Seminars as Educators: A Brief History of our Project

Today we are gathered from a shared interest in the way education is implemented in America. Over our past two talks we have considered the place that a Christian education has in the history of American education, and we have considered a model of college-style education which transcends traditional departmental distinctions and brings students together to read “the Great Books” as part of a larger and more fundamental conversation. This particular lecture will focus on the current status of a project very similar in scope and nature to that of the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program in Kansas from the 1970s. Though the venues and the outreach for our current project might  be humbler, they may also have the potential to be more far reaching than their university-institutionalized older brother.

I have only been teaching for three years, so in fairness to my far more experienced colleagues, I will admit the limits of my experience before I begin. But in these three years, my efforts have been groundbreaking. So, a little about me as a segue into what the last three years have been. After finishing my B.A. in Philosophy from Marquette, I had already taken 5 graduate level classes in philosophy and theology, and though I was proud of the level of intellectual rigor I had been exposed to and demonstrated, the prospect of becoming a scholar and fighting partisan battles over the interpretations of particular philosophical works and thinkers whom I may have translated or not just did not appeal to me. I had read some Carl Jung by this point, and I thought that his point that the human spirit appears in many forms and requires broad reading correct, and essentially I felt that my education still required a stronger foundation before I continued on to some higher level intellectual work–or at least before I pigeon-holed my area of study for the rest of my life. So while I was considering graduate programs, somewhat miserably, St. John’s College in Annapolis sent me a pamphlet. On the cover were stacks and stacks of old books. Augustine’s Confessions, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Plato’s Republic, etc…I fell in love. And after discussing with a trusted professor about the merits of the program, I decided to apply, and happily, I was accepted to matriculate the next Fall.

During my time at St. John’s, which prepares its young scholars to be generalists, teachers, and educated lay-persons, I sampled Greek history, tragedy, epic and philosophy well on through English poetry and literature in the 20th century with T.S. Eliot. I studied the Latin and Ancient Greek languages in depth, and I for the first time in my life pursued a general fitness program, Crossfit, which fit well with the ideals of Plato (in terms of ordering the soul), and with the program of St. John’s–generalized well-being and fitness to match generalized learning without traditional departmental segmentation. It was a wonderful, Hyperborean time, which could, in its own way, have led to disaster had it left me outside the cave, or on the shores of the Lotus Eaters, or enraptured by the song of the Sirens. Indeed, a liberal education can make a return to the world it seeks to reflect and to mold, a difficult thing. However, after a year of figuring out the next step, I ultimately decided that I would teach for a year or two, just to get the experience and because I thought I would be relatively well-suited to the profession.

As it happens, St. John’s has a strong connection with a system of charter schools in Phoenix called the “Great Hearts Academies”. Through my connections at St. John’s, and a personal interview kindly granted to me by one of their new headmasters, I was offered a position teaching Ancient History and Writing to 7th and 8th graders. The school would pay my relocation fees, and I would be welcome into a community that was full of like-minded and similarly disposed “Johnnies” as we are called. And this plan lasted for several months. As the Summer before my first year of teaching was to begin, however, I received a system-wide email from the St. John’s “listserv” from the director of a charter school out in Northern San Diego, Escondido to be precise. The headmaster was looking for a liberally educated teacher or non-teacher to come out to San Diego to develop and implement a Logic and Rhetoric course for freshmen and a Law and Debate elective course for upperclassmen. Thinking this might be a fun opportunity to test my mettle, I submitted my resume, cover letter, and recommendations.

To my surprise, the headmaster called me and was very interested in my credentials. However, he warned me not to get my hopes up to high as I did not have a teaching credential, required in California, and the processes I would have to endure just to walk into the classroom would be intense: I would have to pay for and pass the CBEST teacher’s exam, pay for and pass (while teaching the first semester) the far more in-depth and expensive CSET exam, apply to, be accepted to, and take courses at the local credentialing university, while paying out of pocket for the classes (the school would not even fund my plane-trip for the interview), and of course, as a first year teacher develop and implement a full year long course, or rather two, without the aid of a fellow teacher. I suppose I might also add that I had to find a place to live, buy a car, and attempt to meet new friends in this location too as my relatively small family is largely located in the Southern United States.

Somehow, after two phone interviews, and a self-funded trip to Escondido, complete with three more interviews, I was chosen as the candidate for the job, and seeing this as a great challenge and opportunity to create what I would otherwise simply receive, I accepted the challenge. At first the freshman course was meant to be a logic course with a rhetorical component, essentially meant to teach the students to think analytically (buzzword: critically). But after several long and searching conversations with the headmaster, he became or rather revealed a deeper passion for teaching the Great Books–he simply worried about implementation. I told him squarely that I was far more passionate about teaching “Great Books” than I was about teaching logic, as well-suited as the subject was to my undergraduate education. My headmaster, then, essentially gave me free reign to develop such a course with one provision: I had to be successful. Our headmaster had a vision for the school, and it all began with this neophyte, clueless teacher attempting what had never been done at this Charter school–taking the students and teaching them the Great Books.

