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What I Learned from Some Eminent Emigre Scholars

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Note: Jacob Klein, known affectionately as Jasha, was Heidigger's star graduate student in philosophy (before Heidigger went wierd) and one of the world's preeminent interpreters of Plato and the Platonic tradition. He later served as dean at my undergraduate school after fleeing the Nazis, one of many Jewish scholars who were no longer safe in Europe. Simon Kaplan, a respected Jewish scholar in Russia, fled the Communists in similar fashion and later joined the faculty at St. John's as well.

The motto of St. John's College:

Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque - I make free men and women out of children by means of a book and a scale (the traditional liberal arts plus modern laboratory science).

Three anecdotes, variations on the same theme, of relevance to the bitter political atmosphere this year:

1. In the late 1960s townspeople in Annapolis, proud of the long heritage of the Naval Academy, were often suspicious of the "hippies" at the other (and very unusual) undergraduate school in town, St. John's College. One early summer evening in my freshman year, as shadows from the tall trees covered the sloping lawns in the front of the campus, an Annapolis matron phoned Dean Klein to angrily complain that couples were "fornicating on front lawn".

After contacting a campus guard and learning that indeed some couples were necking in the shadows -- but nothing more -- Klein phoned the lady back and extended his deepest apologies. In his cultured voice with a slight continental accent, he explained, "If I've told them once, I've told them a thousand times -- fornication on BACK CAMPUS ONLY!"

He then hung up.

2. It is the custom at St. John's to have a Friday night lecture which all students and faculty attend. Participation in the post-lecture question period is optional. One night a visiting academic lectured on a topic I'd studied in some depth for my preceptorial (an intensive analysis of one author or subject done each junior and senior year).

The lecturer in question had completely missed the point of a question I'd asked and seemed to me to miss the point of Descartes as well, frustrating me greatly. As I walked out of the question period, I turned to Simon Kaplan, then quite advanced in age but still one of the sharpest minds I have ever met, and asked, "Sir, wasn't the lecturer WRONG about Cartesian axioms?"

Mr. Kaplan (we never use the Doctor title in ordinary circumstances at St. John's - faculty and students alike are Mr., Miss/Ms. or Mrs. during our discussions) puffed on his pipe for a few strides and said, "Yes, I think so."

Then he asked gently, "What year are you in?"

"I'm a sophomore, sir."

"Ahhhh." puff. puff. "Do not be in such a hurry. You have 2 more years to discover truth!"

3. During WWII the Navy considered seizing the campus of St. John's via eminent domain in order to expand the Naval Academy. The fledgling New Program based on the great books of western tradition had just recently found a home there, on a campus whose oldest building was constructed before the Revolution, and with funding precarious, any move would probably kill this controversial endeavor outright.

A small delegation headed by Jascha Klein was sent to Washington to try to dissuade the government from seizing the campus. They entered the office of the Secretary of the Navy, who brusquely told them, "You have exactly one minute to tell me why I shouldn't use your buildings to help the Academy in war time."

Jascha Klein silently took out his pipe and began filling it with tobacco. He lit the pipe and checked to see if it was drawing well. Then, after 55 seconds had passed, this renowned scholar who had fled Hitler stood up and went to the door.

Turning, he said, "Because without what St. John's stands for, this country is not worth defending against the Nazis."

The Navy built the addition across the Severn River instead.

1 TrackBack

Tracked: July 27, 2004 2:28 PM
The Great Books Program from The Conjecturer
Excerpt: My good friend John goes to St. John's College in Annapolis (though this year he'll be at their Phoenix campus). I've visited the place before, and it was very much in the middle of the city (meaning: old buildings plopped...

19 Comments

Classic stories, all of them.

Since 'liberi' means both "free people" and "children", the motto is fatally ambiguous: it could as easily mean "I make children out of free people with books and a scale". By the way, Robin, I still have the hardcover Montaigne you sold me (only $2.00 in hardcover) when you were a senior and I was a freshman.

A Johnnie looking for certainty? Who WERE your seminar leaders, anyway? LOL

Good to have you here.

My memory of St. John's - exchange weekend to the Naval Academy, so we "went over the wall" and bought a case of Busch for our good beer and a case of National Bohemian ("Maryland's Finest Beer!") and drank it with some girls we met down in the post office, and somewhere along the way a band showed up and then we figured out the girls weren't St. John's students but Navy groupies from Glen Burnie High School (!) and the punk girls that were from St. John's weren't interested in talking to us shorthairs so we bolted, went back over the wall where I recall watering a tree and looking over and seeing a sign saying it was the Supe's house.

And the mids laughed at us for going there.

Oh, I guess I should have some point or something. That wasn't schorlarly at all, but cheap beer, punk girls, and a band in the basement are worth fighting for!

Ah, yes .... the ongoing issue of Johnnie vs. mids. Very much alive and well during the Vietnam war when I was there.

How did you have a preceptorial on Descartes when you were a sophomore?

