Learning how to learn has been one of the greatest intellectual achievements of my adult life. It took an entire childhood, youth, and adolescence of learning, as well as an early career in allegedly guiding others in their own learning, to prepare me adequately for the Graduate Institute of St. John’s College in Annapolis. There, I discovered that the texts I read, discussed, and wrote upon were only half of the content of my studies; I was equally reading into the ways my tutors and the curriculum went about their tutelage.
In deliberative irony, the St. John’s curriculum of perpetual questioning boils down to a single (dual) inquiry, to which all campus discussions, both in earnest and in jest, inevitably return: “What is virtue, and can it be taught?” (1)
I recognized the strengths of certain lecturers, who tended to combine breadth of knowledge with narrowness of focus. One tutor demanded that students spend a full seminar examining a single mark of punctuation: the apostrophe in Jefferson’s phrase “Nature’s God” from the Declaration of Independence. The Director of the GI opened semesters with ruminations on the titles of the College’s designated courses of study like “Politics & Society” or “Philosophy & Theology”; however, more than asking “What is philosophy?” and “What is theology?,” he examined College objectives through the lens of the conjunction “and” bridging these topics. (2)
Far from becoming tedious, such intensive engagements became riveting. Before our attention can properly turn to the content of knowledge, we must attend in the first place to what the knowledge is. (3)
Soon, too, I realized that the peers whose insights I admired were those who had absorbed the ethos of aiming their intellectual arsenals toward reading precise details. Those seeking to debate Achilles’ rank in the firmament of literary evolution, or to give exegetic accounts of American history, turned out to be boring. Painting with a brush so broad, as we should remember from primary school, renders only rudimentary shapes, reducing humanity to stick figures in triangle-hatted boxes.
Perhaps you recall from your own education those types professing universal knowledge, whose declaimings “set up a reverberation in the room that blurred what was being said.” (4)
No small helping of guilty self-recognition accompanied my observations. I had, in my early teaching career, slouched into a habit of making such sweeping claims that my students fell into the trap of trying to disprove and thereby dethrone the teacher. Having mastered a fast-talking quickstep through fields of logical fallacies where angels fear to tread, I would overmaster them and force a surrender, which I fancied would lead to an opening of the adolescent mind.
More likely, I cut a figure “brimming with pretension and pride that is empty and lacks understanding” and gave a bad name to philosophy among my students. (5)
Now I had arrived in a community where such sophistry was embarrassing to behold. Listening to me gripe over dinner about who in seminar had gotten to develop the fullest argument, one wiser classmate gently pointed out to me, “There’s no prize for talking the most. You don’t win seminar.”
I recall his point every time I reread the moment when Thrasymachus must blush. (6)
Beyond the particular modes and skills of the St. John’s polity, the program’s overall premises transformed my view of education. We read texts roughly chronologically, examining what subsequent authors owed to, or rejected from, predecessors. No one “professed”—the faculty were tutors, with the understanding that the real teachers and sources of wisdom were the texts and authors with whom we all engaged. We eschewed honorifics in favor of addressing all members of the community, from the College President to the late arrival in first-semester orientation, as simply Mr. or Ms.
As equals, subjugate before the wisdom in our studies, tutors modeled for students the wisdom of not thinking themselves yet wise. (7)
If you have reached this point and still wonder, good reader, about my titular promise of recommending a first course on ClassicalU, let me be plain at last. Anyone, novice or expert, interested in classical education will do best to study the course on Socratic Teaching.
A point that strikes me as I review the lecture from Christopher Perrin on four Socratic styles is that the method already comes with the highest recommendation possible, and thus hardly needs my praise. That there is a Christological iteration—that Jesus, and centuries of church fathers after Him, saw fit to reach beyond Hebrew tradition and apply the wisdom of a pagan Greek—speaks several volumes more than I can. Socrates, through Plato, is a rare figure whom the early church acknowledges as an antecedent external to its own tradition.
To reduce to a tagline: if it’s good enough for Jesus…
My own experience biases me toward the St. John’s style of Socratic instruction, and if I have written well here, I may do more to excite readers to attend the Graduate Institute than to take up the ClassicalU course on Socratic Teaching. Especially for those who have never experienced such seminars directly, I can give no more fervent suggestion than that you immerse yourself in an environment of Socratic instruction. To that end, the course thoughtfully includes several model seminars and discussions of Socratic teaching with St. John’s tutors, among other practitioners. Lecturers also include Dr. Perrin, an alumnus of the GI, who echoes its tendencies.
As I have endeavored to indicate through perhaps excessive references, invoking Plato in this article as a pastor might invoke Scriptures in a homily, an essential part of learning to teach Socratically in any case is experience with Socrates at first hand. To “take the teaching away in your soul by having learned it,” you must let Socrates himself (through Plato) be your guide.
However, since you are here already, and until you have the happy chance to sit among fellow wonderers in colloquy at a place like St. John’s, the best favor you can do yourself in seeking to lead young minds toward the examined life is to study precisely how to undertake such examinations. All the presenters, I’m sure, will be the first to acknowledge that their introduction to the Socratic method is hardly complete. It is, nevertheless, the best place to begin, and for those who fancy ourselves past the beginning, it is a wise place to revisit.
- A paraphrase of Meno 87b.
- Jeff JS Black’s “On the Philosophy & Theology Segment” (St. John’s College Graduate Institute Convocation Address, Summer 2013).
- Theaetetus 145e.
- Protagoras 316a.
- Republic VI 494d ff.
- Republic I 350d.
- Apology 21b-d.
Nathan E. Bradshaw has been a liberal arts teacher for his entire professional career, having studied Literature at Davidson College and the Great Books in the Graduate Institute at St. John’s College. He and his wife are currently co-directors of East Burke School, a human-scale high school in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where they tailor their curriculum to introduce rural students to the classics.
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