Scott Hambrick, founder of Online Great Books, discusses education, meeting Ayn Rand, and a new course to help participants read more easily in the Online Great Books courses with Marsha in his podcast here.
University Education As It Might Be and Ought to Be
Part I: What Is the Aim of a University Education?
By Marsha Familaro Enright
“Discipline must come through liberty. . . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.” — Maria Montessori
Standard education not only fails to teach the philosophy, history, economics, and politics of a free society, but its methods oppress individuality and instead encourage conformity and obedience. It does the opposite of teaching young people how to live as free, autonomous persons. For a detailed look at the collectivist and authoritarian purpose and history of traditional education, especially government-run, see my chapter “Liberating Education” in the book Common Ground On Common Core.
In the main, traditional university education’ methodology has been unchanged for centuries. Most classrooms rely heavily on an authoritarian, top-down structure of a single arbiter of knowledge, often in the position of lecturer, discussion leader, and knowledge authority, who conveys information to the waiting student-receptacles.
Of course, many colleges and universities are using all the bells and whistles of the latest physical technology, which makes the world’s knowledge available to their students through Internet-connected classrooms, cool electronic writing technology, online discussion groups, or handheld quiz machines.
But the more crucial and fundamental psychological and social elements to learning are often still ignored, especially at the university level. Yet, a free future demands more than the dissemination of information; where do free individuals learn how to use it in their lives?
Given what we now know about human development, learning, and motivation, education is ripe for a revolution in its psychological technology. Students need an educational program that embodies the ideals of self-sufficient, self-responsible, goal seeking, and autonomous individuals.
Furthermore, when freedom and autonomy are directly experienced, students become more engaged, interested, and enthusiastic learners and more often adopt the ideas and values of liberty.
Where can we find the kind of education that suits the development of autonomy? What specific considerations, methodologies, and curricula support this development? Such a system for lower education has been around for more than 100 years.
A Few of the Ingenious Features of the Montessori Method.
“When you have solved the problem of controlling the attention of the child, you have solved the entire problem of education.” Maria Montessori
When it comes to attention and learning, Montessori could have been talking about anyone, not just the child. Without attention, there is no learning. Attention is crucial, yet attentional resources (focus) are limited. They must be used well to efficiently learn the most possible.
Further, the developed ability to concentrate on work and goals and to self-maintain interest and focus allow a person to succeed in long-term projects and purposes. In Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, Jerry Kirkpatrick calls this “Concentrated Attention.”
In his studies on intensely productive and creative people, University of Chicago research psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pictured at left) found that certain conditions elevate the ability to pay attention, and pay attention deeply for long periods of time. He also recognized that specially designed practices in Montessori classrooms provide these conditions throughout the school day. His research group, including the work of Kevin Rathunde, found many exceptional outcomes from these Montessori practices. (A picture of an engaging Montessori material to teach geology is below.)
The use of the Three-Period Lesson is a case in point.
Much scientific research shows that humans learn best if:
- They are highly motivated to learn the material for some personal end.
- They are physically engaged.
- They understand the application of the material to their lives.
The classic Montessori Three-Period Lesson ingeniously engages human attention. With small groups of students, teachers (or “Guides” as we prefer to call them in Montessori) demonstrate learning materials specially designed to focus attention on an important concept, such as whole number versus fractions. Objects and materials incorporating shapes, colors sounds, and textures concretely make the idea vivid. These Montessori materials engage the student’s whole intellect, sensory, motor, and conceptual, thereby powerfully imprinting memory.
The lesson’s three parts are Naming, Recognition and Association, and Recall. The Guide gathers one to four students ready for the particular lesson, seats them in front of the materials, and then demonstrates their use with only the essential words, naming the objects. For example, the Guide might use fraction circles to demonstrate the addition of fractions. (see picture below)
These are sets of metal, pie-shaped circles cut into different quantities of wedges with little knobs on each wedge. One circle consists of 4 wedges, another of 12, to demonstrate fourths and twelfths while all the circles in the material are the same size, to embody whole number. There are numerous kinds of problems possible with these circles, including all the operations of arithmetic. In the most basic, the child can literally see the relationship of different fractional proportions by taking the wedges out of the circles and putting them back in—in different combinations. Each lesson demonstrates one possible use of the materials.
