St. John’s College’s curriculum supplies the possibility of a philosophic life. The way the liberal arts are practiced at St. John’s is a path to this life in part because its curriculum has such a strong focus on learning about learning, thinking about what learning is, and reflecting on what it means to know. At the same time, such an education also prepares one to ask questions about all sorts of other more practical and non-philosophical things. It prepares one to reflect on the form of one’s questions and thereby to reflect on how one’s questions relate to the objects or the realities one is attempting to understand. St. John’s attempts to give one the habits of a learning frame of mind, maybe even a learning “frame of soul.”
With the resources provided by this kind of learning, I
was enabled, maybe even compelled, to innovate beyond the methods and
practices which were, for the most part, current at the time.
So what is it like learning the “frame of soul” to become a winemaker and a grape grower? It is, in many ways, the “way” of St. John's liberal arts curriculum, trying to get down to the bottom (or to the top) of each step in a complex sequence of things.
Getting to the bottom of the craft of grape-growing and winemaking required me to acquire an unsleeping need to ask “Why?” My teacher in the first small winery where I was an apprentice was not the kind of man to say each morning, “This is the lesson for the day.” His winery was a workplace, and we had jobs to do. Although he was a good master in the sense that he was a good practitioner of the craft, his morning greeting was followed by the words, “This is the job for today.” I was thrown back on my own resources to understand why we were doing a particular job, which required a certain reliance on my training in questioning and reflection that I had learned at St. John’s. After a while I realized that I was getting good at knowing why step B followed step A – and that step C would be next or else, given the end to be achieved, step D might be the alternative. I also began to see that to achieve a goal, some means would be better than others that were in general practice in Napa Valley wineries at that time. With the resources provided by this kind of learning, I was enabled, maybe even compelled, to innovate beyond the methods and practices which were, for the most part, current at the time.