In 1937 Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr, two maverick friends who had first met at Oxford as Rhodes Scholars some twenty years before, took the helm of a small and fading college in Annapolis, Maryland—a college that would soon see new life as the launching ground for their shared vision of a radically reoriented college education.
St. John’s College had begun in 1696 as King William’s school, chartered by the English crown. Nearly one hundred years later, in 1785, King William’s school merged with St. John’s College, newly chartered by the state of Maryland, and under that name carried on through the next 152 years. By 1937, however, the small college that bore the name “St. John’s” had come upon hard times, both financially (from various losses sustained in and following the stock market crash of 1929) and academically (through a recent loss of accreditation). It was as part of the effort to salvage this small and stately old college from its seemingly imminent demise that Barr and Buchanan were invited in and given carte blanche to enact a vision for a new college program the two had already been formulating for some time—the curriculum that would soon become what we all know today as the St. John’s Program.
Barr and Buchanan’s achievement in Annapolis in 1937 has echoed down through the more than eight decades since. What they envisioned was a radical shift in the nature and direction of American education. And one often overlooked but fortuitous element they had going for them, along with their own clarity of vision, was the existing Annapolis campus of St. John’s itself. There on an elegant and spacious property in that scenic bay town, Barr and Buchanan already had dormitories, existing laboratories, campus dining facilities, and—most importantly for a college that was to be rooted entirely in great books—a library with its own existing collection. Which is to say that, even as the re-envisioned 1937 St. John’s College may have been undergoing a curricular change whose reverberations would soon draw national attention, it was also, from an entirely practical operational standpoint, effectively a turnkey proposition.
That, however, was emphatically not the case when the Santa Fe campus was conceived and launched some twenty-five years later.
By 1960, more than two decades into Barr and Buchanan’s New Program and a full decade into President Richard Weigle’s unceasing work of fundraising and ambassadorship for the New Program, the College had entered into the national spotlight and had begun to face the practical challenges of its own success, in the sheer physical limits of its small Annapolis campus. For a certain sort of person—a seeker of truth, a lover of books and serious conversation, a person willing to devote four intense years to an inquiry into the very essence of our humanity and the physical and social worlds around us—St. John’s offers a singularly appealing program. But as more and more students were drawn to the increasingly well-known College, Weigle and the Board of Visitors and Governors faced a quandary. To turn away interested and qualified students seemed deeply wrong. But to expand the size of the Annapolis campus to accommodate even more students would be to risk undermining the very intimacy of small community that was so vital to the essence of the College. Furthermore, the vision of the founders of the St. John’s New Program had never been that the new Program would be for only a select and privileged few. Rather, St. John’s was the recalibrating antidote to all of the American colleges that had ventured down the wrong path in the contagion of the elective system initiated at Harvard under Charles William Eliot, a system that by 1937 had taken hold in most of American higher education. St. John’s was simply to be the trailblazer in the return to the form of education proper to our democracy.
It was in keeping with this vision that the President, the Board, and the Faculty of St. John’s in 1960 made the joint decision to expand the College—not by enlarging the capacity of the original campus, however, but rather by extending the geographical influence and reach of the College and its singular Program through the formation of a second campus in an entirely new location. This was an approach unheard of among small private colleges, but the growing reputation of St. John’s worked immediately in its favor, for when word began to spread that St. John’s intended to open a new campus, the College was solicited by more than thirty towns and cities in states scattered all around the nation. Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont—all expressed their interest in having the second St. John’s College in their own state.
The challenge this time around would be—not as it had been in Annapolis in 1937, to bring an existing college on an existing campus back from the edge of looming extinction, but—to build an entirely new campus from the ground up. The challenge would be, as Richard Weigle later put it, “the colonization of a college.” The stage for this colonization was firmly set in 1961 by an unexpected land donation from a Santa Fe couple of local and regional renown—Faith and John Gaw Meem, after whom this campus’s library would eventually be named. How that donation came to be is a fascinating story in its own right.