Andrew J. Zwerneman
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School as school just does not cut the proverbial mustard any longer. Fortunately, there is a mounting interest in recovering our bearings about education, and the turn toward an education with classical roots and liberal purposes is catching a great wind in its sails.
The reading of books enables us to be more than ourselves, to participate in things we never directly experienced or discovered by ourselves.
—Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
At the heart of the movement’s curriculum are Great Books, classic texts of imaginative and expository literature. They are the best books ever written: classics in their time and of enduring worth.
The best books, in turn, deserve the best discussions, and that brings us to seminars. What seminars are and how to lead them are crucial questions. Check out this one-stop collection of 44 posts for good answers. The collection is Free and constitutes a kind of academy on seminar leadership.
Another central concern is how to attract disinterested or skeptical students (and their parents) to seminars on Great Books. The need for an answer is real for these main reasons:
- The loss of reading culture
- The loss of a culture of discourse
- The loss of confidence in the West, which gave us the bulk of Great Books
Under the cloud of all those losses, a course of study in which students and their teacher engage in serious daily discussion on the most significant humane letters from the past may be a hard sell. Times have changed, after all; and the changes in schools have generally been for the worse, especially regarding the humanities.
At the same time, some things never change, including who we are as human beings. And among the permanent things concerning our humanity is our longing to be “more than ourselves,” as Fr. Schall puts it in the epigraph above. Great Books and Great Discussions converge to meet that longing. They expand our students’ world, their vision, experience, sense of belonging, freedom, and excellence. In other words, they help them be more than themselves.
With that in mind, here are 6 tips for attracting students to seminars on Great Books.
#1. Seminar discussions on classic texts challenge our students with a vision of greatness.
By natural disposition, young men and women are idealistic. They want to be great and to be part of something great. Great discussions begin with great texts and are, then, the perfect place to start when appealing to prospective seminar students.
Great texts are paths upward to summits where your students will see the world from a viewpoint that only the great writers afford us. Classics are on the best reading lists for good reason, in other words. In a manner superior to other texts, they move us to experience what we ought to experience, from longing in Shakespeare’s Hamlet to redemption in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Classic texts press us to think hard about the things we ought to weigh carefully—matters like justice, love, and faith, explored as they are in works like Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Augustine’s Confessions.
Great texts help us get to where we need to be intellectually, spiritually, and morally because, in no small measure, they are at the heart of our cultural inheritance. As humane letters, they offer ways to bridge the gulfs that divide us because they, better than other works, speak powerfully to our shared condition, nature, and purpose. As works from our civilizational tradition, they help bridge the division that is widening today between our own times and the past. Each great effort at unity should be powerfully attractive to young people.
#2. Seminar discussions foster a growth mentality.
Growth does not happen unless one wants to grow. Young people want to grow, not just into adulthood but into excellence in areas of life that are important to them.
In sports, for example, they want to win, and that takes practice and constant striving toward excellence. In relationships they want to be respected, loved, and included, which, among other things, means they are willing to polish their looks, speech, manners, and commitments in order to bond with others. In a third example, most young people have a natural hope for the future, and that means they want to do something worthwhile to fulfill their expectations for the future.
I am not saying that all young people are in the best spot; I am saying that all young people have a nature that is good and are naturally chock full of potential for the fulfillment or perfection of what is already good. For that reason, I think appealing to them in terms of a growth mentality can work very effectively, specifically in how they perceive seminars on Great Books.
The top priority on this front is to help your students see the wonderful challenge before them. What young readers face in a classic text is a good thing, not bad. Seminars on classic texts require students to spend a lot of time thinking hard for a couple of diligent seminar hours at a time. Thinking hard, the time spent doing so, and the persistence applied in order to understand a difficult text are all good for the students. Rigor is a good thing, a potentially transformative experience for students. Young people love achievement, and well-led seminars, precisely because they are rigorous, can meet that natural love if they are led well.
#3. Seminars provide exceptional opportunities for freedom.
If every student has a natural potential for greatness, each also has a natural desire to know, to grasp what is knowable. That really is a powerful and encouraging aspect of human reality: Our minds have a natural affinity for the world in which we exist—materially, spiritually, socially, and historically. Dynamic seminars can meet that desire and cultivate our students’ capacity to explore, know, and understand.
This is a matter of great freedom where each student can achieve freedom from unexamined opinion, from ideology, and from other reductionist modes of thought. Through a great seminar discussion, students are freed to know the truth, to examine the world more closely and intelligently, and to see life more clearly. This two-way freedom, from and to, is the first order of business in learning. When led well, seminars cultivate that freedom in spades.
Seminar discussions are collaborative, of course. At the same time, no one can attain what is true on behalf of another. Each student must seek, discover, and understand what is real and knowable on his own and allow it to direct his life. Each human—and thus, each student—is an agent of truth. While there is no attaining the truth without the help of others—as in authors, teachers, fellow students—part of each student’s dignity is the capacity for truth and the responsibility for attaining it.
In the case of seminars, each student works through the text, learns under the authority of the text, advances with the guidance of the teacher, and collaborates with the other discussants. In that community of discourse, the goal is for each student to achieve a successful interpretation and develop the understanding that results from a successful discussion. In other words, the seminar discussion is an effective way for a student to fulfill the natural human capacity for being an agent of truth, the heart of genuine intellectual freedom.
#4. Seminars open up avenues for creative, independent work.
