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Oct 20, 2017

Great Books and Small Colleges

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Eva Brann Small

Eva Brann

St. John's College

Eva Brann, a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, is the longest serving tutor at St. John’s College.

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Great Books and Small Colleges

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A New Renovatio Series on Liberal Arts Education at 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.

Liberal Education at St. John's College

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?

A Preliminary Description of a Liberal Education, in PowerPoints

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. 

7. It is an immediate consequence that education should not be preoccupied with current evils and their eradication. That project requires political engagement and usually involves ideology. Ideology, prepackaged thinking, does not belong in a community of learning: political philosophy, yes; politics, no. The sure test is this: if people get hot under the collar, it’s politics; if they become deeply interested, it’s philosophy. The program of a liberal education should concentrate on works of great quality rather than of so-called relevance, with its thoughtlessly complicit instrument, “information.” Information is purest relativity; it gains its standing as knowledge relative to a prejudgment of purpose, and it preempts mentation, dislodging reflection. The works of highest worth used to be called classics, after a Roman ranking of social classes, the highest of which was called classic simply. I prefer the adjective great, used with articulable specificity (see below). The chief reason for adhering to atemporal greatness of quality over relevance to current conditions is that liberal learning should raise us out of ourselves. The Greek word for that condition is ekstasis. Such learning should be, on occasion, a soberingly ecstatic experience.

How Liberal Education Has Great Books as Its Gist and Essence

The liberal arts—the skills of learning—are ancillary to liberal learning, which has a matter of its own, without which it would descend into that vacuous talk for which students have a term borrowed from bovine life processes. This matter is the Great Books.

Great is, once more, a concretely and specifically signifying term for us. These works are above us; we couldn’t write them. They are also for us; their authors meant for us to read them. Moreover, they affect us; they take us out of ourselves and return us to ourselves the better for it. That’s their effect on us.

Here’s their nature in themselves: they are inexhaustible. Every reading, after an often semi-stunned first time, reveals subtleties unnoticed before.

They are beautiful. It might be a crotchety or a canonical, a stylish or a crooked, a perfect or a blemished beauty, or—that’s a possibility—the ugly beauty of mere sharp intelligence.

Great Books are original; they go to the beginning of things. Great fictions give the lie to reality; they imagine worlds and figures with more actuality than mere facts possess. While it would be hyperbole to claim that they move the soul more boisterously than do real existences, it is fair to say that they move it more resonantly. I won’t go on, though I could.

Podcast: What Makes a Book “Great”? with Francisco Nahoe and Sarah Barnette

St Johns College Logo

The Latin inscription on the seal of St. John's College reads, "I make free adults from children by means of books and a balance."

Books with such and more features are the fitting study matter of a liberal education. They are, as I said before, better than “subjects” because they are not yet jigged into preordained categories; they are more initial and so more question-fecund. Once again, we arrange them in chronological order because that is—or can be thought of as—a meaninglessly mechanical ordering and so devoid of prejudgments about true priorities. Let students decide which is intellectually earlier, Einsteinian relativity or the Newtonian dynamics that turns out to be a local instance of the former, and which is simpler, the time of relativity that is nothing but what a clock tells or classical absolute time that is an elaborate mental construal requiring a divine mind, God’s sensorium, in which to take place.

The Great Books curriculum, too, has its proper pedagogy. At St. John’s, we meet around a table in a class called the seminar, the “seedbed.” Our seminars of twenty souls at the very most are normally led by two tutors, who guard the conversation, among other ways, by being two, and thus not easily addressed directly by students, who should be talking mostly to each other. Moreover, these two colleagues offer occasional demonstrations that well-read, rational adults can differ severely from each other. By and large, tutors are supposed to be very recessive in the conversation (pity the older tutor, stuffed with undelivered wisdoms!), even judiciously allowing it occasionally to go off the rails or through the roof. Yet its main focus should be the meaning of the book of the evening, followed by—and this is distinctive, since it is proscribed in most university classrooms—the bald question, “Is it true?” For our pedagogic aim is not to leave students indecisively befuddled by our circa one hundred and seventy-five texts but to enable them to form opinions they can live with.

