In the last few years, accounts of the growing politicization of academic discourse have made their way from colleges and universities onto conversations on a public, and perhaps national, scale. What is the essence behind such rancor?…
There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. -G. K. Chesterton
And above all, we should remember that there is simply no point in winning the argument if we know we are wrong. -Mortimer Adler
The motto of St. John’s College, facio liberos ex liberis libris, libraque, translates to the College making free adults out of children by means of books and balance. Key to this is the notion of what it means to be a free adult. The Liberal Arts indeed are liberal in the sense that they point toward the ideal of freedom and not to some politically motivated ideology associated with the term.
If a college or university is truly a place where one can divest one’s self of the trappings of childhood so as to assume the freedom of an adult, daresay a free citizen in a society, what would be the conditions for learning at these said institutions that would make this transition possible? What are the possible obstacles to such a transition, and what are the motivations behind them viewed across the span of several academic generations?
This essay will tackle these questions with a specific context in mind. In the last few years, accounts of the growing politicization of academic discourse have made their way from colleges and universities, even those regarded as some of the preeminent institutions of American higher learning, onto conversations on a public, and perhaps national, scale. As Thomas Aquinas perhaps would have asked, what is the essence behind such rancor? This essay will discuss a parallel of the current rancor in the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s, an event which promised much in the way of liberating centers of academia. The commonalities between these two phenomena will be discussed and evaluated with regard to whether they have had a positive or negative impact on the ability of colleges and universities to encourage and enable the ideal and reality of a free citizenry.
The second thrust of the essay will be to put forward beneficial pedagogical paradigms which will serve to achieve the goal discussed above, that of producing free men and women out of children by means of books and balance. These paradigms stem from the practices, honed over generations, in use at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. This author is himself someone who has learned and gained immeasurably from these practices and philosophies, and who now successfully applies many of them to a diverse and multicultural setting at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. At the core of this effort is the belief that it is not the professor or the student that the class is centered around, but rather the curriculum, one whose impact has endured across the centuries.
Part I: A Modern Dilemma in Academia and its Historical Progenitor
In an article from November, 2015 in The Atlantic, journalist Conor Friedersdorf wrote of a telling account centered on the rancorous conditions of academic discourse at an Ivy League university. The tension permeating Yale University was not one which may have been the rule in academic centers of the past, a professor presenting information to students who then had their turn, and obligation to query their professor, in the attempt to glean wisdom from their newly acquired knowledge.
In pointed, jagged contrast, fissures of dissent appeared and spread through the New Haven campus due to the student body’s interpretation of what a resident academic had proposed, an interpretation that instead of requesting further elucidation and promoting more thoughtful reflection, castigated the source of the proposal and demanded the aforementioned professor apologize for comments made. The emphasis here was not that the professor in question provide more sound and defensible arguments to further a point being made, but rather for the professor to simply stop speaking out since the views elaborated were deemed abhorrent enough by the student body as not to require any counter-argument on the students’ part. Academic debate, it would have seemed, something upon which the foundations of Western institutions of higher learning had been built for near a millennia, and which served as an homage to the legacies of Socrates and Plato, was either outdated or in itself harmful to the intellectual development of students in the twenty-first century.
Erika Christakis was a lecturer in early childhood education at Yale. She is married to Nicholas Christakis, himself a sociologist, and former Head of Silliman College. In her capacity as associate head of Silliman College, Erika Christakis penned an email in response to a previous letter from Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee. The Committee had advised against the wearing of insensitive costumes on the part of students during Halloween of that year. The possible instances of insensitivity extended to displays which did not necessarily intend to offend members of the community. “In many cases the student wearing the costume has not intended to offend, but their actions or lack of forethought have sent a far greater message than any apology could after the fact…”
Mindful of the misapprehensions and misunderstandings of something as potentially volatile as students’ feelings of being belittled or mocked during an ostensibly festive holiday, Dr. Christakis voiced her concerns at such guidelines implying a seemingly bureaucratic control over college students. It may not have been, she wrote, a university’s province to vertically direct actions which in the past have been the purview of the student body. “As a former preschool teacher…it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably ‘appropriative’ about a blonde haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day.” Here, she drew on past experience in her field. “Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it.” Dr. Christakis furthers this point, and leaves room for students to decide for themselves the appropriateness of their choices. “I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others. I can’t defend them anymore than you could defend yours.”
This would appear, at least on the surface, to be evenhanded council on the part of Dr. Christakis. If the point to a student’s learning in academe is for him or her to develop the capacity for self-reflection and the more attuned decision-making capabilities that emanate from it, it would follow that faculty members, after presenting as best the information available, allow their students to make up their own minds. Such was voiced by the article’s author. Mr. Friedersdorf posited a reflection of his own. “When I was in college, a position of this sort taken by a faculty member would likely have been regarded as a show of respect for all students and their ability to think for themselves.” Not only was respect the currency exchanged in the academy between professor and pupil, but a certain measure of belief as well. “In her view, students would be better served if colleges showed more faith in their capacity to work things out themselves, which would help them develop cognitive skills.”
As a result of Erika Christakis’ letter, students came to demand not only for her stepping down, but for her husband Nicholas Christakis as well from their duties at Yale’s Silliman College. The crescendo of the episode occurred when a group of students loudly confronted Nicholas Christakis in an outdoor setting, and gave voice to their sentiments regarding his wife’s message. Unique to the occasion was the absence of an attempt on the students’ part to actually engage Dr. Christakis in a discussion which would hint at some manner of resolution to their issues.
As Mr. Friedersdorf wrote, there was a most telling chasm that separated Dr. Christakis from the students who confronted him. Behaving in many ways like a traditional academic of the last century and before, Nicholas Christakis shouldered the responsibility of those within his profession. He listened purposefully to the students’ comments, thought through his own views on the issues, and would attempt to articulately posit his agreement or dissent. “Put another way, he believes that one respects students by engaging them in earnest dialogue.”
