Oct 20, 2017
Great Books and Small Colleges
Editor’s Note: St. John’s College and Zaytuna College both describe themselves as traditional liberal arts colleges. They share a commitment to the arts of language and thought and to teaching their students canonical texts upon which civilization rests. But, they have a key difference: St. John’s is a secular college while Zaytuna is decidedly religious. To understand how this difference may inform the idea of the relationship between teachers and students, Renovatio is publishing two companion contributions: a short essay on the philosophy of Zaytuna’s education as articulated by Mark Delp, dean of faculty at Zaytuna, and an excerpt from a lecture to the students of Zaytuna by Eva Brann, former dean of St. John’s College and its longest-serving tutor. God willing, these essays will be the first in an ongoing conversation about Great Books in small colleges.
The first part of this talk consists of a blunt list of general characteristics of liberal education as I think of it. A second part goes into the detail of our particular version—what we do in our program at St. John’s College, where I’ve been a tutor for sixty years. To us, the fact that we avoid calling ourselves “professors” is significant: we don’t claim to be professing authoritatively on anything but only to protect—tutor is Latin for “guardian”—our students’ learning.
I’m hoping my talk will affect you in this way: some of the general characteristics I describe you may agree with. As small “great books” colleges, my school and yours are, after all, twins, though by no means identical twins, for we differ in a huge element: Despite the name of St. John’s College, we are a secular institution, while you, in every classroom, supplicate Allah to further your studies.
As for the particular version of liberal education that my school actualizes, you, who are experts in a different way, may strongly disagree with it. The Zaytuna College philosophy makes a strong case for the high value of a good lecture. We, on the other hand, have one lecture at most a week. I am myself no believer in lecturing—even as I sit here doing it, I have a slightly bad conscience. My suspicion is that these different opinions about the lecture as a teaching tool have deep roots in our different frameworks, yours one of faith, ours of non-commitment. This is by no means a trifling difference.
My suspicion is—but I could be so wrong—that our respective student-types (as students, not as human beings) turn out to be somewhat different in this respect: yours might be more respectful toward their books and their teachers, and ours might be somewhat freer. My experience in the years when I was dean would point that way. My door was always open, and quite often students would march in full of complaints against their tutor. “Ms. Brann—he dominates! He does all the talking,” etc., etc. “Well,” I’d say, “invite him to lunch in the dining hall and talk to him.” They’d be back: “He hasn’t changed.” Then, my least favorite activity, I’d call the tutor in. “But they don’t know what they’re talking about, and often they’re not even prepared.” Then I’d say: “Better they should flounder on their own than repeat truth after you.”
You may strongly disagree with this pedagogic sentiment. I’ve read pitifully little in the Islamic tradition of great books, but I have read al-Ghazālī’s Path to Sufism: he is, it seems, your guardian saint, to use a somewhat inappropriate figure of speech. So I know that it is part of your studies here to recognize explicitly, as he does, the problem in the very claim I made to the talkative tutor: how do we come to choose our authority?
1. Liberal education is not a professional performance by authorities highly trained in graduate or professional school before a but slightly engaged spectatorship. It is rather a participatory activity in which learners on various levels, made effectively equal under the aspect of the magnitude of the task, together achieve a sort of intimate distance with each other—intimate in the closeness of the cooperation, distant by the exclusion of improper invasions of privacy; teaching affects the intellect, it does not finger the soul. (On the other hand, on the day of graduation, the student-tutor connection may become a life-long friendship.) In this relation of student to student, student to teacher, teacher to teacher, the permissible competition is self-competition. It follows that schools should be small; bigness draws down quantification, and this measuring disfigures the soul.
2. The characteristic frame of mind befitting liberal education is reverent radicality—deep respect and penetrating questions. It is a serious mistake to present liberal education as preoccupied with “questioning,” a surreptitiously skewering aggression on the way things are. Questions may indeed sometimes dissipate prejudices, but they are as likely to clarify, and so to confirm, a heritage. A real radical is one who goes to the roots, digs them up, often for more secure reburial, having examined them in the light of reason rather than the murk of rationalization. Parents who fund their children’s liberal interlude may indeed get them back alienated, but, if it was a genuine education, they will find them more sympathetic in the long run.
3. Liberal education is costly. It requires leisure. (Here’s a fact to make you smile: the word that gives us “school,” scholé, signifies “leisure” in Greek.) It requires tutors, the guardians of this learning, to whom their vocation is not only their life but also a living. Consequently, the night of a child’s conception should be followed that morning with the first small investment in this guarded leisure activity.
4. The prime object, its be-all and end-all, is happiness. All else is unintended though hoped for consequence—the less intended, the more likely to eventuate. It is emphatically neither to teach students to think (a patent impossibility) nor to make them “productive citizens”—a dangerous wish until you know what they’ll produce. Much righteous defense of non-vocational education is drivel, and people who have its future at heart should come clean. So once more: the four years conventionally assigned to such education should themselves be gloriously happy—always remembering that true happiness requires the heightening delimitation of occasional agony, confusion, and even despair. In fact, happiness as a “pursuit” is specifically American, an inalienable right (meaning not an anxious chase but a steadily pursued activity)—so says our Declaration, Public Law no. 1. Another way to put this view of the aim of liberal education is that it is not a utility, a means, but is lived for its own sake. So liberal schooling must be a present experience of fulfillment, and the acquisition of the unwearying habit of thoughtful happiness.
5. This mode of life needs concreteness; it is inherently non-virtual. (Virtual means “inactual.”) It requires a fixed place, the location—call it the crystal bubble—in which its participants readily meet face-to-face. In fact, the “decoding” of human expression—the reading of faces and bodily gestures—is part of a liberal education. Hence, “distance learning” is not compatible with the close-up, experiential setting of a liberal education. The mode of togetherness fitting this education is conversation—not argument, debate, or discussion, but “talking together, taking turns” (con-vers-ation), speaking and then listening. Domination, winning, does not fit, but there is room for self-respect and pride, such as comes from mutual attention and admiration. Excellence can mean “being very good” or “standing out”; the way of liberal education is to emphasize inherent worth over comparative valuation.
6. Some human works are best learned by doing. Improving worldly conditions is not among these. A time of receptive learning should precede active intervention; first shape yourself, then society; in particular, form views about what makes for human contentment, then interfere judiciously. The necessary acquisition of technical know-how should follow the stocking of the human soul’s treasury with desirable goods. (Soul is largely a proscribed term currently; say "subjectivity," "consciousness," etc., if you must, and let those who don’t want a soul do without it.) In brief: the learning matter of liberal education should be the lovable per se.