Randy St. John ’17h, Retired Teacher

Harrisburg Academy’s 2017 Alumnus of the Year, Randy St. John ’17h, was recognized at last week’s Commencement ceremony with an honorary Harrisburg Academy degree and the opportunity to address the student body as a featured speaker.  He shared reflections on his joy of teaching and words of wisdom to living a good life.  The article below, written by St. John nearly 30 years ago (1988) for the Academy’s newsletter, still holds true to his core philosophies and ideals.  In celebration of St. John’s 46 total years of teaching, we share this with you today.

Niccolo Machiavelli was a lucky man — at the age of 43 he lost his job.  Mistaking good fortune for disgrace, he retired to his small farm outside Florence and apparently spent the daylight hours with rude woodcutters.  His expulsion from political life left his evenings free however, and herein lay his good fortune.  In a letter to a friend, Machiavelli described his return home form his day’s work:

“On the threshold I slip off my day’s clothes with their mud and dirt, put on my royal and curial robes, and enter, decently accoutered, the ancient courts of men of old, where I am welcomed kindly and fed on the fare which is mine alone, and for which I was born: where I am not ashamed to address them and ask them the reasons for their action, and they reply considerably; and for two hours I forget all my cares, I know no more trouble, death loses its terrors: I am utterly translated in their company.*”

At night Machiavelli began to read the ancient writers.  He fancied that he asked them questions, and they, through their writings, answered him.  He entered what is called the “Great Conversation,” a centuries-old discussion among the world’s best writers about life’s most poignant questions.

Unfortunately for Machiavelli, he had to lose his job to find time to participate in the Great Conversation.  What was even more unfortunate was that he had to read and to think in solitude.  I have been much luckier in life than Machiavelli.  Not only do I have a job — the job I have actually requires me to read many of the works of the Great Conversation.  I am doubly lucky in that I also get the pleasure of discussing these books with young people.  Although this is a delight, it isn’t always easy for there are many who maintain that old writers such as Plato or Chaucer or Shakespeare have little to say to us today.  They maintain that the attention of students should be focused entirely on works that are new.  “Do not waste time on Shakespeare,” they declare, “Get on with life’s real work which is vocational preparation.”

I do not see vocational preparation as the primary goal of a teacher in an independent school.  I think the mission of an independent school teacher is the perpetuation of the Western intellectual heritage.  In short, I think my job is to help the Great Conversation keep going by introducing young people to the works of great writers.  If we can teach students to write with clarity, to read with discernment, and to think with precision, the Great Conversation will continue.  There will always be meaningful vocational opportunities for students who can write, read, and think.

I am worried that if any of my former students read this article, they will say, “Rubbish.  St. John doesn’t teach because of the Great Conversation.  He teaches because he thinks it’s fun.”  I am afraid they may be correct.  I admit that the minutes spent in the classroom are the best of my day, no less so now than 15 years ago when I started teaching.  But, I hesitate to admit this for two reasons.  The first reason is that it isn’t fashionable to enjoy being in the classroom.  Everything I read about the teaching profession seems to say that 15 years in a classroom should leave an intelligent human being burned out, bored, and cynical.  The second reason is that I might be found out and snatched away from the classroom for having more than a man’s share of pleasure in life.  I certainly do not want to suffer Machiavelli’s fate of having to read in solitude.  If I keep quiet, may they won’t notice me for another 15 years…

*Translated by Ralph Roeder in “Man of the Renaissance”

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