It would have seemed that Dr. Christakis’ approach would calm the tensions felt by students concerning this episode. After all, an academic patiently listening to students and then putting forth his own views constitute not merely the obligation and fidelity to the purpose of higher learning, but a sign of his respect to the students’ maturity and ability to enter such conversations. Yet, this was not the case. In the students’ eyes, the professor’s obligation was to listen to their calls for redressing felt grievances, and then only later to issue an apology for these. “They see anything short of a confession of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings.”
Mr. Friedersdorf later cited a Washington Post piece spelling out the particular responses of Silliman College students regarding what they believed was an unwelcome environment fostered by actions such as Erika Christakis’ email. It would have seemed that dialogue on this heated topic, or any topic for that matter, was not foremost among the avenues of resolution preferred by students. One comment from the article stood out for its succinctness, and inherent departure from the very notion of dialogue. “The student next described what she thinks residential life at Yale should be. Her words: ‘I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.’”
In the most idealistic sense, a professor should engage with students with what seems a contradiction. It is imperative that an academic evaluate students as equals. No one among them ought rise or fall simply based on a professor’s subjective impressions of them. Yet, it must also be maintained that though evaluated equally, students are to each individual different and distinct from one another. None are the same. This may present a challenge as seasoned professors have probably heard many of the same arguments and perspectives over decades, yet with these selfsame arguments and perspectives voiced by different people in a classroom. Each student brings into the classroom a myriad of life experiences that any successful professor must attune him or herself to, in order to fully evaluate the level of work and commitment shown by young people in the classroom. That said, there would be evoked in any academic possessing the most basic level of empathy, a respectful appreciation of the pathos involved when a student simply says he or she wants someone to hear their pain. However, the university in question, and universities in general are universal in the sense of having at their disposal qualified men and women skilled enough and trained to do just that. A counselor’s office exceeds the classroom for this specific type of engagement. It would be pushing the boundaries of the abilities of any professor, to now require what he or she was not trained to do.
The events surrounding Nicholas and Erika Christakis raise issues of great importance at academic centers of higher learning in the United States. They concern not only free speech on campus, but a perceived alteration and decline in levels of civility which were once believed to be conjoined with the free pursuit of knowledge which led to the truth. Since these events, Nicholas Christakis has stepped down from his position at Silliman College, and Erika Christakis is no longer teaching at Yale University.
Yet, the Ivy League itself is not an outlier. Another university, one more well known for its being a forum for the contentious debates of academic free speech, has a long involvement with the conflicts which sprouted in New Haven during the Fall of 2015.
Throughout the long history of the University of California at Berkeley’s engagement with the Free Speech Movement, the late Professor Martin Trow has served as a most astute observer of these events. Trow was a professor emeritus of public policy at Berkeley, having first begun his teaching there in the field of sociology in 1957. He was involved with, and left his mark in campus life as well, serving in the Academic Senate, and receiving the Berkeley Citation for Distinguished Achievement and Notable Service to the University. This award constitutes Berkeley’s highest offered award.
At an academic conference hosted by the University of Southern California in April of 2006, Professor Trow, a panel speaker, mentioned an observation regarding his university’s history with free speech and discourse. Referencing the Free Speech Movement, Trow spoke that there were three different reactions from faculty toward the newfound phenomenon.
There was first a group of professors who viewed potentially harmful consequences of such a movement. They were keen on digging in and resisting these consequences from their positions within the university. Second, there were professors who saw in the movement a vehicle whose ideals they aligned with and therefore were quick to lend their support, in doing so rose in terms of prominence and reputation. Lastly, there was a contingent of professors who neither repudiated, nor praised the Free Speech Movement. Rather, this contingent desired thoughtful discourse with the latter’s members, hoping to better understand their positions. In great irony, Professor Trow pointed out that among these three factions, it was the last one, the faction most willing to engage in open, honest, and hopeful discussions, that was quickly pushed to the side by the surging emotions and insurgent orthodoxy of the time.
This author was in the audience at the aforementioned panel discussion where Professor Trow spoke in April of 2006 at the University of Southern California. The climax of his statement struck all present with a dueling sense of befuddlement and somber regret at a momentous opportunity missed. Questions began forming. Why was the Free Speech Movement so divisive? How could a movement be called free, while attempting to silence dissenting viewpoints? In addition, of all people, why would those who earnestly strove for productive and thoughtful discourse be the first cast aside like so much chaff? Though this revelation occurred almost a decade before the events at Yale in 2015, there are remarkable similarities between the two. At Yale, there was an immediate wedge driven between students and faculty around a divisive topic. Then, there was little willingness to engage in the potentially productive reflection and discussion attempted by Professor Christakis.
The result of these is an academic milieu where students and faculty are divorced from each other in the quest for learning. The rancor present in collegiate discourse allows only one viewpoint to have any legitimacy, one’s own. With such an environment, it is not only life within the university that suffers, but along with this, civic, or a multitude of differing forms of engagement beyond the university’s walls as well. In order to address this dilemma, it would be of benefit to examine the roots of such a phenomenon.
The Free Speech Movement, begun at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964, started as something sympathetic to the civil rights struggles of the day. This was the assessment of Doug Rossinow, an author focusing on the impact of Mario Savio, the most memorable figure associated with the Movement. Rossinow’s essay on Savio and the politics of authenticity, brings to light the metaphysical roots of the struggle against the establishment. This was not merely a movement for academic reform. “The Civil Right Movement gave a strong boost to the notion that personal liberation and political emancipation were best pursued in tandem.”
Savio, Rossinow maintains, was deeply moved by the plight of African Americans in the South. This emotional drive at some point grew more fervent, leading prominent members of the Free Speech Movement to become radicalized, in Rossinow’s estimation, after their tenure in Southern states. “FSM leaders seemed to take back to Berkeley from the South a deeper sense of malignant power at work in their society.” This newfound malevolence was something most of mainstream society was apparently out of touch with, even at forums where free speech and discourse were tolerated such as universities. “Beneath the smiling surface of tolerant, permissive America, they appeared to think, even in a bastion of liberalism like Berkeley, there lurked a monstrous power, vicious when truly challenged.”