During the lesson, the Guide speaks little, allowing the student to focus and observe the demonstrated examples carefully so they recognize the elements and form associations. The Guide encourages questions from the students; she also, models curiosity, and triggers discussion with questions of her own when students are not forthcoming. Truly successful teachers are exceptional at listening to students’ questions, surmising what students need to know, and modeling and encouraging thinking.
After the fraction demonstration, the Guide asks the student to explain what to do with the materials to solve the next problem and moves the materials has the student accordingly. Finally, the Guide asks the student to demonstrate the material, turning student into teacher and thereby recalling the elements of the lesson, requiring a more complete level of understanding for the student’s performance.
After the lesson, the student is free to pursue more problems with the materials right then or use them later to practice when the student feels interested in working on the material (on the principle that one learns best when one is intrinsically motivated). The Guide regularly takes notes while observing the children in her class and if she finds a child avoiding some material, she makes it her job to think of a way to interest the child in the work.
A key to the Montessori Method’s success is ensuring that the amount of material conveyed at one lesson is not overwhelming but sufficiently interesting, i.e. just the conditions necessary for Flow. More frequent, shorter lessons with follow-up exercises are preferable to one long demonstration. Of course, preparing shorter, pointed lessons is far more taxing to the teacher, but the Montessori Method has systems to make this aspect of teaching less time consuming.
The Three-Period Lesson can be fruitfully adapted to many college-level subjects. In fact, some college classes, such as chemistry, often use a version of the Three-Period Lesson, with the experiment as the final student demonstration. However, as with most excellent methods, the devil is in the details.
Lectures in Their Proper Place
Lessons with materials and concrete experiences are not the usual in university education; lectures are the most common format. If organized well, lectures can distill a vast amount of information down to a few principles and key examples. A lecture can be an economical introduction to a subject. The best lectures essentialize the subject matter conveyed by the lecture.
However, as a method, lectures are designed to be easy for the teacher, not the student. They allow the teacher to recount his or her knowledge without feedback or interrupting questions and side issues from the listener. Although sometimes necessary, lectures are usually a difficult way to learn because they frequently run counter to human learning tendencies.
For several reasons, students must exert an enormous amount of attentional effort to stay focused on what the speaker says during lectures. A lecture requires the learner to mostly listen and look a little. Unlike learning methods that make learning easy, the lecture usually does not engage the whole mind, including vivid perceptions and imagination, or the body of the student. Listening and looking during a lecture involves little sensory-motor work, which normally helps cement learning in memory.
One of the reasons visual aids such as Microsoft® Office PowerPoint® are preferred for lectures is because they offer sensory stimulation, providing at least some perceptual imagery to associate with the ideas being conveyed. Although, like books, lectures can have illustrations, the student cannot study the illustrations in a lecture as long as he or she wants.
Human interaction usually helps to increase interest as well as physically engage the student, but during a lecture, there is very little interaction between student and teacher. Often the lecture is aimed at a large or general audience and thus cannot address individual student goals, interests and comprehension difficulties.
A student cannot stop the lecture to ask a question or request a further, clarifying explanation or replay what the lecturer said. Once confused, the student may find the rest of the lecture very difficult if not impossible to follow. Consequently, students often miss the important points and substantial content of the lecture.
In a lecture format, the best teachers attempt to address human learning needs by weaving their information into a story. Stories incorporate drama, character, values, passion, meaning, purpose, a climax and resolution. Winston Churchill was a master at this. This method utilizes human tendencies to search for meaning and purpose, to connect knowledge acquired to personal circumstances, and to remember people, places and things more easily than abstract ideas.
