The Grail Code 
Great books: what really happens in the classroom

So we were just about to talk about what happens in the classroom in a “great-books” education.

In the most radical form of great-books education, there are really only two steps.

1. The students read a certain assigned reading.

2. They sit around and talk about it.

That’s pretty much all there is to it. Every program will make its own additions to the basic method, but the core, the sitting-around-talking part, is what really makes the whole thing work.

Now, this business of sitting around and talking—what we call a “seminar”—sounds very informal, but in fact the seminar is a very formal affair. It’s the formality that makes the informality work.

First of all, there are certain assumptions that act as a kind of constitution or fundamental law of the seminar.

The first rule is that the text itself—not what we think we know about the writer’s time or home life or psychological difficulties—is the thing under discussion. If we’re reading Plato’s Republic, then we’re talking about what the book itself says, not about what the Greeks thought (whatever that might have been) or about what the introduction to our edition of Plato thinks the book says. You might say the seminar has a strong anti-academic bias: no one is taken as an “authority” on what the author said except the author.

The second rule comes from the first: there are no authorities at all. Every reasoned assertion is allowed—but of course you have to be ready to back it up by arguing from the text in front of you. When I say that there are no authorities, that includes the teacher. It even includes the author of the book we’re discussing. If you think you find a flaw in Plato’s reasoning, you go right ahead and point it out. Of course, chances are that someone else in the discussion will challenge you, so you have to be prepared to out-argue everyone in the room plus Plato.

Finally, a third rule, no less important than the other two, is that we must maintain civility at all times. That can be hard when you’re having a violent disagreement, but it’s vital if the discussion is going to help anyone learn anything. It’s also essential because the discussion has to be free if it’s going to work. For example, it won’t work if students have to raise their hands and be recognized to speak. That freedom can only be allowed if it doesn’t turn into license.

Certain traditions can help enforce those three rules. For example, at many great-books schools—St. John’s among them—everyone is always referred to by last name in class: always Mr. Smith, never Jim. Now, it’s one thing to refer to an adult college student as “Mr. Smith,” but it might seem a bit odd to do that in a second-grade class. Yet I’ve heard of successful elementary great-books programs where they do just that.

Why? Well, there are two very good reasons for that rule. The first is that it keeps up the atmosphere of formality that’s necessary for a civilized discussion. The second is that it makes the students and the teachers equal—and it does so, not by lowering the teachers to the students’ level, but by raising the students to the teachers’ level. That’s a tremendously important distinction. You know how easy it is to lose control of children if they stop seeing you as an authority. But it’s amazing how responsible even young children become when they’re treated as responsible adults. Now, I’m not telling you to let second-graders drive cars, but I do think the last-name rule helps even elementary students keep up a responsible and civilized discussion. It’s even more effective in high schools, where the students are desperately snatching at every opportunity to prove that they’re adults.

So how does a seminar work? The students and teacher sit in a square or circle facing each other. The seminar begins when the teacher asks a provocative opening question—something designed to get the discussion started. One I particularly remember was for the creation story in Genesis: “Is God good?” It needs to be a simple and yet open-ended question.

After that, there’s almost always a long silence. It’s not required, of course—anyone could jump in at any time and try to answer the question. But from experience I can tell you that there’s almost always a long silence. You get used to it.

Finally, someone speaks up and attempts an answer. If the opening question was any good, of course, there will be something to say on both sides, so almost as soon as somebody attempts an answer, someone else will start to argue the other way.

From here on, the teacher ceases to be a teacher and becomes part of the conversation. Actually, of course, the teacher has a lot to contribute to the conversation. If you’re the teacher, it’s your responsibility to help guide the discussion so it doesn’t stray too far from the subject. (You learn a lot of useful stock phrases, like “Getting back to what Miss Harris said earlier about…” or “But I wonder whether that answers the question Mr. Lopez brought up earlier about…”)

It’s also the teacher’s responsibility to correct obvious errors when nobody else does. With students who are new to the seminar method, it’s important to try not to say simply, “No, that’s not right.” It’s important to encourage the students to find their own mistakes: “Does that take into account what Lancelot says when…” and so on. With students who are used to the seminar method, a teacher can just say, “No, that’s not right,” because they’re used to thinking of the teacher as just another voice in the conversation, and they won’t have any inhibitions about saying that voice is wrong. (And many times the teachers will be wrong, and the students will be right.)

What’s going on here? The students are learning to think.

That’s the most important thing. You’ve probably heard great-books fanatics talk about “learning to think” lots of times, and maybe you dismissed it as propaganda. But it’s the most important skill the students will learn, and—more than any other skill they might learn—it’s a skill with real-life applications.

When I was researching my first great-books lecture a few years ago, I found that a number of studies by prominent academics with impressive batches of letters after their names show that students in grade-school great-books programs showed better reading comprehension, better critical-reading skills, better problem-solving abilities, and better writing skills. If I had those studies in front of me, I’d give you all the information about them. But I don’t, and I regret to say that I don’t even have the time to go looking for them. That’s very frustrating to me: I hate to suggest that there’s scientific evidence for something without giving you the evidence. But writers have deadlines, and I have some pressing ones. If anyone can leave a comment pointing us toward the sorts of studies I’m thinking of, I’ll be very grateful.

I do remember, though, that what was particularly interesting was that students who had been low achievers in standard school programs showed even more improvement than students who had been high achievers. The great-books method was actually accomplishing democratic education, by giving students the thinking skills they need in the real world, and by raising the low achievers closer to the level of the high achievers.

It doesn’t seem too hard to see why that might happen. In the seminar method of learning, you have to be able to judge conflicting assertions on their merits. You also have to be able to frame questions that will get you the information you need, and you need to be able to judge whether the answer really answered your question.

If you’re in a position of authority—a teacher in a high school, let’s say, or president of France—you have to make decisions based on conflicting information and opposing assertions. That’s just what a great-books education prepares you to do. It’s just what a standard education discourages you from doing.

Once again, I could put it in terms designed to offend and provoke you. Ordinary education prepares you to be a docile follower; great-books education prepares you to be a leader. Ordinary education makes good citizens of a tyranny; great-books education makes good citizens of a democracy. No one who has learned to argue with Plato will take something as Gospel truth just because some political leader says it’s so.

Well, you might say, it sounds like a good thing as far as it goes. But this great-books stuff is just for English classes. How do we teach math and science and the other things our children need to learn?

And that’s the subject of the next article. The amazing thing about the great-books method, it turns out, is that it works for just about any subject.

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