The radicalization of Free Speech Movement members was made manifest not by their sympathy toward the plight of African Americans in the South. Rather, it was shown by the Movement’s drawing parallels between itself and the South, to the point of calling each’s struggle one and the same. “Savio put the matter plainly…‘Last summer I went to Mississippi to join the struggle there for civil rights. This fall I am engaged in another phase of the same struggle, this time at Berkeley…a struggle against the same enemy’.” Emphasizing the civil rights aspect of both struggles, Savio furthered that the same rights were at stake, the right to participate in democratic society as citizens, and the right to due process under law. In 1964, Rossinow wrote, political agitation on the part of student radicals was far advanced, agitation that would meet any curtailment as inherently hostile. “In this sense, free speech was the real issue in the FSM but not only because free speech was valued in the abstract; free speech was also fundamental to the purpose of building a radical youth movement that could along with the Civil Rights Movement, change America.”
Yet, where did this imperative to change America come from? As change, contrary to political sloganeering, is a neutral concept, capable of ushering in good or ill, what is it America should change into? Rossinow here highlights the 1960s-era drive for “authenticity,” a breaking away from the perceived interconnectedness between universities and corporate/governmental interests, especially those tied to national defense. “Students like Savio wanted universities to return to an older concept of higher education, according to which ‘only people engaged in it—the students and teachers—are competent to decide how it should be done’.” There is great irony here, and some misunderstanding. “Critics of student radicals claimed the militants wanted to politicize the university, by making it ‘relevant’ to burning social issues.” In contrast, Savio voiced a desire for universities to be free from all interests, places where inquiry of the most independent kind may be pursued. When mainstream society viewed its university students as hellbent on stoking political divisions on campus, it would have appeared that the most politically divisive representative of the latter strove for the idealized ivory tower he was accused of trying to topple. “These young militants sought social justice and authenticity simultaneously, their conviction growing over time that America was both radically unjust and a society full of alienation and that these conditions could only be done together.”
How then could freeing American universities lead to authenticity, and more importantly, what would this mean? Rossinow wrote that the term had been in social science discourse from the 1950s. “For social scientists in the early Cold War decades, the concept generally referred to the failures of individuals to internalize the norms and beliefs of their society.” Concurrent to this search for authenticity was the feeling of alienation written of by existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre. “This referred to a subjective feeling of floating adrift, a sense of being unanchored to anything compelling or deeply felt.”
In order to address these societal maladies, where norms are unaccepted by those who feel untethered to a lack of meaning, the answer was not to search for it like some Platonic concept or form. Instead, students should look for these a bit closer to home. “They felt, like Savio, that individuals had to create their own meaning in life through purely voluntary acts for which they took responsibility and that they could never ultimately justify through recourse to anything but their own decision.”
One may respect this conviction of wanting individual human responsibility and choice to be the basis of a person’s quest for meaning. Yet, one may also ask how do such choices and actions truly resolve the dilemmas of unassimilated norms and the lack of interconnectedness to deeply felt beliefs. It would seem that such voluntarism, imbuing an action with morality from the act of will alone, would lead not only to greater confusion concerning shared norms amongst individuals, but also contribute to a dearth of interconnectedness between people themselves. This voluntarism should not be confused with the sentiment and practice of bettering others’ lives, or volunteerism, as the latter emphasizes empathy and connection amongst people.
Two phenomena rooted in the Free Speech Movement can be found in the current climate of academic discourse. First, the Civil Rights Movement inspired the Free Speech Movement to view their own struggle as a parallel, assuming the nobility of one cause onto another. As one’s cause was now imbued with this sense of newfound nobility, dissenting and opposing views must by definition not only be dissenting and opposing, but also categorically wrong and ignoble. Wrong and ignoble points of view must be stymied, stifled, ultimately silenced. It may be asked, if one’s viewpoints are held to be true and noble, what is the danger posed by views known to be false? What is the threat of an idea that is truly wrong and should the imperative then be, as Socrates held, to lead others of their own free will and reason into the light? The lack of a desire on the part of students at Yale to have discussions with Professor Christakis points to something other than being convinced of the inherent virtue of one’s side of the argument.
Second, the interconnectedness of the search for authenticity and alienation has ramifications for interconnectedness between student, faculty and curriculum. Members of the Free Speech Movement for a variety of reasons did not want to assimilate norms and mores they considered inauthentic. These norms and mores were seen to be so due to their being tied to the trappings of an older generation which was perceived to enforce an unwanted conformity upon the younger generation. That this conformity was seen to bind together the military, government, and corporate interests with academia furthered this want for greater authenticity. Yet, it would also seem that if one chooses to not assimilate inherited norms and mores, this only serves to enhance the rootless feeling of alienation and estrangement from societies at large. And, if the only way to birth authentic feelings of meaning is to construct out of whole cloth acts of meaning simply because one chooses and takes responsibility for actions, this does not solve the still present lack of connectedness with others, whether in the classroom or without.
These points would seem to have not been addressed in Berkeley of the 1960’s, and now perhaps Yale of 2015. With the emergence of this stringent belief in one’s causes as the only ones worth listening to, coupled with a lack of being grounded brought about by a search solely for one’s individual authenticity, what is the future for discourse on college campuses?
Part II: Inspiration on the Chesapeake
There is on the Chesapeake Bay a model of campus learning and discourse that stands on its own as uniquely beneficial in academia. St. John’s College, formerly King William’s School, was founded in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1696 and is one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the United States. Its Socratic method of instruction however, first introduced in 1937, was profoundly novel in its harking back to earlier models of learning; models considered out of pace with the twentieth century’s focus on specialization and compartmentalization in academics.
