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OCTOBER 1, 2010


Standards and The Program

By Adam Visher

This past summer I worked as a guide for a local whitewater rafting company. We frequently dealt with customers who were in no condition to safely raft the stretch of river called the Racecourse. Often this was because they were overweight. It’s not that a 5’4” and 300 lb person can’t sit in a raft; that they don’t have the musculature to stay in the raft, nor the ability to pull themselves back in. Rafting being rafting, and rapids being rapids, one might reasonably expect swift currents, cold water, waves, rocks, and the occasional unintentional swim, but many don’t. It seems that we guides would or should refuse to take these individuals, but a number of factors, mostly involving economics and ego, prevented us from turning them down. I found myself, one beautiful summer day, floating down the Rio Grande with 900 lbs of customer sitting in my raft, not-so-evenly distributed among four bodies. I received the raft of leftovers: the individuals in the 50+ church group that no one wanted to raft with. Everything was going fine until we entered the Narrows. The Racecourse is a long series of short and intense pooldrop rapids with calm spots before and after. This is true for all of the rapids except the Narrows. The Narrows is a one-quarter mile long and full of a number of large wave trains. Wave trains are sets of standing waves, and should you have to swim them instead of floating up and over each peak, you instead crash through the bottom of each wave in succession. If you screw up the timing of your breaths, it is very easy to panic and drown. This is all to say one thing: although the Racecourse is a typically safe stretch of river to raft, if you’re going to flip your boat or have unintentional swimmers, do it anywhere but the Narrows. So, of course, on that fateful day, I had two swimmers in the Narrows. I only saw one of them go out; we broadsided two big rocks and I watched as the impact caused one of the customers to just sort of ooze into the water. You’d think they’d go in with a tremendous splash, but the

larger ones tended to meld with (rather than fall into) the river. Her legs were too large to effectively brace herself in the boat; even if she had braced her legs, she didn’t have the core strength to keep herself upright. Hitting the rocks as I did, I managed to create a situation where if the current were to pull someone under the raft they would be stuck between the rocks and the bottom of the raft, potentially drowning. As she melted off the upstream tube, I lunged forward and barely grabbed the shoulder strap of her life jacket, jamming my leg under the rigging in the raft and bracing, as the majority of her body was sucked under the raft. I got her other shoulder strap and pulled her straight out of the water, trying to keep her from getting completely sucked under as I tried to figure out what to do. Although her chest was pressed against the boat, the lifejacket didn’t fit over her lower abdomen and so she was in danger of being pulled right out of it. I knew that if I didn’t get this woman back in the boat, she would either get jammed underneath, or have to “swim” the rest of the Narrows, and her odds weren’t good either way. I was fighting as hard as I could to hold on to her; force of the current was the powerful. Her head now fully submerged. I struggled, pulling back and up, back and up. Her face was less than a foot away from mine, covered in five inches of glassy rushing water, and I couldn’t pull her in another inch. That was when it hit me: just because you want to do something doesn’t mean you should. I was reminded of the St. John’s admissions process. In a number of conversations I’ve recently had regarding the challenge of allowing disruptive students to stay in the classroom, I’ve been reminded that St. John’s students are self-selecting. I imagine that this is supposed to make me feel better, but it doesn’t. Simply because you “self-select” your way into something doesn’t mean you have any business doing so, and it doesn’t mean that the initial choice is a good reason to keep you

around. My customer (who is still under water as I’m thinking all of this) self-selected herself right onto that raft and right on down the river, and just about self-selected herself right out of this life. It’s not as strange a comparison as it might seem: small raft company, small college, both are hurting for customers. I guess they differ in that I didn’t have the choice, halfway down the river, to ask a customer to get out of the raft and come back when they are better able to handle the challenges of the river. It sure would have been nice if I could have done that. Really beneficial for the other people in the boat. It would have sent a clear and positive message and reminded them that it means something that they worked so hard the first half of the trip. It would have showed them that they get to stay because their actions actually benefited everyone in the boat. My customer is now slack in the water, and I’m pretty sure that this just turned from a rescue to a recovery and I don’t know how, but I’m sure it was through force of sheer annoyance at my day going from easy-cruising to total goat-screw in about half a second, but I hauled up the woman’s body, and she coughed a great mouthful of water in my face and I rolled her off of me,

