, Johnnies can be radical in how they think for themselves and question. To be contrarians who look at the world with fresh minds and strengthen their own convictions through inquiry. To be willing to question and to hold beliefs that are strengthened through trial and error. To be free thinkers and good citizens, as the world needs right now. That is why we are so proud to be called contrarians, why I think it summarizes our mission as a school so well.  

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