According to the late tutor (St. John’s term for professor) J. Winfree Smith, the new program established in 1937 was built on, “the assumption that it is possible to formulate a whole plan for undergraduate education.” This meant that with few exceptions there were no elective courses as all students were to study everything that was taught by the faculty. In keeping with this, all faculty had to teach all that was to be taught to students. What was to be taught was a series of books deemed to be of great value. “Another assumption on which the curriculum is based is that part of education consists in reading, and that, on the whole, it is better to read books of superlative worth by the best thinkers and about central questions.” Though open to revision upon valid reasoning, there are works by authors who remain fixtures in the curriculum such as Homer, Plato, the Bible, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, etc. It would be wrong however to classify the program as simply a neo-classical attempt at a revival of Greek and Roman classics. “If, however, one means by a classic a book or essay, whether ancient or modern, or a scientific experiment that is of the utmost excellence of its kind, then the curriculum is based on the classics.”
Here is found a possible remedy to the dilemma manifested on campus at Yale, which has as its roots the unrest and division birthed in the Free Speech Movement of the 1960’s. It is not a solution because of what necessarily is read, though books of excellence and worth go a long way toward a solution of this problem. It is rather the sense, promoted by a college through its administration and faculty, that there is another pillar to a student’s education. As students and faculty must both engage with the great works to be read, there is a sense of mission shared by both. Each knows the other has certain responsibilities regarding the curriculum. This knowledge means that both groups, perhaps more importantly the students, know of something they are accountable to, apart from whatever viewpoints and opinions are possessed by either. They are to share in the discovery of knowledge in these books, and though of differing backgrounds, now with common purpose.
Yet, what about the particular method of learning both these groups are committing to? The books obviously ought to be read as they, as Smith wrote, do not teach themselves to anyone. “A careful and thoughtful reader (even one with little formal schooling) will constantly ask questions of what he reads.” By this, aside from the conversation students have with faculty, they are in a manner, having a conversation with the author of the particular great book. This means that students learn from talking about what is being read, and through listening, learn by simply talking about it. “But the St. John’s mode of education rests on the further belief that one learns more through listening and talking in a well-ordered conversation than through merely listening.” Echoing the conversations Socrates had in Athens two millennia ago, tutors begin seminar evening classes with a question on the assigned reading. Then, students respond to this with either an opinion of their own pertaining to how the text relates to the question asked, or by what the student thinks is the crux or truth resting behind the topic. Another student, after waiting in turn, repeats the process of response to the initial question.
As students are encouraged to express their opinions on readings from authors as varied as Dante and Nietzsche, there are fundamental rules which ought be followed. “One is that one must say what is relevant to the question or the subject under discussion. Another is that, whether one is a faculty member or student, one must be willing to support with reasons whatever one says.” Here again are the threads that gently but firmly bind students and faculty together in their shared search for learning. As the curriculum of books read unites the two groups in their effort to understand what is written in them, so the method of learning joins them perhaps in a quest to understand each other.
This author remembers his very first seminar class, one presided over by the two tutor team of Kathleen Blits and J. Winfree Smith. As freshmen from all over the world who considered themselves fairly well-read, there was a sense of confidence at being able to answer any question the tutors could offer. After climbing to the third floor of McDowell Hall, a building first laid ground for in 1740, the class was surprised by the elderly Mr. Smith asking a question born from reading the opening chapters of Homer’s Iliad. “What is the will of Zeus?”
What had been youthful bravado turned humble. Smith had asked a question so outwardly simple, yet so penetratingly profound, that each now had to measure a carefully thought response. There was no room for prepackaged candor. Since Smith had asked a question of such depth, this informed all of his stringent standards of reading and interpretation of text. Students were also informed of the insufficiency of their own preconceptions. They were now bound together knowing they would have to step up and improve.
Apart from a curriculum and method which together enjoined students and faculty to tackle questions both timely and timeless, Smith wrote of the importance of the role of faculty. He did this precisely in his chapter on the 1950s tenure of Dean Jacob Klein, one of the more influential persons in the history of the College. Jacob Klein was of Jewish heritage and was born in Libau, Russia in 1899. His education took place in Berlin and Marburg, where he studied mathematics, physics, and philosophy, finally achieving his doctorate in 1922 under the Baltic German philosopher Nicolai Hartmann. Hartmann would later write of Klein’s impact on his seminars whilst still a student, and how the former had learned from the latter.
When the famed Martin Heidegger arrived at Marburg in 1922, Klein attended his lectures. Klein noted the considerable intellectual acumen of Heidegger, at the same time acknowledging how such strength of thought was unaccompanied by corresponding moral sensibilities. Eventually and without aid from Heidegger, Klein steered toward the study of Plato, perhaps foretelling his unique approach to education at Annapolis. “His study of Plato led him to the discovery that even if one learns much from the surface of Platonic dialogue, one cannot get beyond the surface unless one sees the dialogue as a drama and becomes an actor in it.” This meant that in order to truly get all which is intended by the writing of the dialogue, the reader ought to test every argument, by Socrates and everyone involved in the book. The reader would, if truly wishing to glean everything possible from the dialogue, have to come up with original arguments challenging either Socrates’ own, or those of his conversation partners. All possible hints laid down in the book ought be pursued.
At St. John’s College, Plato is read by freshmen as part of a study on the Greek texts. As the academic years go by, a chronological order of books is read culminating in the study of twentieth-century sources for senior year. Yet, before graduation, seniors must read Plato again, the same as what they once did four years ago. As much as Plato’s presence is felt in what is read, it is also felt in how it is read. Klein’s discovery almost a century ago shapes the conversations of students and faculty at the College in a most telling way. It is a true conversation with one’s peers, one’s mentors, and the great minds of the past. Students observe their tutors model the behavior of readers who honestly and critically can entertain an opinion, and likewise an argument that is not their own.
This practice was evident in Professor Christakis’ willingness to engage Yale students and ask of them to come up with valid and reasoned arguments for their positions in a dispute. It may be strongly inferred that Dr. Christakis himself was willing to provide his own, before the exchange eventually devolved.
