Ever since I left St John’s College in 2004, having graduated from the Master’s Eastern Classics program, and in 2002 the undergraduate program, I only wanted to do one thing. I wanted more. To find a way to keep alive the flame of learning.
St. John’s didn’t have much to say about this problem, not because the college didn’t care, but because what we do with our learning after college is outside the scope of their daily work as a terminal degree granting institution. They wish us well, and send us on our way. We’re on our own after we graduate.
The work I did there – or tried to do there – has always served as a sort of pole star for me. But what we need, some of us discovered, was a way to keep practicing learning after the terminal degree programs have concluded. For is this not, after all, the highest aim of liberal learning? I think of a line in the Statement of Program, that could say it all – a liberally educated human being acquires a lifelong pursuit of fundamental knowledge and unifying ideas.
The important term is lifelong.
That means that you don’t stop reading after the program is concluded. You stay with it. And you find others to do it with you.
What will you do when the terminal degree program ends? Is there not a way to sustain a practice of learning for life? And shouldn’t it be possible for our work to flourish, since we are no longer under the constraints of terminal programs? Can we not take the time we need now, to really dig deeply into our work?
Symposium Great Books Institute has helped me, and so many others, discover pathways of conversational reading practice, long after schooling is over, finding ways to fan and feed the embers of our love of learning.
Opportunities to tackle serious book-learning are out there. They do exist. They’re just very hard to find. This is because the way we learn – through collaborative, purposive, conversational reading of primary texts – is radically different from the way most educators and institutions approach learning. We are hard to find, and our communities are small, for the simple reason that most people are not even aware that the learning style we practice is possible.
We read many of the same books and authors you might find in University courses, or popular lecture series.
But what we aim for is what you could call reflective understanding. Reflection is to set ones thinking on oneself and the whole. It prefers direct experience, and it never ceases questioning. Reflection is what lends really good great books style seminars their distinctive flavor – not the mere sharing of opinions. Some find the experience distasteful, and unsettling, if they come in expecting the same sort of information they soak up in a lecture.
A university course, by contrast, tends to aim for a different kind of understanding – amassing information piecemeal, acquired external to the knowing subject. This external, factual, informational understanding is lauded as erudition.
So for example, if you take a university course on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, you will learn about the historical connection Petrarch’s Sonnets, you will learn about the history of sonnet writing, you will learn psychosexual biographical information about the author (including speculations about whether there was an author) you will learn all sorts of fascinating things and terminologies, really, except for one thing needful: you will not exercise the capacity to face the sonnet directly, in its immediacy, according to your own capacity to think and understand.
In a great books seminar, by contrast, we regard the sonnet – and our capacity for reflection – as sufficient to launch learning.
A Buddhist parable could help illustrate my point. I’m thinking of the one about the man with an arrow wound, from the Pali Canon. A man is wounded by an arrow, and he is bleeding out on the ground. He will die if the arrow isn’t removed carefully and the bleeding staunched. A standard university course will take every measure to avoid this situation, and concern itself with everything besides the one thing needful – it will launch into the history of arrow-making, a survey of the styles of bowmanship and strategy, and it will call itself insightful – all the while, man bleeds out. The great books seminar by contrast forgoes all of that, looking instead to the removal of the arrow and healing of the wound – that is, the practice of reflection on the fundamental questions, through reading and conversation.
There is a great deal of difference between the two approaches. And as I said above, communities dedicated to reflective understanding through reading are hard to find, because what we do is rare. But if you look, you can find us, outside academia. The Agora Foundation and Classical Pursuits are among my favorites (beside Symposium of course!) Those of us coming to the table to reflect together have professions, jobs, duties and obligations – but each week when we meet together to discuss one of these wonderful – and hard – books, we get to step outside of our daily routines for a little while, and spend some time among the higher things.
Most especially, we get to step outside the sort of discourse that is all too common in our lives about big questions – outside the zone (and habit) of verbal combat, the zone in which one is all-too-ready to blame or praise, not ready enough just to stop to think.
Are we perfect? Not even close. We are all passionate people, and we have strong, sometimes stubbornly settled opinions. But entering this disinterested mode of thinking together is always on our mind, because we believe it is a better way to think, and a better way to talk to each other. So genuine disinterestedness (which can be full of wonder and delight by the way) is like a goal we strive toward in terms of practice. And I have to say, we (meaning the whole great books community as well as Symposium) do a pretty good job of it. You can have “bone of contention” or an “axe to grind” when you join a conversation – but you’ll just find that it won’t get you very far.
