Category: News & Information
Culled from the Herd
Only a select, Luddite-like group can make it through the great books program at St. Mary's
Sam Whiting, San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, August 20, 2006
One Mediterranean-hot day this summer, John Zabala, 22, stood before an auditorium of incoming freshmen at St. Mary's College in Moraga and pitched one of the tougher sells -- four years sequestered with nothing but the classics.
Brother Raphael Patton teaches math in the great books program at St. Mary's in Moraga. Chronicle photo by Christina Koci Hernandez.
Using a slide projector, he baited the audience with movie posters of Brad Pitt in "Troy" and Angelina Jolie in "Alexander," then quickly switched to the book covers of "The Iliad" by Homer and "Alexander" by Plutarch.
"We learn ancient Greek together," Zabala announced with all the passion he could muster, "so we can decide what Homer and Plato really meant." If that weren't enough, he followed bravely with "all of our classes are seminars." He forgot to mention that there are no tests or textbooks.
Zabala is among the 20 out of 700 St. Mary's graduates who came away in June with a bachelor of arts in what is unimaginatively called integral liberal arts. "It takes a good 20 minutes to explain my major to people," he says after his pitch, "but I don't care."
To start, integral studies is not a major at all. It isn't a minor, either. It is a way of college life that you must commit to as a freshman. The word Integral does not mean integrated into the general student body. The 40 or so freshmen who start "The Program," as they call it, are separated out and will go all the way through with their own kind, divided into seminar groups of 15 or so, just like a jury.
John Zabala just received his degree in integral liberal arts, a great books program, at St. Mary’s College in Moraga. Chronicle photo by Christina Koci Hernandez
On their first day of class, next Monday, the "cohorts," as they are called, will walk into a small, square classroom, sit down at a round table of polished wood and start talking about the Great Books. Their last day as seniors, the 40 will have been winnowed to 20, will walk into a small square classroom, sit down at a round table of polished wood and finish talking about the Great Books.
"It is a way of life. We don't specialize in anything," explains Denis Kelly, an Integral tutor (they don't call them professors) who is uniquely qualified to explain the program, having entered with the first Integral class in the fall of 1956. "We do science, lab, philosophy, literature, history, music, all focused on primary texts."
By primary texts, Kelly means the ones written in Greek by the authors with just one name.
Denis Kelly, who started St. Mary's great books program in 1956 as a freshman. He now teaches there. Chronicle photo by Christina Koci Hernandez.
Their program is a knockoff of the Great Books Program at St. John's College in Annapolis, and one of maybe five in the country.
It hasn't changed much in the 50 years it has been offered as a separate college within St. Mary's College of California, and there is an old black-and-white picture to prove it. Seated between two jocks in letter jackets is the brooding Kelly, in a black T-shirt, with a zipper part in his black hair, looking very Kerouac-ian. The only difference then to now is that St. Mary's is coed -- and like many colleges nearly two-to-one female -- so there will probably be more women than men at the table. And the curtains aren't as fancy. And there are no ashtrays on the table.
"We all smoked in those days," says Kelly, looking at the picture. "Cigarettes, pipes and cigars. We sat and smoked and talked. Argued. Yelled. Had a great time."
Also missing in the picture are any pads or pens. That hasn't changed.
"There is nothing to take notes about. There are no exams. We're having a conversation," says Kelly. "If anybody took notes in my class I'd say 'what in the heck are you doing?' You are graded on class participation and your essays."
As one of the people doing the grading, it is Kelly's job to sit down and shut up. He doesn't even throw topics out as conversation starters unless he has to. That is why he is called a tutor.
"It's always hard for freshmen because they're so used to that structure where they're looking for approval from the teacher," he says. "I've had freshmen who just would not stop looking at me. I say, 'OK, I'm just going to stare at the floor for this whole class and avoid eye contact. You're going to have to talk to each other."
Kelly, third from right, in one of the original seminars in 1956. Photo courtesy Saint Mary's College Archives.They talk math; they just don't talk numbers. Math in Integral starts way before numbers, with "Elements," written in 350 B.C. by Euclid. After they talk math they do math, using raw materials. In the science lab upstairs in Galileo Hall is a catapult made from lacrosse sticks, based on the design of Archimedes.