Either because they expect that the teacher wants everyone to march lockstep or because they measure themselves poorly in comparison to their fellow students, disinterested or skeptical students may have no good handle on the richness that is open to them from a classic text. You can get them out of that hole.
As you coach them, you can bank on this starting point: Every student wants to be creative and independent. No student thinks that doing exactly what the teacher does or what everyone else is doing is either creative or independent. Everyone recognizes that one must have a certain distance from others in order to do one’s work. A well led seminar discussion is a superb context in which that desire for creativity can catch fire.
One of the great values of a classic text is that it inspires a variety of plausible responses. No two students will think through a text in exactly the same way. In fact, the most important questions a classic text raises are not answerable in a uniform way.
Seminar leadership, in turn, has to allow for that variety. The teacher leads the students to comparatively plausible conclusions. At the same time, students will persuade each other of better interpretations, and they and the teacher will counter or augment their peers’ evidence with their own. Such lively and thoughtful exchange can forge significant common understanding. More to the point, it can forge well-founded independent thought—what we say in classical terms is a genuinely liberal mind.
Great texts already provide a great common ground: All students should find inspiration in the sacrificial love we witness, for example, in Sophocles’ Antigone or Dickens’ Sidney Carton. Every student is in a better position to read contemporary politics in light of the best arguments for just order as encountered in Aristotle’s Ethics, and Locke’s Second Treatise.
At the same time, students holding something in common is not equivalent to students having a uniform interpretation. Although a seminar discussion is collaborative, each individual student comes to grips with the text at hand. Led well, all the students will think hard, independently, and clearly. Lead well, and your students, who naturally want to be free, will find in the seminar what they seek.
#5. Seminars establish a great foundation for living a good life.
Every human needs a vision for responsibility. Among other things, responsibility is the fulfillment of the student’s freedom expressed as love, justice, generosity, self-governance, and excellent work, to name a few.
A seminar built around great texts deepens and prepares young people to take responsibility in each area of their lives. Studying love, for example, as we find it in the Gospel of John, or courage, as told in Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, is not the same as practicing love and courage. However, either text will shape the intellect, imagination, and spirit of your students. They will, in other words, partly form one’s preparation for living a life worthy of our humanity.
Every student wants to be free in this regard, where moral and spiritual freedom means to choose what is truly good for how one lives as an individual and in relation to others.
Strategically lead your seminar discussions and coach your students in ways that meet that beautiful desire. Attract your students with that vision of their goodness, their freedom, and their responsibility as a source of inspiration and hope for their futures.
#6. Seminars are democratic in spirit.
Some students will dismiss classic texts and seminars as merely goods for those who already love them. They typically shrug them off along lines like these:
“I’m just not into novels like everybody else.”
“This school is for kids who think philosophy is cool, but I don’t get the big deal.”
“I’m a STEM guy.”
“Can’t we just take a test on Hamlet? Why do we have to talk about it?”
Should the challenge posed by reading and discussing a classic text be attractive only to students who already have an interest in the classics? No, not all. An education to freedom is meant for everyone and natural to each student. The classics endure precisely because they continue to illuminate the humanity common to all of us, not merely the personalities of merely a few.
Odysseus’ longing for home and marriage in Homer’s Odyssey, for example, and Telemakhos’ longing for the father he has never truly known, resonate with all readers. So, too does the difficulty Socrates’ young interlocutors face in their choice between justice and injustice as played out in Plato’s dialogue, The Republic; or the desire for life after death, as expressed in Emily Dickinson’s poem #479; or the self-understanding that finally dawns on Elizabeth Bennet and frees her to love in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. These are believable and illuminating human experiences, captured in a handful of genres and stretching over more than two thousand years of humane letters.
Classic texts are packed with humanity. They need to be taught with genuine conviction about their universal luminosity for all students. The appeal to contemporary students, then, is really two-fold:
For one thing, the humane character of a classic text is intrinsically connected to all the students precisely because of their shared humanity. Believe that, teach according to it, and allow your appeal to the students to be directed by that belief.
For another, that we all have this humanity in common, a fact that each text is an occasion to explore, meets every student’s desire to belong. Seminar discussions situate the students in discourse over the most important experiences and ideas. Such discussions thrive on listening and speaking, thereby reinforcing respect and personal dignity. Seminar discussions are lively and fun, which truly helps foster a love of learning and friendship among the learners. Even the arrangement of chairs and tables so that everyone is facing each other cultivates a strong sense of forging common vision and purpose.
This all contributes to a wonderful sense of belonging, and that could be just the ticket to moving even the disinterested or skeptical students into the interested and believing columns.
When we say that Great Books deserve Great Discussions, the obvious operative word is Great! Among other things, that reminds us that we are not merely interested in the power of books helping us to become more than ourselves; we are interested in more, as in better, for great indicates a standard above, an achievement identifiable with excellence, enduring worth, and dignity.
What is truly Great, reminds that seminars on classic texts have the capacity to lift our students into the realm of Goodness: their good, the goodness of the world we inhabit, and the good of the church and of society. It really is a stunning feature of our existence that through our minds we can recreate for ourselves what great writers have captured in humane letters.
Open up that learning experience, knowledge, and historical vision for your students, and you will have given them the freedom that comes with greatness.
Andrew J. Zwerneman is co-founder and president of Cana Academy. He blogs weekly at www.canaacademy.org and is the author of History Forgotten and Remembered (2020) and The Life We Have Together: A Case for Humane Studies, A Vision for Renewal (2022). Twice monthly Andrew leads the Great Seminar Webinar Series.
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