The Modes of Teaching (Part III)

by Jeffrey Bond

Today we conclude our series on the different methods of teaching.  Part I and Part II are available here.
– The Editors

Part III: The Problem of Seminar

The open-ended nature of the seminar paradoxically requires that there be fairly strict guidelines for the teacher using the seminar mode; the teacher using this mode cannot simply rely upon the order of learning proper to the subject matter itself. Indeed, if the seminar teacher were to insist upon following a strict order determined by the subject under study, he would stifle the untutored efforts of the students and thereby undermine the very purpose of the seminar. But if the seminar teacher is not to follow the order intrinsic to the subject itself, how is he to guide the students? What criteria is he to employ?

Once it is recognized that the purpose of seminar is not to resolve to knowledge but rather to reasoned opinion, the guide for both teacher and students must be the text under consideration. We can well understand, then, why Great Book schools that claim that the seminar is the heart of their curriculum must also insist that the real teachers are the books, and not the living instructors who use these books in their classrooms. By this account, a Great Book itself is supposed to provide the definitive standard on how to read it, the discipline to which it belongs, and its ultimate meaning. In a word, the greatness and even the truth of these texts are believed to be somehow “self-authenticating.”

This view of the Great Books is inadequate. It cannot reasonably account for how these books were designated “great” in the first place. To argue that the real teachers are books, and not living men, ignores the fact that someone—and not a book—must have established the canon of Great Books by a standard outside of the books themselves. Here we have a secular version of sola scriptura, the Protestant teaching that the Book of books can enlighten its readers without the need of a living teacher. Quite apart from the fact that the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, which established Scripture’s authority in the first place, has rejected this claim (as does the plain meaning of Holy Scripture itself), we can see that the doctrine of sola scriptura destroys the authority of the very book it seeks to elevate. Sola scriptura implicitly posits private judgment as an authority higher than that of Holy Scripture. Similarly, the Great Book schools that, in effect, make every book a sacred text, proceed as if each chosen book can serve as its own authoritative teacher. If this method were rigorously followed, however, the authoritative measure guiding the reading and selection of Great Books would necessarily be private judgment. The matter could not be otherwise, for if there were no authority or standard beyond that of the text, every reader would be free to draw his own interpretation. And so every man would be his own teacher.

It would be foolish to deny that Great Books are virtually indispensable to liberal education. Yet efforts to educate would be vain were we not to recognize that education is ordered not to books but to truth. Nonetheless, for the purposes of the seminar one can grant, in a certain sense, supremacy to the text. It remains, then, to set forth specific guidelines for seminar, including the proper relationship among teacher, students, text, and truth. Having done so, we must revisit the tutorial and lecture modes and do likewise.

Guidelines for Seminar

Leading a seminar is an art of sorts, for there are certain procedures that, if followed, can produce a thoughtful and, it is hoped, inspiring conversation that promotes habits in the interlocutors requisite for the intellectual life. In order to set forth the steps that the teacher of seminar must follow to obtain this desired end, it is necessary to outline what can be called the “phases” of seminar. It should be recognized from the outset, however, that while we can sketch these phases in rough form, it would be a mistake to pretend to that we can systematize and predict the phases of the seminar as if they were the phases of the moon. Seminar is not a science.

A seminar, like a tutorial, normally begins with the teacher asking a question. Given the fact that a seminar generally deals with an extensive amount of material, and often an entire work, this opening question should be of the sort that directs the conversation to the heart of the text under consideration. The text, like a hard nut, has to be cracked open by the opening question so that students can get to the meat hidden within. A question of this kind is not easily answered, but rather requires an extended conversation, if it is to be answered at all. Indeed, it will often be the case that the interlocutors in the seminar will fail to reach a consensus.

Because the failure to reach consensus can be a source of frustration for students who have been trained to look for simple solutions that can be written down in their notebooks and memorized, the teacher of seminar must repeat from time to time, as does Socrates in the Platonic dialogues, that often the best that can be achieved in a conversation of this sort is a greater awareness of what one does not know. If nothing else, seminar should manifest that the questions addressed by the Great Books are not easily answered, and this realization should move students to a greater sense of humility and wonder. Needless to say, to recognize that these fundamental questions are not easily answered is not to say that they cannot be answered. Through the experience of seminar, the students must come to realize that often one can only take the first dialectical steps in examining a question thoughtfully. To advance beyond this initial inquiry would require more time and a more precise investigation. The meaning of a truly great text will not be exhausted by one or even many discussions.