Excellent lecturers use plenty of concretes to make the information vivid and connected to real experience and, at least in imagination, to stir perceptual memory and bodily feelings of the listener. Imaginative work and bodily feelings help the student feel much more engaged in the material. Exceptional lecturer MIT physics professor Walter Lewin spends 30 hours and three practice trials developing each of the lectures for his remarkable classes.
The best learners are active learners. They can gain from almost any lecture; they come to a lecture motivated to learn for their own reasons. They expend extra effort in imagining their own examples in order to concretize the ideas they’re hearing. As they listen, they maintain an internal dialogue of questions with the lecturer, noting what they don’t understand and with what they take issue. They also tend to seek answers to their questions after the lecture.
Many teachers recognize that this kind of student is rare and usually has high intelligence, strong intellectual ambition, and great self-motivation. For the most part, traditional education methods do not nurture internal motivation and inherent interest in acquiring knowledge—qualities essential in the new global economy, which demands the ability to lithely move from job to job, or change careers.
A long school career of lectures, drills, memorization, and teaching methods out of tune with learning needs usually turns most students away from enthusiastic learning at school. They are only too often motivated mainly by external rewards of grades, adult approval, superior social position and the acquisition of credentials.
Unfortunately, lectures are so difficult to pay attention to, and psychologically painful for most students, that students work hard to avoid them. During lectures, young students often goof around; consequently, they learn that they are “bad” and “undisciplined.” They are expected to know how to force their attention on boring material.
Older students attempting to pass their courses seek low-energy ways to fulfill requirements while maximizing grades, such as the use of tape recordings, buying others’ lecture notes, or passing multiple choice tests without attending lectures.
These students aren’t inherently bad, they are responding to the high psychological costs of traditional education in a psychologically economical way. They more profitably spend their limited attentional resources elsewhere.
Sadly, they often feel guilt, frustration and anger for failing to live up to the traditional classroom’s expectations, with a nagging disappointment for what they’ve missed—or should have gotten—from education. Many students desperately need help to become “active learners,” interested in the material and in charge of their own education.
Integration—But Not the Kind You May Think I Mean
What college graduates do with the information they learn will now, more than ever, determine their competitive edge. Consequently it is imperative that education teach how to think, create and integrate what students learn in one subject with what they know from another with what to do with it to further their lives. Broad knowledge and capability to learn combined with the ability to deftly integrate new material into one’s repertoire is essential to become an adaptable Versatilist, capable of switching careers as the economy demands.
However, teaching methods and curricula need to take into account key psychological features that aid integration. Before valuable information and ideas can be stored in the mind’s subconscious, they have to pass through the conscious mind, which usually can handle only about seven discreet items at any one time (see George A. Miller’s 1956 psychological classic “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information“) If you’ve ever wondered why you need a list to remember what you have to do, here’s the reason, and it’s one of the reasons for the limited attentional resources of our conscious minds.
Ideas—abstractions—are the primordial human inventions that circumvent this limitation, because ideas incorporate myriad data into a single audio-visual concrete, a word or symbol. All instances of babies are integrated into the idea of “baby,” and you can apply what you know about babies to any individual baby you encounter. Voila! You’ve saved a lot of time and energy.
Ultimately, the integration of simple ideas, like those of colors or types of animals, into more abstract groupings like “mammal” make the human mind extremely powerful. Imagination and integration work together to produce the torrent that is human creativity. Integration of information into ideas and actions into skills is the psychologically economical way to use our limited conscious resources when thinking and solving problems.
The person who is a master at the careful, fact-based integration of knowledge is a highly effective thinker and actor.
This is the reason any good curriculum must emphasize work on subject matter across domains of knowledge, by studying works that integrate epistemology with poetry, science with history, philosophy with action, especially by asking students to relate what is learned in one class and course to with what is learned in another.