Good catch! I had permission to sit in on a Descartes preceptorial that year as something of an auditor. Not common, but it was possible at the time.

Are you a Johnnie?

Given the damage that the Necon "Cult of Leo Strauss" has inflicted on the United States of America, both in our international standing, and here domestically, (Are you going to tell me that Fox New's Bill Kristol doesn't imagine himself a Philosopher-King who is only looking out for the Rubes that don't know any better? Cosmo Kramer, please.), I would be hard pressed to recommend anything of the now proven bankrupt philosophy that St. John's has to offer the world.

Don't know about any of you, but this image made me want to drink heavily and then hurl chunks: link

If you went to St. John's, and are in the least bit proud of it, then you've got a lot to answer for and a bunch of you should rightfully be in the dock at Den Hague.

Take care.

~Nyc Labrets

[Bare URLs are frowned on here. Please follow the guidelines presented above the comment entry fields. Fixed for you, this time. --NM]

Labrets, permit me to warn you that your post looks and smells an awful lot like what we call a drive-by. If anyone cares to respond to it, well and good. If OTOH you do another drive-by here, expect harsher treatment than a warning.

I think that the correct term for this is a pun or a play on words. Because the word 'liberos' is in the accusative case, it is clear that it is the direct object of the verb, facio, I make. Te other two words are in the ablative case, interpreted here as by means of

I believe that for St. John's College bravely to carry on without your recommendation, while it must have been difficult is not perhaps after all that surprising. As far as the drinking heavily and hurling, there is thought to be a connection between excessive intake of aqueous solutions of ethyl alcohol and diminution of cognitive fgunction. Here again, this may not be a surprising result.
In addition to understand St. John's as having any official or favored political doctrines, much less Staussian ones show an almost complete ignorance of the school. The biggest difference between Johnnies and their contemporaies is, I wager, not so much their political opinions as the political questions which they consider, a nd even that difference may be quite transient ( that is, while they are at St. John's. Then again, that difference may not be so transient. I can assure you that at least in t he Peoples Republic of Masachusetts the political opinions of at least the alumni who come to the alimni seminars fit quiter comfortably into the background of places like Cambridge which is only a few miles away from where the seminars are held. In other words we are talking of people more in the neighborhood of Ted Williams, Yaz, and Jim Rice, than of
Dewey Evans or J.D. Drew ( for the barbarians who live far from Fenway Park, this is a reference to 'left field.'

I Was a year behind Mrs. Burk at St. John's. I remember a story then circulating among students (probably this is a story which is not true, but 'ought to be'). Supposedly My. Kaplan was driving a taxicab in New York City which Mr. Klein, then dean, took. Mr. Klein and his companion were discussing an abstruse German philosopher (is this redundant?), posibly Hegel, and Mr. Kaplan ( the cab driver!) chimed in with a relevant contributioon. Supposedly this led to Mr. Klein hiring him.

Here is another story of a tutor from the so-called Golden Age ( defined in general as a generation before either the present or in this case before one's time in Annapolis).
Unlike the story about Mr. Klein taking a cab driven by Mr. Kaplan, this story may actually be, like, you know, ...true.
The story (which came down to me by oral tradition) is set in the Sixties ( a period in American history, usually thought to stretch from the 1964, the Filthy Speech Movement at UCal Berkley is a convenient starting point, to ap[proximately 1972) .
A memeber of the Black Panther PArty was sitting in the Coffee Shop, talking to John S. Kieffer, the last remaining member of the
faculty of the Old Program to still be teaching in the New Program. The BPP member explained in great detail that the leading problem of our republic was - what else - racism. Mr. Kieffer is said to have siad that he didn't agree, and when asked, what he thought it was, he said: Original Sin! In the versio nof the story I heard the BPP member was at a loss for an answer

I ralize that at my advanced age I am revealing that I am a FNG or a Newbie or whatever the Twenty First century term is.
But I have to know. What is a drive by. I assume that it is a play on that popular Tentieht Century urban sport; drive-by shootings. But what does it mean in this context?

Here is another John S. Kieffer story which might actually be true, although one can not prove it by me. I received this by means of oral tradition and I probably never met anyone, except Mr. Kieffer, who has first hand knowledge about the story. Supposedly Mr. Kieffer was asked what translation of the Illiad he preferred. This was a frequent topic of discussion among my class mates as freshmen. The one thing we all had in common was not having even the smallest bit of any kind of knowledge to serve as support for our opinions on which translation wa best.
Mr. Kieffer is said to have replied that he had no idea, he didn't use one. The presumption is that every time he had an Illiad seminar he just took his Greek text down to read that.

I had understood Jacob Klein came to Annapolis in April 1938.

Where was Jacob Klein between 1922 and 1937?

Perhaps Eva Braun could check and augment the information on Wikipedia.

Excuse me: Last sentence in #18 should of course read "Eva Brann." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eva_Brann

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