1. The First Phase

In the first phase of seminar, especially with inexperienced students, one should expect a rather chaotic discussion. Most students, like the character Meno in the Platonic dialogue of the same name, invariably assume that the answers are easier than they really are. Hence students can be expected to be impatient with one another and to ignore the objections raised against their own opinions. In word, they can be expected to seek victory rather than truth. Moreover, rather than honestly weigh the merit of the opposing opinions of their fellow students, most students will seek confirmation of their own positions by looking to the teacher for an official stamp of approval. The teacher of seminar must resist the students’ desire to have everything that is said filtered through him, because his first goal in the first phase is to get the students to talk with one another rather than look to the teacher as judge of each thing that is said. This is no small task, but it is essential if the students are to progress in their ability to converse intelligently with one another. If the teacher in the first phase of seminar actively enters the discussion in a substantive way, the students will inevitably learn to wait passively for answers from the teacher rather than actively to seek answers for themselves.

Here in the first phase the seminar teacher should generally restrict his input to questions and procedural matters. For example, when a student, ignoring what was just said by another student, arbitrarily attempts to move the conversation in a different direction, the teacher should ask that student whether his remarks address what was just said. Similarly, whenever a student fails to address previously expressed opinions contrary to his own, the teacher can ask that student how his own view squares with the contrary opinions which have already been set forth. Moreover, whenever it is clear that a student is criticizing another student’s position according to an inadequate understanding of that position, the teacher can insist that the student first repeat the substance of the position he is criticizing to the satisfaction of the other student before he continues with his critique. These and other techniques must be employed if the students are to learn to listen carefully and to respond thoughtfully to one another.

2. The Second Phase

Once students have taken seriously the need to talk with each other, the seminar can move into the second phase. Whereas the seminar teacher can be content in the first phase with the students presenting unsupported opinions (insofar as the goal is simply to habituate them to speaking with one another), the second phase should be characterized by the expression of opinions grounded in the text. In reality, of course, this second phase will not always be so clearly separated from the first phase. Nevertheless, there is a definite progression in the seminar as the students increasingly begin to examine the text for evidence to support their positions. To encourage this practice, the teacher of seminar need only ask a student who presents an unsupported opinion where he finds evidence for his position in the text. If this is done at the right time and in the right manner, the students will soon follow suit and begin to make this same demand upon each other. As a result, a salutary docility to the mind of the author will begin to direct the conversation along a more fruitful path, as unsupported opinions give way to more thoughtful judgments based upon an analysis of the text.

3. The Third Phase

As students acquire the habit of paying closer attention to the text in their efforts to answer the opening question, they can be expected to become better readers as they prepare for seminar outside of class. As they read, they will ask themselves, “What is the major problem that this text is addressing?” Having considered this question, they will naturally be attentive to the solution the author appears to be proposing, as well as the key steps taken by the author to reach that solution. As students improve in their preparation for seminar, one can expect the conversation to become more focused. Here we can discern in the seminar a third phase characterized by the greater likelihood that the students will reach consensus on the meaning of the text. Although it would be unreasonable to expect to reach conclusions in every seminar, the students can at least be expected to eliminate inadequate interpretations more readily.

In this third phase of seminar, the teacher can feel freer to participate in the conversation in a substantive way, and not simply as an intellectual traffic cop. Here he can sharpen and deepen the discussion by means of his own study of the text. But like a good athletic coach, he must be careful not to push the students beyond their capacity at any given time. The coach himself may well be able to perform a certain action perfectly; but what matters is what the players themselves can achieve. If he hopes to see his players perform well, the coach must assist his players in their labors without doing their work for them. Therefore, as in the first two phases of seminar, the teacher must endeavor to strike a mean between excessive interference, which derails the students’ own efforts, and an extreme laissez-faire approach that promotes intellectual chaos.

