Sylvaine Bucher, ‘17, attends St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. St. John’s also has a campus in Annapolis, Maryland.
Q: St. John’s curriculum is based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. What is that style of teaching like, and how does it affect the classes?
A: The program is based off of original texts instead of secondary sources and textbooks. (However), it’s more of a “great ideas” curriculum because we’re responding to the questions that have pervaded the minds of humans of Western civilization. It’s about the great thinkers of Western civilization.
Reading from the source is so rewarding. In lab we recreate the same experiments discussed in these scientific texts with the equipment used by the given scientist. We’re meant to formulate our own thoughts about the works instead of being told what happened.
The whole program really relies on discourse and communication. It’s a fantastic approach to learning. I love it!
Q: What classes are you taking?
A: Every student in each grade takes the same classes, so I have freshman lab (which focuses on the works of Aristotle, William Harvey, Hans Driesch and others), freshman seminar (Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristophanes and Plato), freshman language (ancient Greek), freshman math (Euclid’s “Elements”), and freshman writing.
Next semester I have freshman music instead of writing.
Q: Which is your favorite class? Least favorite?
A: I love freshman math and language. Freshman math (is based on) Euclid’s “Elements.” It’s incredibly thought-provoking. We’re really learning what it means to give an account of something. The essential question ends (up) being “What is reason?” It is such an interesting way to approach math because we look at the implications of what we are doing, and we are not taking much for granted. It is all about reasoning.
Ancient Greek is so helpful in trying to understand the texts we read. By understanding the original language, the meanings of the texts become a lot clearer – there’s so much lost in translation.
I don’t have a least favorite. My tutors (the equivalent of professors) are absolutely amazing, and they have so much insight. They are learning alongside the students. The tutors and students just want to develop greater insight into these texts, and it’s such a great community.
Learning really is a lifelong activity, and the questions we’re asking do not have definitive answers. It’s so interesting that the questions that plague us today are the same questions asked in ancient Greece.
Q: How’s the course load?
A: Each class requires more time than any of us have. None are easy – it’s meant to be difficult. But the curriculum is manageable when you put the effort into it.
Q: How was the transition from high school to college?
A: The workload is much heavier here than at SCDS. (But) it is really easy to make friends and get to know people, no matter what grade, because we all take the same courses.
Q: Did SCDS prepare you well?
A: Yes and no. I was ready to write and analyze, but not ready for the intense philosophy and Greek history readings that had to be discussed in a seminar setting. That isn’t something that you can prepare for without specifically approaching a Socratic seminar style in the classroom. It is incredibly worthwhile though.
I knew what to expect because I went to St. John’s Summer Academy (the summer before senior year), but it’s a very different approach than the traditional classroom approach.
What’s most important is listening to others and engaging with their points, which I think SCDS helped me do. It isn’t about finding an answer to these important questions, which the program books discuss – it is about responding to them and reflecting on them. The whole program really relies on discourse and communication.
Q: What are you planning on majoring in?
A: We all take the same major – it’s a Great Books curriculum. It’s really interdisciplinary and a comprehensive liberal-arts approach.
Q: What’s Santa Fe like? Why did you apply to that campus instead of the Annapolis campus?
A: It’s a historic and beautiful town with fantastic skies and pinon pines and chilis in everything.
I plan to take a semester abroad, but I don’t plan on transferring to Annapolis. I personally prefer the Southwest to the East Coast. But we can transfer back and forth if we want.
Q: What’s your housing like?
A: I have my own room in a quiet dorm looking out at the trees. The dorm is clean and gets really good airflow. We also have a large balcony in my dorm, which is nice to go out on. My room is also pretty large, so I have space for everything.
Each room throughout campus has a landline, which some of us use to call each other because the cell service is spotty.
Q: Are you involved in any clubs or extracurricular activities? Are you still singing?
A: I’ve joined the study group on James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and I attend yoga classes. Because of my reading group, I’m not in the choir, but I plan to join once I finish my reading group.
It’s nice that all freshmen take choir through the freshman music class, so I’m looking forward to that (next semester).
I go to lectures that are hosted on campus weekly on topics from Islamic Geometric Patterns to John Keats to (philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel).
My friends and I also do excursions on the weekends, like camping. There are so many incredible hikes and camping spots in New Mexico.
I am also currently looking into the option of becoming an assistant, which is like a T.A., for lab, math or writing.
Q: Are there any campus traditions?
A: Many! Instead of grades, we have the “Don Rags” where all (my) professors discuss my performance together while I listen.
In classes we call students and tutors by their last names, using “Mr.” and “Ms.”
We also have special presentations and dances on Fridays.
In ESL (the science building), we have a room full of axolotls, the unofficial Santa Fe campus mascot. They’re adorable and have the best names, like Fingers and Lysander and Fili-Kili! They’re great and always look like they’re smiling.
Q: What is your advice for the class of 2018?
A: Study for understanding, not grades. (And) when you get to college, don’t be afraid to talk to faculty.