The next obstacle became this: with one year to teach freshmen the Great Books without institutional processes in place, peers to help, or a vertical alignment to fit-in within, what exactly would I teach? I could teach anything, and it was terrifying. The idea that the students could even handle a full-scale great book as freshmen was untested, and is not how the Great Hearts schools implement curriculum. So, full of ignorance but hardy in spirit, I chose to teach Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid. And somehow, this first year was a success. In the second year, we added Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes, and Plato’s Meno. In the third year we added the Homeric hymns to Demeter and Hermes, and selections from Plato’s Ion and Republic and Phaedrus as well–along with one brief selection from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And in this next year I will be developing and implementing a sophomore course which will align with the freshman course and move through Dante’s Commedia and Milton’s Paradise Lost as capstone texts, with auxiliary texts like Genesis, Exodus, Gospel of Mark, Gospel of John, Plato’s Timaeus, and Aristotle’s De Anima and Metaphysics.

During the second year of my teaching, the course title changed from Logic and Rhetoric to Great Books I, and the sophomore English teacher was asked to implement certain Great Books into her curriculum as a sort of chimaerical attempt of what I had done in a more “purist” fashion. In our second semester, we hired a graduate of Gutenberg College, also inclined towards the Great Books, and he and I were asked to develop a 7th and 8th grade version of the Great Books course we had in the 9th grade to immerse the students in a fuller fashion in the Greats for four years, rather than the one from before, and the none from two years before. He also was successful in his first semester and his first full year this year. So in the first three years of work, we have gone from an idea to having four fully functioning years of “Great Books” education with an improved Sophomore curriculum on the way and a new hybrid style Senior level course as well.

Also, what was begun during my second year of teaching was a “Parent Seminar” held in the evening every two weeks covering the same books, and more, from the freshman year. This was at first attended by 15 parents, and to this day maintains a solid 8-10, even through the Summers. These parents have read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Sophocles’ Theban Tragedies/Oedipus Cycle (Oedipus Tyrannus, Antigone, Oedipus at Colonus), Euripides’ The Bacchae and Hippolytus, Aeschylus’ Oresteia (Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides), and Aristophanes’ The Frogs. This year we have worked through the first two canticles of Dante’s Commedia and we are almost halfway through his Paradiso. This is a community-based, not for credit and not for profit endeavor, and it has been a huge success. So much so, that this third year, I began a second seminar with the help of my Gutenberg educated colleague’s wife, who also aspired to be a Great Books teacher, we guided a second group, concurrent with the first, through Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey together. That group is now reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and it has also gone from about 15 members who started to around 10 now in its third semester of existence. As if this were not all, the same leader, Kelly, and I decided to start a “community” seminar at a local coffee-shop with a strong intellectual vibe, and we advertised for a group to read through Dostoeyvsky’s The Brothers Karamazov together with local teachers, friends, and frankly interested strangers. That group will meet this Tuesday for their final reading of the novel, and this summer will continue on reading Non-standard epics (I hope) comprising: Exodus, Go down Moses, and Beloved by Toni Morrison. The seminar and Great books model, on this small scale has been a success, but why?

The current answer which I have to give is not yet based on statistical analysis, but rather on an engagement with culture at large. In our current time, offering people “spaces” for particular activities has become the new method to market services. Universities offer “safe spaces”, yoga studios offer “spaces for meditation and growth” (I guess), gyms offer spaces to “embody physical principles”, and there are a wide array of entertainment industries which offer entertaining diversions of every sort. But in this world comprising so many spaces, where does one have an opportunity to speak about intellectual or challenging or eternal things without first paying or offering one’s fealty to a cause or creed? Where does one go to share one’s insight in a non-polarizing way? In fact, how does an adult find a community of people to read something with them which they have never read before? In current educational circles, creating the “lifelong learner” is heralded as an ideal, but there are precious few venues to turn to for real lifelong engagement with learning. This is such a space, such an opportunity, and such a community, and we have begun building it.

As of now, I teach two Great Books courses, to freshmen and sophomores at my Charter school, there is a Senior teacher developing a Great Books style course, and two teachers in our two feeder middle schools teaching 7th and 8th grade seminar-style Great Books courses. We have also expanded the school and are offering an additional “flex-style” option which caters to home school parents which will also have a Great Books component, which my former community seminar partner, Kelly, will be helping to build and teach this year. And currently the three seminar groups from above are all going strong with around 10 participants each. We are always seeking to train others to implement their own seminars, and in fact many of the participants, likely without even knowing, could do so themselves with additional help in developing community presence, text selection, participant acquisition and retention, and training in “how to ask a question”. Though simply “doing” a seminar is really the best training.

So, the Great Books and the seminar as their vehicle, rather than having a polarizing effect, in our experience so far have a galvanizing effect–people come together, and they want to continue to come together in a community of learners. The effect, for some, is even therapeutic. In the community seminar, deep personal experiences have been shared between members. In one of the parent seminars, traumatic and hurtful childhood memories have been shared, and beyond simple analysis of the text, this is part of the magic of the experience. Plato, through the mouth of Socrates, is heralded as having repeated the inscription above the gate of Delos, where the prophet of Apollo dwelled, gnothi seauton, know thyself. The seminar as the vehicle of Great Books provides just that opportunity–not simply to learn a fact or concept, or even simply to gather, but to better know one’s self and thus the world around one.

We are still looking to develop and implement more seminars, curricula, and communities in the Southern California area, implement and deliver training in person and remotely to those who are near and far, and of course to advise and guide those who are intrigued about our efforts and how to mirror or expand on them.

Thank you.