The teacher of seminar must also remember that his participation in the give-and-take of seminar must model what he expects from his students. If he is to inspire others to engage in a fruitful dialectical inquiry, he must convey—not only through his words, but most especially through his actions—his willingness to submit his own reasoning to examination by others. Both teacher and students must strive to follow this ideal, which is well expressed by Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias, where he explains his philosophical modus operandi:

And what kind of man am I? One of those who would gladly be refuted if anything I say is not true, and would gladly refute another who says what is not true, but would be no less happy to be refuted myself than to refute, for I consider that a greater benefit, inasmuch as it is a greater boon to be delivered from the worst of evils oneself than to deliver another (458a).

4. The Fourth Phase

It should be noted that the first three phases that we have outlined are all ordered toward the interpretation of the text (even if the first phase is merely preparatory). In these phases the students are concerned with asking themselves what the author is trying to show them. In the fourth phase, which in a certain sense transcends the limitations of seminar, the focus shifts from what the author is saying to whether what the author is saying is true or not. In the first three phases the teacher will find it necessary to remind the students that one cannot judge the veracity of the text until one has first established its meaning. (And this goes hand in hand with the practice of not criticizing the opinion of another student until one has demonstrated that one understands the other’s position.) In the fourth phase, however, if in fact the students have reached a certain consensus on the text, the question naturally follows whether or not what the author is saying is true.

Given the difficulties inherent in the study of the Great Books, it must be understood that many seminars will never reach the fourth phase. And even when they do reach this fourth and final phase, it must be stressed that the end is to have the students discuss whether the agreed upon teaching of the text is true, not to have the teacher dictate to them what the truth is. With this caution in mind, the teacher of seminar should at times push the seminar into the fourth phase, even if the consensus as to what the author is saying is only tentative. For example, the teacher may say, “Let us assume at this point that we have rightly understood what Freud is saying about the nature of mind. Let us now ask ourselves, ‘Is it true?’” While a premature attempt to move into the fourth phase will undermine the habit of submitting to a thoughtful examination of the text, the artificial attempt always to suppress this last and highest phase of the seminar would be equally destructive. In making the decision to move beyond the text, the teacher of seminar must obviously be guided by his own knowledge both of the subject matter and of the degree of comprehension his students have of the text. He must also be guided by the nature of the text in question and the relative importance of confronting the question of truth with respect to a given author.

Not every text, of course, will readily answer to the question, “Is it true?” Of some texts, especially poetic and rhetorical texts, it may be more appropriate to ask, “Is it beautiful?” or “Is it good?” In this context, the teacher of seminar must help the students distinguish between the question “How well does this work of art move us?” and the question “To what end does this work of art move us?” Authors such as Milton and Nietzsche may move us powerfully, and yet we may not be moved towards the Good or the Beautiful.

5. A Final Thought on the Four Phases of Seminar

It needs to be reiterated that a seminar cannot be expected to follow these four phases in strict order. There will generally be a certain overlap among the four phases outlined above, for even experienced students can be expected on occasion to lapse into the first two phases.

Teacher and Text

Our investigation of the phases of seminar has revealed that even here, where one must grant supremacy to the text in a certain sense, the text itself cannot be supreme in the ultimate sense. This is truer still with respect to the tutorial and lecture modes of teaching, because they are expressly ordered toward the truth of things, not books. Indeed, even when a text contains nothing but truth, as is the case with Holy Scripture, there still must be a living authority to explain the truth that the text contains. Books cannot be their own masters. They are instead instruments of the art of teaching and in no way a substitute for a teacher. No object explains, interprets, or validates itself, especially a book. Rather, that which interprets and explains is a mind. It is a telling fact, furthermore, that some of the greatest teachers of mankind, such as Socrates, who rather lived philosophy and thereby led others to it, and Jesus, the Teacher, left us no writings at all. A teacher, then, is a living and right intelligence honed by experience. Such a one should ordinarily have a wide, systematic, and deep reading. But more importantly, he is one who can orally demonstrate, defend, and convey his erudition. Moreover, the teacher must stand somewhere in a durable intellectual tradition of universal and objective worth that recognizes a book’s value from the standpoint of a rational whole or ordered body of perennial truths; that is, a proven and justifiable wisdom that both draws from and exceeds the written work of man, and judges it. For the ground of truth is ultimately to be found in the tale of nature, human reason, and Eternal Reason, which transcends any and all products of the pen.

