Precept Palooza

For those fresh faces out there, or for those who still can’t make heads or tails of the class structure, the Master of Arts in Liberal Arts (MALA) is divided into five segments: History, Mathematics & Natural Science, Literature, Philosophy & Theology, and Politics & Society. Each of these segments is comprised of two classes, the seminar and the tutorial, where students read the most significant works of each subject area. A segment taken with the third class, the preceptorial, constitutes one full semester’s worth of credit; four full semesters of credit earns you your degree.

"Country Festival"

The syllabi of each segment’s seminar and tutorial classes are already published and can be found here. It’s the preceptorial that I’d like to tell you about, or brag about. It’s been my favorite class every semester, and it seems fitting to divulge my infatuation now because MALA students on both campuses have begun to take them.

The preceptorial functions as a sort of elective. I say sort of because it’s not the independent research class that many Master’s programs across the country offer. The class studies one theme or one author or even one book, sometimes taken from the Program list, and sometimes not. The theme, author, book is not announced until months before the preceptorials (or precepts, for short) begin; at which point, a palette of multiple precept choices is offered all at once. Graduate students submit their preferences and usually, space permitting, get their first picks.

What’s so special about that? Think about your favorite book. Think about how you could discuss its beauty and insight for hours and hours, if you had the right interlocutors. Hold that thought, and remember that a preceptorial often has you read and discuss one book for the same amount of class time as a seminar or a tutorial, classes where you read multiple texts and multiple authors by semester’s end. While in your other two classes, you often read hundreds of pages in between sessions and traverse centuries on centuries of conflicting opinions, the preceptorial is a chance to slowly masticate the assigned material until all its flavors can be found and savored. Precepts are a scholar’s banquet.

What’s more, as you’re indulging in this close reading, you’ll begin to discover connections to the works you’re reading in seminar and tutorial. If you’re taking the Mathematics & Natural Science segment, your precept on Emily Dickinson’s poetry will shed a certain slant of light on your seminar and tutorial, and the light will reflect back as well. In effect, each semester sees the precept prove the St. John’s belief in a common stock uniting each branch on the tree of knowledge. Politics converses with plays which converses with Lobachevskian geometry; the sciences, humanities, and arts inform and inspire each other, and nowhere are these connections more celebrated than at St. John’s.

But enough of my gushings — here’s just a taste of the current preceptorials:

Brunhilde Knelt at His Feet

  • Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations
  • Tolstoy’s War and Peace
  • Plato’s Republic
  • Three Christian Mystics: Marguerite Porete, Julian of Norwich, and Teresa of Ávila
  • Rabelais’ The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel
  • Essays by James Baldwin
  • Neuroscience, using classic and modern texts
  • Poems by Emily Dickinson
  • Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
  • Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen
  • Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments
  • Ancient Greek Language Learning

And don’t worry, you Eastern Classics-takers! While two out of your three semesters’ preceptorials are filled with required texts, you’re still getting weeks and weeks to probe and ponder Sima Quian’s Records of the Grand Historian, the Mahābhārataand Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of the Genji.

St. John’s is known for its traditional commitment to the greatest works of civilization, and the seminars and tutorials are a testament to that commitment. The preceptorials, though, speak of a different commitment, to search out for the newest greats and to bring new authors into the Great Conversation through the rigor of a St. John’s classroom.


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