In the fluid, surging current that was the Free Speech Movement in 1964 Berkeley, it is possible again to see a similar lack of engagement with the other, or increasingly opposing, side. There is much irony in Mario Savio’s intention to turn Berkeley back to an idealized ivory tower, a height which no special interest, whether it be governmental or corporate, could ascend. Here, true education could once again take place. Yet, if one does not desire to even listen to another side of an argument, let alone be able to construct counter-arguments which require assuming a frame of mind that is not one’s own, then the very process which leads to building stronger original arguments grows futile.
Klein had many other contributions of great worth to St. John’s College. Among them was a focus on bringing on board the most qualified faculty to be the students’ guides through their learning of these great texts. He held that just because a student read through a text, this did not make for deeper and more introspective knowledge of what was in it. As with what was previously mentioned by Smith, the books did not teach themselves.
Klein also enacted reforms to the actual readings themselves. “In pursuance of his desire that students should get a better grasp of the content of the books and also have the leisure for reflection upon their reading, Klein began in some cases to reduce the number of pages read for seminar assignments…”
There was a trade-off here that the Dean successfully gambled on. With a longer time to more closely read a text, it may not get read in full. However, students would be able to delve much more deeply into the texts, sharpening this particular skill and the ability to, as Klein envisioned, entertain the number or arguments from it and one’s classmates necessary to truly learn from it. Again, once one learns fruitfully from the text in this manner, the more one learns about him or herself.
What then does such conversation, one in which Klein felt the crux of the matter could be gleaned from look like? What is a successful and ultimately beneficial conversation as it is manifested via the St. John’s Socratic model?
In an effort to answer these, this author ventured back to where he learned both message and method. In Annapolis, two former tutors, and one former Dean, were visited, in the hope of carrying on the conversation and delving further into this educational paradigm which stands apart from the current dissonance on today’s college campuses.
Tutors Peter Kalkavage and Kathleen Blits have served in various teaching capacities at the College for more than a combined six decades. Ms. Blits was, along with J. Winfree Smith, the leader of the freshman seminar class this author attended. Mr. Kalkavage directs the mandatory music program at St. John’s, and was this author’s tutor for a preceptorial class on the Roman poet Virgil. They were asked the questions mentioned above, and were most generous with their time and patience, illuminating fine points of their tenures in the classroom.
Ms. Blits began by emphasizing the tutor’s role as someone who did not “profess” to students. As such, she stressed the practice of less prodding leading to more insight. To this, Mr. Kalkavage specified that during seminars, after initial questions are asked by the presiding tutors, to not be averse to letting the question linger, while resisting the urge to provide a conclusion for those in class. The two maintained a distinction here however. What was important was not merely the process of these practices being carried out, but rather the students’ insight which was the end goal. Hence, though practices may remain more or less the same and thereby replicable in different settings, the insights were the students’ own, perspectives gleaned and honed stronger and more original at the conclusion than at the beginning of each class.
What honed these individual perspectives was also addressed. The seminar was not to be construed as mere “piety to the past,” as Mr. Kalkavage posited. It was not a simple exercise of reverence for the sake of reverence for the great minds of bygone ages. Rather, it was in a manner perennial, but living as well, an active conversation which, as Klein perhaps intended earlier, allowed students to have full and profound conversations regardless of time and setting.
Though the ability to think critically is repeatedly emphasized by the tutors’, and eventually fellow students’ questioning of a particular student’s assertions, Ms. Blits keenly pointed out that skill, as valued as it may be in conversations turned arguments, is not the objective in a seminar. Seeking greater skill ultimately pointed to being better than someone else, perhaps defeating that person in discussions both public and private. Yet, has greater insight, original and honest, been gained by a student who believes he or she has triumphed over another? This only seeks to pull people apart, while the true outcome of a seminar was a room full of students who jointly shared the same end, the coming to their own individual insight.
Previous to this exchange, of which this author is most grateful, Mr. Kalkavage offered up an insight which, though on the surface appearing to touch on a separate subject, held meaning for the thrust of this essay. Whilst comparing perspectives on Plato’s Republic, he asserted that though much concentration is paid to the ideal city of Plato, one which is constructed in such a form as to bring about a just city, this construction does not make for the only ideal constitution in the Republic. The regime of import, Mr. Kalkavage said as he pointed toward himself, was the one within each individual human being. A just city could only be so if its citizens were just in and of themselves.
Though mentioned in a prior conversation to Ms. Blits’ take on skill not being the goal of an education through the seminar, this point reached across the topics. Betterment on the “outside” manifested through what is considered success in the eyes of others is ultimately fleeting. The ideal city of Plato, once established and made flesh and stone from an immaterial form, is doomed the moment it is built. Success measured in this way does not address the inner constitution of the individual human soul, something of greater and more proximate importance. By not focusing on skill over, and in spite others, but rather cultivating insight illuminating through the shadows of ignorance and preconception blinding each person from his or herself and from others, a truly free education by means of the liberal arts is achieved.
This afternoon’s discussion had the former student acting in the role of questioner to his former tutors, a task which was reversed almost three decades earlier. Having said that, it was again the former student, now an academic himself for over twenty years, who was led to his original insight by his tutors at Annapolis. Peter Kalkavage’s position on the importance of the inner regime of the soul, and Kathleen Blits distinction between skill and insight, came together in a way that emphasized what was important at St. John’s College. Students, and by extension people, ought not seek division and triumph over others as these, while giving the illusion of gain, actually lead to the disordering of the soul, to the disengagement with others and ultimately one’s self.
This kind of fruitfully productive introspection would have been most difficult in 1964 Berkeley, or 2015 New Haven. When it is assumed that the “other side” is diametrically opposed to one’s position to the point of being not only an opponent, but an enemy, victory in a quarrel assumes greater value than insight from a conversation. Victory requires skill, and also puts a premium on the zealous use of force. Hence, those engaged in seeking it neglect the more reasoned approaches to resolution. By neglecting to understand conflicts, and working toward rational solutions to them, one undermines the inner regime and constitution that preserves his or her better nature. When triumph over the other side is paramount, then the ennobling motivations within human beings tend to be cast aside. When this happens, one is less, not more, free. In essence, a person may “win” over opponents, but lose his or herself in the process.