This having been said, we should acknowledge the proper sense in which it can be said that the teacher subordinates his own mind to a text. After all, it is reasonable to suppose that most living teachers will not possess as deeply and as fully the knowledge of things possessed by the greatest teachers of the past. We are speaking here of men such as Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the other Doctors of the Church. In studying the works of teachers such as these, the living teacher himself must be docile if he is to come to know the truths that he hopes to teach others. Even here, however, in attempting to form his mind according to the truest texts, a teacher in the ordinary course of things is dependent upon the prior direction he himself has received from a living teacher (cf. Acts 8:26-38). For the only reason a man seeks in the first place to form his mind according to a given text is because he has reason to suppose that the text itself conforms to the truth of things in some, if not all matters. But how can he know this without a hearing it from another? This question brings us back to the demonstrated superiority of the tutorial mode of teaching where the text serves as an instrument of the living teacher who can address his students at whatever level he finds them.

Teacher and Students

Our investigation of the modes of teaching has appropriately led us to the paradox of learning and its consequences: to learn something in the natural order, we must already know it in some way. Indeed, how can we come to know a thing unless we stand in some prior relation to it? For if we learn something new and objective, we grasp it; but if we grasp it, we grasp it in the recognition that it means something, or is intelligible to the mind, such as it is. That being the case, it follows that we stand in some prior relation to it. This insight is of capital importance, because it suggests that there is a natural order to the mind and thus an order of knowledge that is in accord with reason and nature. It is this that sets the limits to the whole sphere of teaching and learning.

Now, in general, the student is possessed neither of the experience, wide reading, nor the intellectual whole that is the privilege of the teacher. The student, then, if left to himself, even with ample time, to decipher the works of great authors, presuming he happened to know who they were, would languish, more often than not, in a desultory mix of error and insight dictated by the vagaries of an untutored taste. In fine, while the student must certainly think for himself, more so he must think rightly, which demands guided acquaintance with the deep truths of man’s long and arduous investigation of reality, as well as tested ability to wield them in the service of Truth.

Without the cultivation of the teacher, the student’s mind is a field of wild flowers mixed with, and often choked by, weeds. The furrows and sprouts of genuine knowledge come when the field has been cleared and exposed to the sun, overturned, and irrigated by one who knows his art. Truly, the seeds and tendrils of knowledge are within the student by nature; but they are in need of experience and educational soulcraft in order to mature into the good fruit of learning, as the young vine is in need of the vinedresser. Art and nature work together to achieve the ends to which nature is ordered, but which nature has difficulty in attaining without the human person who is, in respect of nature, both apprentice and master.

However gifted the teacher, and whatever mode of teaching he employs, the acquisition of knowledge and the inculcation of the intellectual and moral habits necessary to the acquisition of that knowledge are ultimately dependent on the receptivity and will of the student. Nevertheless, the teacher, if he provides a good example, can assist the student even in acquiring these habits. In a very real sense, then, teachers themselves must be students of that which they do not know, not only so that they may continue to learn themselves, but also so that they may provide a living model for their students. It bears repeating that teachers must exhibit the habits that they desire to see in their own students.

We see in the Platonic dialogues exemplary imitations of philosophical conversations involving young students who possess the habits we should encourage in our students. The best of these students are Simmias and Cebes in the Phaedo, Glaucon and Adeimantus in the Republic, the young Socrates in the Parmenides, and Theaetetus in the dialogue of the same name. Theaetetus, a young man about whom Socrates prophesied great things, is perhaps the best model of all. Theaetetus is said to combine qualities that seemingly defy combination: he is courageous, and yet patient; daring, but docile. Socrates also praises Theaetetus for his sense of wonder, the mark of a philosopher. Most important of all, Theaetetus is willing to slay his own intellectual offspring when he discovers that the opinions to which he has given birth, under the influence of Socratic midwifery, are without the living truth.

If the noble pagans, such as Plato, understood the need for intellectual humility so that those seeking the truth might practice “benevolent disputation by the use of question and answer without jealousy” (Seventh Letter 344b), then we, as Catholics, must have even greater vigilance concerning the danger of intellectual pride. Scientia inflat, as St. Paul warns us (1 Cor. 8:1). The sole remedy for this grave malady is the divine charity about which St. Paul writes:

Charity is patient, is kind; charity does not envy, is not pretentious, is not puffed up, is not ambitious, is not self-seeking, is not provoked; thinks no evil, does not rejoice over wickedness, but rejoices with the truth; bears with all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

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