I’ve been leading and running seminars on the great books for over 15 years now since my San Francisco days. But rarely have I had the chance to simply participate in a conversation, without the responsibilities of leadership. Just over the weekend, I was able to do just that. I had nearly forgotten what it is like. How enjoyable it is to listen to people offer questions and interpretations of the reading (which was Plato’s Phaedrus).
The seminar was offered through St. John’s College’s alumni organization (thank you H. Christian Blood, class of ’02, for rallying us!), as part of the week’s homecoming events. Judith Adams led the seminar – one of my Senior Year seminar tutors and also a member of my senior essay oral examination committee. It was so nice to be home among friends.
I have to admit that – at first – when I saw news that the college was offering a seminar on Plato’s Phaedrus, led by Judith Adams, I wasn’t very excited – not because of the reading, nor because of the leader, but because it would be online. This year, instead of holding an in-person event for our class in Santa Fe, the college offered online seminars and events for many of the classes instead.
So my first feeling was that the online experience just wouldn’t cut it – that it would be like the difference between a picture of an apple, and the apple itself. I wanted the apple, not the picture – and wouldn’t the online seminar just be the picture (so to speak)? This thought surprised me, because I myself have offered countless online seminars, have taught Greek online too, and I have enjoyed these sessions a lot, have made so many new friends, and I support organizations and individuals who offer many online learning opportunities as well.
Symposium first started offering online or remote seminars when the organization moved from San Francisco to San Antonio (and became a 501c3 non-profit), long before the Zoom days. Our first online seminar was over a telephone conferencing service – which was great fun. Then we moved to Cisco Webex, and then to Zoom as soon as the SVP of Cisco broke away and created Zoom. So we’ve been an early adopter of what now is a widespread practice.
One thing that has always impressed me about online or remote learning is that…it works. It really works. You can actually learn, and you can learn together collaboratively with other individuals.
It surprises me that I would think that online learning couldn’t work. For, thinking back on my own experience, didn’t I spend countless hours in middle and high school on the phone with a girlfriend or a remote friend – talking for hours? Or didn’t I talk with my grandmother or father months before they passed away – having made meaningful connections this way? Of course. And think of the letters we used to write. The postcards we used to send. I loved receiving and writing letters and postcards from intimates and friends. I could never say that these remote connections were not meaningful, certainly not remote in passion.
My point is that if remote means (like letters and phone calls) have worked for these moments of deepest connection, then of course it will work for our thinking together online in a videoconferencing format. Of course it will. For it turns out our thinking together doesn’t require much – besides an intention to connect, to strive together in friendship, and to seek to understand by reading certain challenging books.
But of course, I would have loved to go out to dinner after the alumni seminar or hang out with some of my friends, but I am so very glad that I decided to join the seminar, as a participant. If I hadn’t, I would have missed out on something that I think is precious, in our dark times: the opportunity to think, to learn and to grow together.
Every conversation is different. What did I get from the seminar? I walked away ready to work on my listening, to try to reflect more deeply on how I’m reading and thinking, to ask more – and better – questions. I also walked away with a resolve to reread and study the Phaedrus (in process), and then reread the Gorgias, another dialogue. I have a whole list of questions I jotted down in my journal after the seminar, questions which need settling. And, maybe best of all, I hope to connect up with some of my friends who are in the area, perhaps for coffee!
All this is to say, if you are a reader and a lover of learning, we’re here to support you. We offer online courses or pathways right now. Consider: is a better way to regard the experience of serious online learning not as one of simulacra and original (like picture of apple vs apple) but more like a love letter or a long-distance correspondence? Geographic distance and time has never kept serious hearts and minds from connecting in a love of learning.
After all, Symposium Great Books Institute gets its name from the writing by Plato, which is all about…love. Love, said Aristophanes, is the desire and pursuit of the whole or completion. Our wish for you – and we hope we embody it in our service to you – is that you may find this wonderful wholeness or completion in your life. Reading and discussing the great books, slowly, thoughtfully, with great care, can be one of those practices for you, one that can help you grow even a little more toward the whole of who we are in love and in truth.