The seminar is the primary vehicle by which a Great Books education moves. If one were to use the buzz-words alive in education today, the seminar would provide one with an opportunity for meta-cognition, critical thinking, collaborative learning, and would cater to multiple intelligences. How fine an endeavor it must sound on paper! But beyond all the buzz-words, which trite as they are, do happen to be aspects of the seminar experiences, the seminar offers far more.
The Seminar style format develops the courage of its speakers. In a democratic society, even a representative one, the voices of the people are of paramount importance. In order to be an effective person and citizen, one must learn how and why to voice one’s opinion. Several of the books in a Great Books curriculum cover why to speak one’s voice, and so it remains for this missive to further explain how this is done. In a seminar, after a reading has been done by all the participants, then the seminar leader asks an open-ended question, and it is the duty of the participants to comb their minds for thoughts to answer as well as their texts to support their nascent thoughts–making them into developed thoughts in turn. The students then, largely, sharing the text and the story or work behind them engage with each others thoughts–reflecting, analyzing, expanding, and at times arguing. Largely, if the leader has trained the students well, he or she will simply ask questions as the students engage with each other through the media of their thoughts. Occasionally, the students thoughts will be so illuminated that even the instructor is inclined to engage though that is not his or her primary role. Sometimes, traditional classroom roles are switched in seminar.
The seminar develops basic research capabilities and the desire to develop them. This includes learning to read closely, and to re-read in order to confirm one’s sourcing. During the course of discussing, invariably the question arises, “Where is that in the text?”, and though frequently a student has referenced something in the text, he or she usually needs some help finding the helpful source material in the mass of the reading. That said, students are also afforded the opportunity, depending on their grade-level, to prepare their reading and notes in advance of meeting for the seminar. For example, my ninth and twelfth graders know their reading and the the “essential questions” in advance, so they are asked to write-out their own relevant questions and quotes in preparation. Depending on the age of one’s students, this generally rewards the diligent and research minded students, and encourages those less naturally inclined towards research to really know the material beforehand.
The seminar gives a unique space and method by which to truly discuss and share one’s thinking. It is a laughably ironic paradox that in an age of such masterful and prolific communication methods, that people are less and less in tune with their own thoughts and how to express them. In fact, when does one have the opportunity to share one’s honest thoughts in a typical work day, or school day? Is this usually done publicly or privately? In discussing over and through a text, during a seminar, a student has the opportunity to communicate basic thoughts, opinions and beliefs about a text which may reflect his or her basic thoughts, opinions, or beliefs about reality itself. However, in the context of seminar, rather than in a heated and highly subjective debate, there is a mediator in the instructor, the seminar group itself, and the text. This provides context, safety, and even some measure of objectivity to the thoughts and opinions of the group of learners present.
Beyond what is written above, if seminar is done right, every text and topic of discussion that one engages in throughout a semester or year is fair-game later in the year. For example, while teaching the Aeneid late in the second semester of the school year and talking about who is at fault for the suicide of Dido (it is less obvious than it seems), students frequently bring up the causes of the Trojan War gleaned from the cyclical-epic tradition covered in the first week of the school year. What this means is that the texts are retained and are cumulatively built on in an organic and helpful way. What it also means is that essential questions, like “Can the gods be blamed for the actions of mortals” remain present and living throughout the entirety of the course. The students, therefore, share more than just the texts, but a similar concern for the values and decisions expressed by the characters and thinkers they encounter during their year together. In sharing a certain concern for thought, the students share certain thoughts, though their judgments and opinions may vary. It is, however, not so much what the students think which defines the depth and quality of a seminar, but the depth and quality of the thoughts they express and share which makes the seminar an ideal method of sharing what makes both a society and conversation great.