From here you can look out the window and across the Spanish Colonial campus and see nothing in the white stucco or red clay tile to indicate that this is the 21st century or the 20th or the 19th.
"It could be the Middle Ages, and furthermore the weather is pure Tuscany always," says Christian Brother Raphael Patton, a professor of mathematics, meaning math tutor in Integral, who added to the primitive motif by commissioning a meridian plinth for the courtyard.
"Probably the only one in North America," he says proudly, standing beside a piece of engraved granite that looks like a tombstone. "The freshmen will be out here all fall, measuring the sun and at night they're doing the stars," says Brother Raphael, whose duty it is to stalk orientation, recruiting freshmen sympathetic to pre-tech.
"We look for the ones who are smart and confused," he says. "You can see it in their eyes."
Senior Andrew Norris, 21, was smarter and more confused than most, having been perhaps the first incoming freshman to have turned down Stanford for St. Mary's. It was a financial decision, "which made me initially unhappy about coming here," he says. To make the nut, he had to join the U.S. Army ROTC, which covered $21,000 of his yearly cost, now $39,000 for tuition, room and board.
Andrew Norris, a senior in the Program, in the St. Mary's library where he works. Chronicle photo by Christina Koci Hernandez.
Outfitted in a high-and-tight haircut and fatigues, Norris expected to be a no-nonsense business administration major until he came to orientation and was persuaded by Kelly to try the program for a year. He traded in $500 worth of economics books for $150 worth of Homer, Sappho, Euclid. But once he had the books, he didn't quite get around to reading them, which made class a bore, not to mention limiting his ability in discussion. For his sophomore year, he changed tactics. Dante's "Divine Comedy" did it.
He'd get so deep into the discussion that when the hour-and-a-half was over the seminarians would proceed to the dining hall, commandeer several tables, pull them together and talk for another hour or two or three.
"Now I can't even imagine not completing a text before class," says Norris, who used to work summers at Fort Benning, Ga., jumping from airplanes. A case of gout got him early discharge, and his hair length is now suitable to his summer job in the campus library.
His mother, Helena, has designs on Norris becoming a lawyer, and a degree in Integral would not seem to be a barrier. "The law schools love us," says Kelly, ticking off Boalt, Hastings, even Stanford. Norris's own design is to pursue a doctorate and become an educator, perhaps even a tutor in Integral.
"I hope I'm not hyping it up too much in my own mind," he says, "but I really do think this is probably the best place I could have been.'' He's already plotting his senior dissertation on the role of the villain in literature through the ages, by reading Tolstoy's "War and Peace." Next up is "A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf, then "Huckleberry Finn,'' stories by Flannery O'Connor, and finally a rereading of Plato's "Phaedrus" from freshman year. By graduation he will have bought and read 85 books, not one of them a textbook or abridgement.
For sticking with it, seniors in the program are the only undergrads invited to drop off their dissertations in the mysterious inner sanctum of Fenlon Hall, the Christian Brothers residence.
"This is a copy of a chapter room in a Spanish convent," says Brother Raphael, who also describes it as "my living room." Normally off-limits to students, staff and visitors, it is eight-sided with the clerestory windows rescued from the old "Brickpile" campus in Oakland, which the Brothers fled for the hills in 1928. There is rare artwork on the walls, including a portrait of Saint Basil the Great, dated 1656.
Off to the side is a narrow barroom backed by stained glass bearing the St. Mary's Gael logo in the school colors of red and blue. There used to be beer on tap, but it was disconnected. Not because of some moral quandary, Brother Raphael is quick to point out, but because it didn't get enough use.
After the cohorts stack their theses on the table here, there is one more ritual to the program. Come graduation, in St. Mary's Stadium, the Integral students, making up 3 percent of graduates, are separated from the mass like rare birds in an aviary. Introduced last, each will march up to get his or her diploma wearing a crown of green laurel leaves in place of black mortarboard -- a parting nod to the Greeks.