Thursday, 15 June 2023: Our inaugural recipients of the Ramsay Postgraduate Scholarship Awards at St John’s College, Annapolis have graduated. Young Australian leaders Benjamin Crocker, Mark Acebo and Jordan Hill were awarded the College’s prestigious Master of Arts in Liberal Arts (MALA) degree at a recent ceremony in Annapolis, Maryland, USA.
The three graduates were announced as our inaugural St John’s College Postgraduate Scholars in July 2021. Their scholarship, valued at up to AUD$75,000 p.a., covered their tuition fees for the two-year MALA and some of their living expenses. It also enabled them to participate in the course’s exciting opportunity to work in Washington D.C.
St John’s College is home to the world’s original, and many would argue the world’s best, Great Books course. The main campus is situated in Annapolis, a historic small seaside city in Maryland, founded in 1649, from where the call was issued to form the Constitutional Convention, leading to the foundation of modern America.
From Aristotle to Aquinas, Wordsworth to Woolf, Herodotus to Hegel, students pursuing St John’s two-year MALA explore some of the greatest thinkers of all time in a truly interdisciplinary and coherent academic program. All classes comprise 20 or fewer students and at the heart of the curriculum is the seminar, in which students engage in discussion initiated by a tutor’s opening question about the assigned reading. From Homer to Hannah Arendt, the famous St John’s seminar spans 3,000 years of human thought.
The college has impressive US alumni including a deputy attorney general in California, a CNN White House correspondent, a senator for Nebraska, a charge d’áffaires to the Republic of Sudan, a vice-president at IBM and a director for clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health. Its alumni community also includes numerous highly successful filmmakers, documentarians and authors, the global head of news at Bloomberg, a West Africa correspondent at the New York Times and radio host of NPR’s World of Opera.
Benjamin Crocker, who turned down a place reading history at Oxford to attend St John’s, said he has absolutely no regrets, describing the degree as “the most enriching two years of my education.”
“I have only the highest praise for St John’s and the deepest gratitude to the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation for enabling us to study here,” Benjamin said.
“St John’s has a hallowed place within American academia which can’t be understood without first studying there for some time. It is not merely the age of the College at some 325 years, but also the peculiar devotion of its faculty, the breadth of learning and depth of reading skill developed, that mark it out as sincerely different from the crowd of graduate learning options. We were warmly received as Ramsay Scholars here at St John’s, and I can faithfully say a warm rapport now exists between our two countries, and our two institutions. It was the greatest honour to be part of developing this relationship in its initial stages.”
Ben said the most enjoyable single work he explored at St John’s was Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America “…for its prophetic vision of the afflictions which man would come to suffer from in the Democratic Age.”
Jordan Hill said he most appreciated studying the metre and prosody of Sappho’s Ode to Aphrodite in the original Ancient Greek. He also enjoyed Kierkegaard’s Fragments, Euripides’ The Bacchae, and Homer’s The Odyssey. Jordan said St John’s was not a vocationally oriented institution but rather a college whose curriculum focussed on teaching what it meant to be your whole self.
“If you want to learn about yourself, and pursue real knowledge about yourself, that can’t happen honestly if you focus merely on the practical uses of knowledge, self-discovery of this nature alone will narrow you,” Jordan said.
“If you want to know how to be a good human, or what kind of human it is that you are at all, you need to set time aside to take those questions seriously. That is what St John’s is. Reading these books at this place changes you. And, if you attend St John’s what you will walk away with is something that will have personal significance to you for the rest of your life. You will experience what it is like to develop a common language in difficult books with a group of like-minded people who really care to discover what is at the heart of these books and what they can teach us about being human.”
Mark Acebo said it was surreal to study great works of philosophy, literature, and science in a small historic college and town but still less than an hour away from Washington D.C. He said the great work that impacted him the most was Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments because “…it provided a common-sense view on the importance of empathy in everyday social interactions.”
“Though Smith is more famous for his later economic work (The Wealth of Nations), I would argue the Theory of Moral Sentiments is better, because it gave ethical and moral foundations on how individuals can live in a liberal society,” Mark said.
Following his graduation, Benjamin Crocker is headed to Texas to take up the role of Academic Programs Manager with University of Austin, Texas (UATX). UATX is a new non-profit institution dedicated to building a liberal arts university committed to freedom of inquiry, freedom of conscience, and civil discourse. Long term, Ben wants “…to ensure that Australia benefits from the same social and educational strengths that close study of this literature, and a proliferation of the liberal arts tradition, has clearly brought to the United States (as strongly noted by Kim Beazley in his introductory Ramsay video some years ago).”
Mark Acebo said that having been inspired by the AUKUS announcement in 2021, he intends to return to Australia to work in defence, economic advisory, or foreign policy.
“I’m really passionate about mentoring and giving opportunities to young people from underprivileged and diverse backgrounds like me, so I’m planning to do something along those lines longer term,” Mark said.
Jordan is currently Chief Technology Officer of his AI/ML startup Urban PeakHour which is working with the Victorian Department of Planning and Transport to implement a world-first traffic and congestion prediction system based on AI/ML technologies. Jordan said that in the near-term he is planning to pursue a career in data engineering and data science focusing on AI/ML, working within the intelligence community in Australia.
“At some point in the future I would like to do some teaching either in the university or secondary school sectors, with the view to increasing accessibility of a Great Books education in Western Australia,” Jordan said.
Ramsay Centre CEO Professor Simon Haines congratulated the three scholars and said it had been an honour to support them to receive the world-class education that St John’s College offers.
“I am very excited to follow their future endeavours and maintain contact with them as part of our growing community of Ramsay Postgraduate Scholars,” Professor Haines said.
Emily Langston, Associate Dean for Graduate Programs at St John’s College, Annapolis also congratulated the scholars, who she said had richly contributed to the St John’s College community.
“Ben, Jordan and Mark made a tremendous impact,” Dr Langston said. “We commend their enthusiasm for the course and their fellow students, and the wonderful academic collaborations they helped organise with our neighbouring US Naval Academy colleagues, and Australian diplomatic officials. We thank them for their unique contributions to our class discussions. We know they will achieve great things and look forward to each year bringing the next suite of exceptional Ramsay Postgraduate Scholars.”
Media contact: Sarah Switzer0407 816 098/ firstname.lastname@example.org