It's a scene straight out of the 1930s on an April afternoon at St. John's College in Annapolis, where young men in bow ties, top hats, and vintage suits mingle with young women wearing floral dresses or flapper attire. Students and local residents dance to swing music while a team of Johnnies competes in a rather unconventional sport for a contemporary college: croquet. The small, private liberal arts college has a nationally competitive team and for 30 years has hosted an annual match against the neighboring U.S. Naval Academy that attracts thousands of spectators.
Croquet is just one of the old-fashioned, quirky campus staples common at St. John's, where about 475 students come together on the cozy 36-acre campus in Maryland's bayside state capital. (St. John's also has a sister campus in Santa Fe, N.M., with 375 undergraduates who follow the same academic program.) The Annapolis campus is a national historic landmark, dating to 1696, where students take some classes in an elegant Georgian mansion and eat by chandelier light in the dining hall.
In a further nod to the past, all students at St. John's complete the same traditional academic program: four years of a humanities-based seminar, four years of math, three years of science, two years of ancient Greek and two of French, and two years of music, including a mandatory chorus class for all freshmen.
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The keystone course at St. John's, a twice-weekly humanities seminar, focuses on many of the great books of the Western tradition, beginning with Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and other early Greek thinkers and proceeding through more modern texts from Friedrich Nietzsche, William Faulkner, and Sigmund Freud.
All graduates earn a degree in the liberal arts—and most classes are discussion-based seminars of between 12 and 21 students. "You have to put all your energy into your classes," says Grace Tyson, class of 2013, from Pensacola, Fla. "There's no hiding in the back of a lecture hall."
In math courses, students read original texts by Euclid and Newton; in science, Johnnies pore over Galileo and Einstein. The workload is very challenging and time-consuming, but rewarding, students say.
In class, they read from primary texts instead of textbooks and refer to one another in honorifics. Professors, who are called "tutors," are expected to guide discussions and teach across the range of disciplines, even if their training is in a different field.
"The students know that, they feed off that, when they see that the tutors are involved in their own learning and risk-taking," says tutor Peter Kalkavage. And with an 8-to-1 student-faculty ratio, Johnnies tend to form close bonds with their instructors.
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Even when classes are finished, discussions regularly "spill out of the classroom," says senior Virginia Early, of Bethel, Conn. Academic conversations are common in the quad or the coffee shop, which is lined with blackboards where students can write notes or practice translations, as well as on the athletic fields.
Though St. John's has only a few intercollegiate sports teams, intramural athletics are quite popular and open to anyone, regardless of experience. Several dozen other student-run clubs and activities are available to Johnnies, from a campus newspaper and music and theater groups to a beekeeping club and curling group.
About 70 percent of students live on campus, which has both modern and historic dormitories. While students generally appreciate the intimate feel, "being in such a small community, the gossip bill can be high," says senior Saul Leiken, of Washington, D.C.
Tuition and fees are $45,200 for 2012-2013, plus about $10,000 in room and board. Because of the curricular structure, the college doesn't offer any study-abroad programs, though students can cross-enroll for a year or more at the Santa Fe campus. For many Johnnies, though, the classic books that form the program's core offer enough intellectual engagement to keep them busy.