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From Herodotus to hip-hop

Earlier this month, I visited St. John's College, a tiny postage stamp of higher learning clinging to the banks of College Creek in Annapolis, Md. St. John's exists light years away from the mainstream of academic life in America. For starters, the undergraduates have no elective courses. The so-called Great Books curriculum, designed at the University of Chicago in the 1930s, dictates every class, from Herodotus in freshman year to the senior seminar in Hegel and Heidegger .

St. John's has other peculiarities. There are no grades and no final exams. No professors. No lectures. Instead "tutors," many of them lacking PhDs, lead round-table seminar discussions. Applicants needn't take the SATs. Unlike, say, a well-regarded small college like Bates or the super-competitive universities like Stanford or Harvard, St. John's is easy to get into. Until recently, the student body was largely self-selecting.

Yet St. John's has a much lower graduation rate than most undergraduate programs. Easy to get into, tough to stay. Sort of like Brown University, upside down.

Shortly after I returned from Annapolis, the Globe reported that Harvard's African and African-American Studies department was trying to lure renowned hip-hop scholar Marcyliena Morgan back from Stanford, where she has been teaching. The department had offered Morgan tenure during the reign of Larry "The Destroyer" Summers, but Summers had vetoed the appointment.

Notoriously not "down" with hip-hop studies, Summers had already blotted his copy book with Harvard Af-Am poobah Henry Louis "Skip" Gates & Co. by dissing the distinguished African-American philosopher Cornel West, who promptly decamped to Princeton in a huff. West, who has recorded his own hip-hop masterpieces, was recently spotted at Princeton's Hip-Hop Symposium, sharing a dais with rap artist Talib Kweli (sample lyrics: "I spit the [expletive] to make the average MC [expletive] in his pants / I spit the [expletive] to make a [expletive] call it a night" ) and with Representative Maxine Waters, who opined that "the hip-hop community ought to start taking over cities all over America."

Harvard's loss is Princeton's gain!

When Morgan left Harvard in 2004, she took her valuable hip-hop archive. The repository includes conventional research materials, like books and recordings, and also "Youth Symbols and Signifiers . . . a special selection of drawings, graffiti, and recordings of regional, national and international symbols used to represent the surroundings and location of urban youth." Gangs signs, anyone?

Forget for a moment that the archive's motto -- "Respect. Build. Represent." -- is an unwitting parody of Sacha Baron Cohen's merciless "Da Ali G Show" send-ups of hip-hop reality. You can visit the archive at and even look in on the "Hiphop University," which keeps current on academic work in the field.

Let's see what's cooking in hip-hop academe. I see that Stanford is offering a course called "Global Noise: Appropriation, Localization, and Racial Identification of World Hip Hop. " According to the website, "This course will examine hip-hop cultures in Japan, China, France, Italy, Kenya, and the Philippines. Students will use written texts, films, and music to explore issues of authenticity, identity formation, processes of appropriation, localization, race, and resistance."

As Ali G himself might ask: "Wot is yous bangin on about?" Translation: "Huh?" One can see at a glance how important it is to relocate this important nexus of scholarship back to the World's Greatest University, where it belongs.

Last week I had lunch with a St. John's College sophomore, back in Cambridge for break. I asked her what it was like to be back with her friends from high school, all of whom were attending colleges that had majors, final exams, and the like. It was hard, she admitted, to talk about St. John's, which is so distinctive that it has to be experienced to be understood.

She did mention talking to a friend from Bates, who described a course she was planning to take, in rhetoric. For context, here is a course description at St. John's: "Plato's Critique of Rhetoric: The Ion, Gorgias." At Bates, "they were going to be watching episodes of 'Desperate Housewives' and studying Eminem," this student said. "I just had to laugh."

Laugh, or cry. Whichever comes more easily.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is

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