The Republic of Plato once again rears itself in a conversation with the venerable Eva T. H. Brann, former Dean of St. John’s College. Ms. Brann grew up Jewish in pre-World War II Berlin, and remembers her father’s taking her to the Pergamon Museum, where her love for the study of antiquity began. Escaping Nazi Germany, she earned a doctorate in archeology from Yale University, and eventually found a home in Annapolis. She would mention during the conversation of having just advised a senior at the College on a final essay, and having “only” been at St. John’s for sixty years.
Plato’s Republic, Ms. Brann stated, was often taken to be a political text. This is not difficult to imagine as the philosopher, in his effort to discuss the nature of a just man and just city, constructs in the world of forms such a city, ideally populated by just people. The just city is stratified into three levels, with each group (artisans, guardians, rulers) being responsible for certain roles in keeping with proper political function. At the top level of the city/political state, a philosopher king administers over it with the best interests of the entire city in mind.
This has been read by statesmen and scholars for thousands of years. Yet, Ms. Brann’s message was an intriguing one. Most people only think of the book in terms of politics. Instead, she emphasized it is really an account concerning education. The conversation with Ms. Brann was informal, not a seminar class where she as a tutor would have asked a question which then began a conversation leading to insight, as Ms. Blits and Mr. Kalkavage had explained. Nevertheless, a concise comment at the beginning of a conversation on a book read and examined over millennia was enough to truly get to the crux, as Jacob Klein earlier stressed, of the matter. Addressing Ms. Brann’s comment goes a long way toward profound insight regarding how a liberal arts education, in contrast to the dissonance and rancor prevalent on college campuses today and in the past, truly sets a person free.
What could this then mean, that Plato’s greatest dialogue is a tome on education? Glimmers of an answer can be found in a previous interview Ms. Brann gave to George Anastaplo. The thrust of this essay is that rancorous discourse does a disservice to all parties involved at academic centers of learning, and how a truly liberal education can achieve the opposite end, namely the making of free men and women. To this, it is worth mentioning Anastaplo’s own travails with regard to freedom of speech. He was the man cited in In re Anastaplo, a case which went to the Supreme Court about being denied admission to the Illinois Bar because he refused to answer questions regarding membership to the Communist Party, of which he was not. Anastaplo ultimately lost his case, and instead of practicing, spent many years teaching law in Chicago, where he became a student of the famed scholar Leo Strauss.
The focus of the interview is Anastaplo’s questioning Ms. Brann about the relationship between Strauss and Jacob Klein, former Dean of St. John’s College. Strauss came to Annapolis as a Distinguished Scholar in Residence in 1970. Prior to this, he had taught political thought at Columbia and the New School in New York City, and more notably spent two decades on the faculty at the University of Chicago. In this most interesting pair of Strauss and Klein, one saw what was meant by, and the vast potential of a liberal education.
First, Klein and Strauss were men of substantively differing personalities. Ms. Brann stressed the approachability of Klein, the former Dean. “He really was Russian. He had all the warmth, messiness, every thing that goes with being a Russian.” In contrast, Strauss was the more formal, given his German background. “He was absolutely the most exquisitely courteous man imaginable.” While possessing these separate dispositions in dealing with students, Klein and Strauss had only the most congenial respect for each other. Strauss was a frequent guest at the Klein home and Klein, as Ms. Brann recollected was very pleased that Strauss had settled in Annapolis after a lengthy and distinguished career.
This difference in personality would be manifest in the types of students who would choose to congregate around the two. As the Socratic Method was and is such a large part of the St. John’s ethos, Klein was one of its foremost proponents. The lively exchanges within seminar classes, exchanges which drew out from students their honest and inevitably rigorous reasoning, seemed for Klein the stuff of life. He was known to appreciate rambunctiousness in discussions even with tutors, and, according to Ms. Brann enjoyed the coarse though spirited contributions of his American students. She commented on his having the right formula down. “He made them stop barging on. He made them defend what they were saying. He showed them what it was they were saying, in order that they would know what they were talking about.”
In contrast, Leo Strauss was famed for his Old World erudition. “Mr. Strauss was infinitely learned. He didn’t know only English and French and Greek and Latin (and German of course), but also Hebrew and Arabic.” Thus, his students tended to be on the more reserved and polished end of the spectrum. Having observed Strauss in seminar, she commented on how it would usually begin with a student reading from the assigned text. What next followed was Strauss’s own commenting on the verse after it was read, which was notable in its softness of delivery. Having done this, he would accept questions. This approach, Ms. Brann wrote, differed from the more interactive and lively exchanges a Klein seminar was known for. Nevertheless, Strauss was revered and respected by his students, who regularly brought up his name when having conversations outside of class.
As different as Klein’s and Strauss’s pedagogical approaches were, there was something shared. Neither of them sought to “profess” to their charges in the classroom. “It set the tone, which is still the tone at St. John’s College, that the less we act as authorities the more respect we get. Our affection for our students is all put in the service of their intellect.” Whether in energetic back and forth Socratic exchanges with Klein, or the more reserved and introspective reflection practiced by Strauss, students benefitted. They were presented information and encouraged to freely and independently think their way through it. Opinions had to be defended well, regularly, and honestly. In the spirit of guiding students to the noble end of their developing independent insight, the acrimonious rancor of politicized academic speech simply had no place. Such speech veered away from the goal of bettering students’ learning and encouraging them to be free adults, and would have been considered beyond the pale by faculty at Annapolis, and especially by Klein and Strauss.
The second major point at which Klein and Strauss differed was with regard to their own fundamentally held positions on matters religious and political. This was and is not a matter of little significance. Such disagreements on these inherently divisive, and potentially rancorous topics can be seen in the deep political fissures at Yale in 2015, as well as the near-religious fervor permeating civil strife in the Berkeley of 1964. Klein and Strauss, men of considerable intellectual heft, were after all, men, and thus subject to possessing their own individual positions on two seemingly intertwined areas of human thought.