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got my bearings, and got on down the river. This was a process: we had lost two paddles, and the teenage lump sitting front-right had fallen into the water but had been rescued by two passengers, and now lay on top another, sobbing on the floor. Pulling into a calm spot at the end of the rapid, I regrouped the team so we could continue the trip. As I sat in that calm moment, and started to stick out my bottom lip and feel sorry for myself because this trip was so hard and I got the bad crew, and blah blah blah, I looked around at the other guides and the other people on the trip. We had all made the decision to do the whole trip, top to bottom, and that was not easy. Doing the work required was easier for some of us than it was for others, but as long as we helped each other out and stayed focused on our common purpose, we were all going to make it through. And every once in a while, if someone was being really disruptive, you’d just splash them. That never killed anyone. Adam Visher is a Senior at St. John’s College, Santa Fe. He can be reached at

On Secondary Literature at St. John’s By Timothy Davis

At an institution so devoted to the classics, writings on these classics have a strange reputation. What are the infamous “secondary sources” and what is their place at St. John’s? Let us first become clear what they are and what they are not. Secondary literature is writing of any kind on any authoritative work we study. Why is such literature ignored or even disdained? First we must distinguish St. John’s policy on the subject from the common conception. We read more than one hundred important books during four years of study and there are many, many more we could read. Thus, the 130ish we do read represents a small fragment of the whole, and St. John’s has decided it is more important to read a primary writing (i.e. The Republic, Critique of Pure Reason) rather than commentaries or analyses of such works. This is a commonsensical and rational position. But there is a sense on campus that such secondary literature is of little use, and this is the position I seek to examine. St. John’s institutionalizes far more secondary literature than the average student may realize. Any time you have read a tutor’s notes in the lab or math tutorials, there is secondary literature. The derivation of Maxwell’s four equations in the Junior Lab manual is secondary literature. Most fa-

mous of all is the Green Lion edition of Newton’s Principia, which some tutors not only do not forbid, but encourage use of in the classroom. Such things are nonetheless secondary for being the work of a tutor or former student. Further, the entire corpus of a student’s work at St. John’s is secondary literature. Not only do we write nothing else, but our goal as a student is to exemplify careful reading and exact writing in the secondary literature we produce. Thus, as shown in the more technical tutorials, not only does secondary literature exist, but St. John’s has approved it and found it helpful in its teaching. “Very well”, you may say. “I agree it is easier and possibly more beneficial to read a tutor’s notes in conjunction with Maxwell’s Treatise than try to struggle through it on your own, and similarly for the more technical tutorials, but what of seminar? Could secondary writings improve you there? How could they?” A positive answer hinges upon a proper understanding of them. Since the seminar is intended to give us at least a “grammatical”, i.e. basic, understanding of an author’s teaching, and since we read books in seminar with great speed, it is occasionally unclear what teaching is being presented.

This is more true beginning in the Enlightenment and afterwards than in earlier periods. Thus, especially in the works of the early moderns like Kant or Hegel, many students will find a clearer explication in a good encyclopedia article or commentary or analysis of the author’s thought than was present in the Critique or the Phenomenology. After all,

knowing beforehand that the structure of the mind creates the order of the phenomenal world from the unknowable reality instead of the senses faithfully translating reality to our consciousness would aid one’s focus during the

first slog through the Critique of Pure Reason.This would in turn go far in improving many juniors’ readings of Kant, and even if articles or commentaries are ultimately unnecessary, they may prove helpful or provocative for even the brightest students. In this respect even my freshman seminar tutor informed us that, yes, Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, and On the Soul are hard, and there were some very fine commentaries written by a man named Thomas Aquinas which might help, felt we so inclined. So first it may be said secondary literature has the power to aid the developing of a grammatical reading. Second, they are helpful only if read with maturity. They are discussions of classics, not classics themselves. They are less devoted to personal expression of themselves than they are clarification and extension of a classic author’s thought. Thinking you know the truth about The Republic from reading Leo Strauss’ fine writings on the subject will likely prove both intellectually bankrupt and the opposite of what Strauss intended his writings to be. No matter how smart they are, scholars are ultimately students, dedicated to the careful explication and interpretation of a great thinker. Surely they are greater and lesser in this respect,

but the greatest are students nonetheless, different in kind not at all from classmates or even tutors. Thus, one should read secondary literature from familiarity with its related text or at least have given a fighting attempt to understand the latter first before turning to the former for help; the same way, in fact, that one argues about them with friends. Third, if one intends to attend graduate school for philosophy afterwards, becoming familiar with at least some secondary literature for the greatest Program giants is prudent, for there one will spend a great deal of time reading and studying them. Since normal colleges assign them to their philosophy students and we do not, Johnnies are disadvantaged in this regard. Finally, in reading them, one has the possibility of being in the company of intelligent, sympathetic scholars who may have seen things you have not and who carry the implications of a great author down to the present day. At its best, you have the possibility of carrying the best of seminar conversations beyond the classroom and beyond the college into the real modern world. Timothy Davis is a Senior at St. John’s College, Santa Fe. He can be reached at timothy.davis@

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