St. John's College
November 9, 2021
In mid-June, the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs (AGLSP) honored longtime St. John’s tutor David Townsend with its annual faculty award: a recognition of superb faculty who teach and inspire students both within and outside the classroom. With his dedication to the liberal arts and his devotion to becoming what Stringfellow Barr called a “citizen of the world,” Townsend certainly meets the criteria. Fittingly, he considers the recipient—himself—the least important part of the deal.
The AGLSP describes itself as “deeply committed to the value of interdisciplinary education in the liberal arts and sciences.” It’s that holistic focus on liberal arts that makes the faculty award meaningful to Townsend. Rather than a glamorous recognition of his long career, he hopes the award functions as an acknowledgement of the deeper goals of true education. “The original movement at St. John’s in the ‘30s was that we had a mission not just to be a little college, but to be emblematic of a way that a society, a community could improve,” Townsend says. “That the life of the mind, which is a source of great happiness, is also a source of the values we hold dear as Americans: liberty, equality, and justice.”
“Our mission is to teach the capabilities of the liberal arts to give us what we aim for in life,” he adds. “So, what do we live for the sake of? We live for the sake of the good, the true, and the beautiful; not just for instrumental goals like wealth or honor or fame. I think the liberal arts are at the heart of what we do at St. John’s, and as an American college, it’s also at the heart of what our country needs more than anything right now.”
Townsend’s belief in the liberal arts manifests itself beyond the St. John’s classroom. He teaches community seminars in Annapolis, the most recent of which focused on Italian neorealist cinema. He’s also taught liberal arts seminars in local prisons, Baltimore police departments, and to the chief financial officers of PepsiCo; he currently teaches an online course in the public health department at Indiana University, and he’s been involved with the Touchstones Discussion Project—which brings the seminar model to elementary, middle, and high schools across the world—for more than 30 years. With every group of learners, the St. John’s seminar pedagogy proves invaluable.
“I think the method works, whether I’m teaching in a community seminar, whether I’m doing a year of classics,” he says. “It’s an aspect of the human soul; people are hungry for this kind of endeavor.”
Townsend suggests that the rigorous dialogue that defines seminar—in which oppositional views are held and discussed without condemnation—provides the foundation for any functioning democratic society. On a similar note, he rejects the idea that the purpose of education is purely pragmatic; that any and all learning exists only in pursuit of material gain. To illustrate his point, he alludes to the fable of Atalanta and Hippomenes—also referenced in W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks—in which Hippomenes distracts Atalanta with golden apples to win the race for her hand in marriage. “That’s an allegory for the challenges we all face deciding between the material—Du Bois calls it ‘mammon”—and the true goals [of education]; the challenge to not just turn yourself into a material instrument and package yourself as a product for the marketplace.” He acknowledges that American society necessitates a certain amount of financial success, and he maintains that prosperity isn’t something to avoid. But, he adds, “Everything that we’re doing [in life] is not for the sake of more profit or more wealth. It’s to elevate the human spirit; to think about, as Du Bois says, the soul. That’s what the liberal arts are all about.”
Importantly, Townsend notes, a liberal arts education benefits tutors and students alike. He recently finished teaching this summer’s online equivalent of Summer Academy for high schoolers, including a seminar on The Souls of Black Folks. “I got some really interesting insights from these young people, just in how they’re thinking about their lives,” he says. “It’s exciting to be in a seminar [like that].” He goes on to reference his online Indiana University course. “There’s somebody in Nairobi, somebody in Cape Town, somebody in Bogota, somebody in Beirut. You have this opportunity to have a conversation with people you wouldn’t have a conversation with otherwise.” The overall point, he says, is that the “radical egalitarianism” of a seminar—in which the teacher isn’t elevated above the students—creates a forum in which dramatically varying perspectives, ideas, and beliefs can be exchanged equally, making the experience transformative for everyone involved. There’s simply nothing like the mind-blowing moment when a student or teacher genuinely considers an idea that challenges, changes, or elevates their point of view. “It’s universal,” Townsend contends.
Despite that universality, the economic climate in the United States causes a constant “crisis in the humanities” rhetoric that, some fear, drives students away from schools like St. John’s. Partly in response to those concerns, Townsend is constantly searching for ways to bring more people to the liberal arts. In addition to teaching and community education, he recently conceived of two potential master’s programs that he believes could broaden the appeal of the St. John’s Graduate Institute. The first, a master’s in Middle Eastern Classics, includes the Qur’an, Al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of Philosophers, Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, One Thousand and One Nights, and much more. The other, a master’s in American Classics, features works by the likes of Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, T.S. Eliot, Leslie Marmon Silko, Martin Luther King, Louise Erdrich, and Barack Obama. They’re only proposals, but the two programs illustrate Townsend’s commitment to broadening the great conversation. The more people engaged in the liberal arts, he reasons, the better things will be for St. John’s—and the wider democratic republic.
The AGLSP will officially present Townsend with his award at the association’s annual gala in October, during which he’ll deliver an acceptance speech. He plans to use those remarks to highlight the power of the liberal arts, the aspirational American nature of the seminar table, and the ways in which the great conversation can help us strive to become a more perfect union. “We’re a nation of ideas,” he explains. “We are built on the idea that all people are created equal, and that they are endowed with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by their creator. That’s what it is to be an American, and it connects directly with what we do in the classroom.”
And just as importantly, he plans to make clear that this honor isn’t just for him; it’s for the entire St. John’s faculty. “Even though I was singled out for it, I don’t think that it should be thought of that way,” says Townsend. “This is an award that could have gone to any tutor. This is an award that we all share because of what we do—because of our mission.”