Both men, Ms. Brann would remind her interviewer, were Jews. Klein, as she recalled, “was, to be sure, very Jewish.” However, the former Dean did not himself possess much interest in the faith of Judaism. And, in reference to Strauss’s own sentiments toward Judaism, Ms. Brann shared an interesting recollection. “I recall him willing to place bets on Mr. Strauss becoming Orthodox at some point.”
What led Klein to this willingness to predict Leo Strauss’s ultimate fate? Strauss’s pedagogy appeared, for lack of a better way to put it, more vertical, in contrast to Klein’s horizontal approach to class structure. It is important to note that, as Ms. Brann said, for all of Klein’s famed rapport with his students, to the point of them addressing him by his first name, Klein did not particularly favor having disciples around him. This would mean students who congregated around a certain tutor, admiring his teaching and personality and therefore becoming “followers.” Strauss on the other hand was noted for the well-attended and memorable seminars he led on campus. During discussions outside of the classroom, it was not unusual for his students to regularly reference him. “One thing, I think, is that they did introduce people to a kind of close reading and to the study of difficult philosophers.”
Strauss’s influence was scholarly, differing from Klein’s more Socratic maieutic approach. One of the areas he was known for covering was the role religion played in society. Here, Ms. Brann revealed the roots of his comparatively more Orthodox views on Judaism. “I think that Mr. Strauss expressed more and more the sense that tradition and reverence were of great importance in his life, because what you preach to others—that religion was a source of civic virtue—you should be doing it yourself to some degree.”
Klein and Strauss had differing views on the religion of their forefathers. Yet, this did not take away from their belief and practice in caring for their students’ intellectual well-being. Though Klein jested about Strauss’s increasing Orthodoxy, he respected the latter while the two possessed starkly contrasting avenues of exchange with students. And, considering Strauss’s pedagogy may have been infused by his own religious perspectives, Klein did not chafe at this as ultimately, the former’s adherence to practicing the reverence one preached arrived at the same end as Klein’s lack of interest in discipleship; that the students, in the end, become free people by developing their own insight.
It is with politics that the differences between Klein and Strauss manifest the mettle of these men, not only as erudite academics of the first order, but as men who sought to improve their students and community. Klein was the more interested in politics beyond a classroom’s theories. He would, on occasion, write letters on political matters of the day, extending his influence to issues such as the cause of African Americans at a time when the struggle for Civil Rights, as mentioned above in the discussion of the Free Speech Movement, inflamed many communities across the nation. Yet, one does not get the impression that Klein was interested in discussion for the sake of division. He did not seek to ignite a student’s indignation and let him loose upon the world. Rather, Ms Brann recounted Klein “would attend to each student at once personally and intellectually. He would get into dialogue and make him talk and make him reverse himself and make him see what was involved—and that it was his own.”
Strauss on the other hand, may have harbored less liberal political leanings than Klein. Ms. Brann expressed that she was not sure whether the former would go to the extent of writing letters to affect practical politics as the latter did. As the relationship between Strauss and his students involved, in contrast to Klein’s, an air of reverence with which students viewed him, it would have been easier for him to take the role of an activist. Yet, in Ms. Brann’s recollection, there is no evidence of this. This is exceptional considering one of the main points of divergence between Strauss and Klein. According to Ms. Brann, “one point of difference, and maybe the most important, was that Mr. Strauss thought that political philosophy as fundamental. I think that Jasha thought that ontology, or metaphysics, was fundamental, and that the revolution in science was more telling for modernity than the political revolution.”
The political differences between Strauss and his friend Klein, differences of method, faith and politics did not hold sway. As Ms. Brann related, Klein “often emphasized that this was really a friendship of intellect, of the soul.” It would appear, at last, in order to solve the dilemma caused by division turned to rancor in academia, the way through the woods is through the path of fellowship.
Part III: Recommendations to Address the Dilemma
Putting 2015 Yale and 1964 Berkeley together, the combined maladies regarding academic discourse involve an unwillingness to participate in meaningful and learning-oriented conversations, and the assuming of diametrically opposed views without room for compromise or engagement in conversations with the perceived “wrong” side. In order to address these, the paradigm of friendship, or fellowship between Jacob Klein and Leo Strauss, a fellowship fostered in a very particular learning environment may be applied. This spirit of coming together in fellowship was echoed by Winfree Smith’s emphasis on a curriculum that binds students and faculty together in the effort of learning, and by Peter Kalkavage and Kathleen Blits reminding to steer away from divisive preoccupations with skill and providing easy answers to students. There are two key elements to this fellowship, which, in this author’s experience of two decades worth of teaching, would prove beneficial.
First, structure. Leo Strauss was well known in universities from New York, to Chicago, and finally Annapolis for his fastidiousness and formality. These qualities may serve other purposes other than the mere appearance of academic gravitas. Instead of structure being something which may inhibit a student’s developing insight, it may be regarded as the means through which development of insight takes place with increased earnestness.
For an instructor, structure is best laid down very early in the semester, preferably on the very first day of class. Students must learn of standards they will be held to, those selfsame standards that bind the instructor. A small, though perhaps underutilized means of doing this is establishing a firm policy with regard to attendance. Informing students of the number of classes they may miss before their grades are negatively affected allows them to know the parameters for what is required for success in class. After this is known, they are told how much their grades will be lowered for any subsequent absence. Tardiness factors into this as well. It is recommended for the instructor to have a clearly stated and maintained cut-off time for which a student may enter class late. Having students wait to come to class after a scheduled break after they arrive later than the cut-off time enables them to realize there are consequences for errors in judgment. This is not done simply for punitive reasons, but rather as a sign of respect for the students towards each other, and towards the class as a whole. Needless to say, this policy is only effective when the instructor strictly adheres to it as well. What the instructor is attempting to build is a climate of respect, not for themselves necessarily, but for the class. He or she must show accountability and lead by accountability. In the potentially tumultuous college lives of students, instructors ought serve as sources of dependability, steadiness and calm.