Seminar takes place twice a week in the evenings, when students grow loquacious. Tutors take turns asking “the opening question,” an art that, together with its products, is a part of the college’s teaching tradition. Although this question rarely directs the whole two hours of the seminar, it starts the conversation off—for well or ill. It should, of course, not be the sort of “teachers’ question” that is done away with by a one-word answer; say, a fact.

This question might, surreptitiously, embody a tutor’s theory of the work, or it might fix on a detail that contains a key to the whole. (Great authors love to lurk in little items.) Effective tutors spend time preparing their questions. For example, when Aristotle delineates the figure of a “natural slave,” a defective human incapable of making decisions, is he rationalizing or delegitimizing actual Greek slavery, which was supplied by captured soldiery and defeated populations not fitting his definition?

Tutors’ seminar anxiety derives from this situation: they feel, and indeed are, responsible for the students’ experience without having the power really to direct it. Students’ pressure, on the other hand, comes from having to prepare faithfully and participate regularly; they must control a tendency to supine marginality, such as deprives the class of their contribution, or a contrary impulse to answer every question first, producing subsequent silence.

There is no “seminar method.” Our seminar is intended to do what professionals think is impossible: to conduct during a prepared, scheduled event a natural, spontaneous conversation. In fact, there are only two rules: civility, to attain which we address each other as Ms., Mr., Miss, Mrs., whichever a student chooses (I balked at “Mx”), with last names. On graduation day, “Ms. Bennet” for four years becomes “Elizabeth” to me for life, a great moment for both of us.

The other rule is “Be willing to explain yourself or at least to explain why you can’t explain.” That’s it. Or, perhaps a third rule: listen with respect, and regard no expression of the human mind, especially no question, no matter how naïve, as uninteresting.

If you didn’t prepare, come anyhow, and acquire the art of winging it. It’s always best to be there, since the school is a community of learning; we mean to have our studies and our talk in common. (But don’t imagine tutors can’t tell when you haven’t read the book!)

A dean, long dead, used to describe the seminar experience by sweeping out a roller coaster in the air: miserable lows and exhilarating highs. We give up so-called relevance for perennial heights—truths too true to be squalid; and we avoid fixed subjects for inchoate originality—future topics taking shape. We eschew history insofar as it treats what came before us as bygone—“It’s history,” people say, meaning it’s gone inactive—because we think that greatness is timeless, ever-fresh.

As we disregard mere time if it stands in the way of living meaning, so we don’t let the mediation of scholars and the opinings of intellectuals come between us and these Program books. Therefore, we discourage our students from reading introductions and background essays—or, better, from referring to them in our conversations; let them read what they like. What they really like, it turns out, is fantasy literature, to relieve, I imagine, all the actuality with which we confront them.

So, to sum up the spirit of the liberality in this education: we cherish directness, immediacy in closure with the text. We are convinced that minutely careful, laboriously analytic, construal of passages, alternating with the comprehensively sweeping intake of wholes, far from killing texts, makes them come alive. To have learned to read means being able to make much of little by apprehending significance in detail, but also to succeed in comprehending concisely, in epitomizing large designs with accurate brevity.

If that makes it seem as if learning how to read were the practical purpose of liberal education, there is truth in that, provided “reading” is taken largely enough. It ought to be understood as knowing how to interpret everything from the secrets of the book of nature to the expressions of the human face, from the subtleties of poetry to the potencies of mathematical diagram. What is the truest profit of learning literacy? It’s simple: it eradicates boredom. And boredom is the most dangerous human condition; it breeds cleverly rationalized violence.

It follows that we wish to be serious but never dead earnest—for laughter is the enabler of faithful learning. As for the life rhythms of our students, we hope they will alternate studious solitude with communicative sociableness. We hope they will discover that close-to-the-book industry should alternate with gazing-into-space leisure, with putting the text off in order to look inward and reflect. For study is not yet thinking. And thinking, which cannot be taught but can be incited, is what we would wish our students to experience. Am I right in imagining that it’s the same at Zaytuna College?