The clearest current example of the tension between a desire for diversity and a commitment to Anglocentrism – between inside and outside pressures – is going on at St. John’s College, bastion of the Great Books.
St. John’s, with campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe, was founded in 1696, but in keeping with academic change being driven by financial troubles, only adopted a Great Books curriculum in 1937, after an enrollment crisis and the revocation of their accreditation; the Great Books idea was was a recruitment tool, adopted as an alternative to shutting the college down. (Innovation in higher ed: desperation plus chutzpah
St. John’s curriculum was developed by professors who decamped from the University of Chicago, which previously poached their Great Books faculty from Columbia. Developed in the 1920s, the Columbia program was driven by institutional concerns about the increasing enrollment by children of Eastern European immigrants, especially Jews.
Columbia’s response was to strengthen the link between elite culture and British outlook by requiring students to read “great Anglo-Saxon writers.” St. John’s took this idea and arranged their entire 4-year curriculum around a chronological Great Books program.
Unsurprisingly, this program keeps the school less diverse, and less welcoming to non-white students, than it aspires to be. Among American students at St. John’s, around 80% are white, as against a national collegiate average of just over half, and retention of minority students is poor, meaning in any given year, the senior class is whiter than the freshman class.
In response, St. John’s convened a group of instructors, students, and alumni as the Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, to study the aspects of the school that make it hard to recruit and retain minority students. The committee’s report
included two findings that go a long way towards an explanation:
First, “White respondents see the college as less racist than those who are members of racial or ethnic minorities (BIPOC)”, a pattern that “repeats across groups (older alumni, more recent alumni, current students, tutors, and staff).”
And second, minority students “considered leaving the college, transferring to another college, and not recommending St. John’s at a much higher percentage than white and international respondents.”
None of this is surprising, given that the curriculum was designed to attract American men who aspired to acquire a European outlook. The racial dimension was explicit in the beginning—St. John’s had a “whites only” admissions policy for the first decade of their Great Books program. After they opened to minorities in the late 1940s, then to women in the early 1950s, they became more diverse, but were still dedicated to the canon.
Gradually growing diversity made the narrowness of the original program untenable. Over the years, the school has tinkered with the 20th century reading list, adding Du Bois, Baldwin, and Morrison to the last year of the program, though many of these writers appear as electives, not requirements. Per the diversity report, these changes have not been enough to satisfy the St. John’s student body. Deeper change will probably be necessary to improve recruitment and retention of minority students.
A commitment to expand the kinds of students a school admits eventually expands the kinds of things they want to study. On the other hand, a commitment to restrict the kinds of things students study eventually creates a narrowness in the kind of students a school admits. This tension is what makes St. John’s the most cross-pressured institution in America right now, as they try to welcome non-white students while retaining an overwhelmingly white course of study. The goal, as their Diversity and Inclusion committee described it, is to “ensure that the college is a welcoming place for all, while preserving the uniqueness of St. John’s College.” This will fail; the interesting question is how.
By the end of the decade St. Johns will be either considerably more liberal or considerably more conservative than it is today, in response to pressures that will be repeated in colleges all over the country, even ones less overtly committed to a culturally inflexible curriculum.