A second proposal keeping to the goal of beneficial structure in the classroom being established deals with how members of the class may address each other. At St. John’s College, an overwhelming number of faculty have terminal degrees in their fields of expertise. This said, not one of them is referred to as Dr. For that matter, they are also not called by their first names. Instead, each and every faculty member and all students are referred to as Mr., or Ms. before their surname. The practice is not one of formality for formality’s sake. As an attendance policy lays the groundwork for respect in the classroom, respect for classmates, instructors, and the work involved for the entire class, this formal way of address shows that the semester’s work is a serious endeavor. Instead of gravitas only flowing from a famed intellect such as that of Leo Strauss, gravitas is the currency shared by all in the room, because what is being studied is worthy of the seriousness required for work. In addition, it also democratizes the class to a degree. When professors, or tutors could demand to be referred to as doctors, they instead share the formal title of Mr. or Ms. with their students, letting them know the latter’s input and insight is worthy to listen to as well.
A third suggestion would entail the regular practice of writing essays or papers ought be encouraged by the instructor in his or her classroom. The essays need not be lengthy (perhaps around one to three pages in length), nor include a multiplicity of sources and citations. Rather, as is done in Annapolis, the essays would require a student to delve more deeply into a topic pertinent to the work in class, putting the premium on an individual’s own interpretations of text. These can be done either in group format, or by singular assignment. Instructors may also reserve time during which they could converse with the students in order to allow for further elaboration on the student’s written work. This addresses both the desire for students to be heard cited in the article on the tumult at Yale, and the quest for authenticity embarked upon by members of the Free Speech Movement. Given a forum where they may posit thoughts and perspectives with instructors, and knowing that their instructors’ task is to more fully encourage them to hone the strength of these positions, students may be more inclined to share in a non-antagonistic manner, and participate in productive discussions.
These are but three suggestions which may be of benefit to both students and faculty toward the goal of a true liberal education; one committed to the creation of free adults by providing a firm foundation undergirding the students’ developing their own insight.
Second, flexibility. Jacob Klein was respected and beloved by his students at St. John’s College, but rebuffed any attempts to make himself an iconic figure with attendant and devoted disciples. His own devotion to, and practice of facilitating student learning in the Socratic mold is the paradigm of import here.
It is not strictly recommended that an instructor be an expert in the Socratic Method. There is also no need for the Method, as it is utilized in Annapolis, to be wholly replicated. An instructor must be versed in delivering information by means of a lecture. This is particularly crucial in an increasingly digital age when students look to printed books less and less. This area should be the less challenging one for instructors as they are after all experts in their own fields, and sharing this information is the reason many academics enter the teaching profession.
This said, in order to draw out students in a manner where they do not feel the antagonism which led to the rancor at Yale and Berkeley, instructors would still have to know how to ask questions. The guiding principle behind these questions is one of reason. Instructors here act as mirrors by reflecting back to students their responses. After initial questions are asked in a class discussion, the following sentences should be geared to finding out how students came their conclusions. “Why do you think this is the case?” “Please explain your conclusion.” “Does this conclusion make rational sense?” By prompts like these, students learn to rely not on what someone else had said on the topic, but rather what they themselves think about it, guided by the reason and common sense they already possess.
This author once was teaching a class on St. Thomas Aquinas where students read the Quinque Viae, the five ways to prove the existence of God. A student in the middle of the room loudly let down his book and stated, “That’s it. I’m convinced there is no such thing as truth.” After a brief pause, this author fielded a simple question. “What you just said, that there is no such thing as truth. Is that true?’’ Slowly, soft laughing began from the periphery of the room emanating from the student in question’s classmates. Laughter inspired not by mockery, but by realization. Eventually, the student came to the paradox of his statement, not by the instructor telling him he was mistaken, but by his and his peers’ innate sense of reason.
This Socratic practice and the flexibility needed from the instructor in order to practice it well can, in certain settings, be achieved without necessarily establishing the structure and culture of respect mentioned above. It is conceivable that the reverential structure inspired by the teaching of Leo Strauss be implemented without the playful, yet profound Socratic questioning of Jacob Klein. However, it is the finding of this author that practicing both as complements to each other yields the best and fullest results in an academic setting.
The task of the instructor is to steer students past the Scylla and Charybdis of discord and rancor found in treacherous seas. In these waters, students and faculty may be tempted to navigate individually guided by stars formed by their own will, instead of being illumined by the light of reason shared by all human beings. It is the hope of this essay that more students and faculty join together in fellowship to reach better and fairer harbors, which are best found when sailing together. Perhaps, at the end of the journey, they all may be fortunate to find their ways home.
This author would like to express a final note toward the vital and requisite cooperation between an instructor and his or her administration in this endeavor of making free adults out of youngsters at college. The Department of Liberal Arts at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco deserves much praise and gratitude for the care with which it regards student learning, and the support it has judiciously seen fit to lend to its instructors.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 Chesterton, G.K. “There are two ways of getting home.” Good Reads.com
 “Questions to Guide Your Reading: Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren How to Read a Book.” The University of St. Thomas Odyssey Program.
 “Email from the Intercultural Affairs Committee.” Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. October 27, 2015.
 Friedersdorf, Conor “The New Intolerance of Student Activism.” The Atlantic. November 9, 2015.
 Ibid., 536.
 Ibid., 536.
 Ibid., 537.
 Ibid., 538.
 Ibid,. 542.
 Ibid., 543.
 Ibid., 543.
 Ibid., 543.
 Ibid., 543.
 Ibid., 543.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 104.
 Ibid., 108.
 Anastaplo, George and Eva Brann “Glimpses of Leo Strauss, Jacob Klein, and St. John’s college.” George Anastaplo’s Blog. March 6, 2011.