Part II: Creativity
Integration to Creativity
“What I cannot create, I do not understand.”—Richard Feynman
Integration of knowledge across broad ranges of subjects is a characteristic of creativity—and versatility. Research consistently finds that highly creative people tend to have very broad, as well as deep, interests and knowledge. They apply unconventional information and ideas to problems, integrating information in unusual ways across conventional subject areas.
Famed physicist Richard Feynman (at left) is a case in point.
Think of his brilliant demonstration of the space shuttle temperature problem, Challenger’s O-Ring: by dropping an O-ring in an ordinary glass of ice water, he simply and directly proved it could not stand up to low temperatures. His demonstration integrated an esoteric, bedeviling engineering problem with a mundane experience.
He was also famous for his wide-ranging interests, which included samba bands and experiments on ants. He put no limits on his curiosity about the world.
Feynman’s measured IQ was in the high range—124—but not what IQ test-makers consider genius (135+). Contrary to what many people think but consistent with research findings, most recognized geniuses do not have IQ’s in the 135+ range. Measured IQs of people considered to be geniuses are 116 or higher, apparently making an above average IQ a condition—but not a sufficient one—for high creativity. (Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity). (No one knows how individuals acclaimed as geniuses because of their work, such as DaVinci and Newton, would have scored on the test. Given the findings with current individuals, the results of an actual IQ test on Newton might surprise us!)
Unfortunately, IQ tests—and most tests—cannot measure working creativity and intelligence. In other words, they don’t adequately measure how intelligence is put into life’s service by creatively solving problems.
For example, the number of highly creative and successful business people who score average to low on SAT tests is indicative of the test’s inadequacy in measuring working intelligence.
Conditions other than IQ seem to be highly important to the development of creativity, conditions which we can create in educational settings, thereby enabling education to actively develop creativity, rather than stifle it.
For example, the tendency to amass information from close, first-hand observation is very important. Michael Faraday, (pictured here) exhibited this tendency par excellence as a young man: he had no formal education and knew only arithmetic, but discovered the laws of electromagnetism through fascinated observation of and experiments on nature.
A mind that is curious and constantly problem-solving is another characteristic of the creative. For example, the inventor of VELCRO, George Mestral noticed his dog became covered with burrs during a walk. Examining how the burrs use microscopic hooks to stick to the loops of his pant fabric, he realized he could make a new type of fastener. A little nature hike turned into a billion-dollar industry.
What’s needed in education to develop creativity?
“Our care of the [student] should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.” — Maria Montessori
We cannot change what nature gives our students in terms of basic intelligence. However, we can offer a program that nurtures those abilities and habits of mind needed for creativity and productivity such as:
- Objective reasoning skills, not just in science and math, but all domains of knowledge, including such areas as art, history, and literature.
- Knowledge of a broad array of information, ancient and modern.
- Habits of connecting information and ideas from one domain of knowledge to another (the way highly creative people do), by:
- Teaching through works that are cross-domain, like Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, a work of moral philosophy that founded the study of economics, or Plato’s Meno, which examines history, epistemology, and social interaction.
- Guiding them to draw cross-disciplinary connections by example such as how a city’s buildings and layout are related to its history; pointing out examples of the way in which original thinkers made crucial connections, such as Newton’s connection of the apple’s fall with the idea of gravity.
- Curiosity through:
- Encouraging their questioning
- Modeling enthusiasm and inquiry about what is being studied
- Careful observation of the world through:
- Demonstrating careful observation and the relation of any idea to the facts on which it rests
- Questioning the observational/factual basis of their ideas
- Awareness and thinking about the meaning and purpose in life, by presenting a curriculum infused with deep questions which connect knowledge to living by:
- Always asking what any given fact or idea means to human life
- Asking of any knowledge: to whom is this information valuable and how will it be used?
Using the Great Books, what are often called the Classics, in the curriculum schools students in timeless ideas, of the best thinkers in civilization, useful in any era or place. These works are extremely influential today. They include works from philosophy to economics, mathematics to literature, history to science and more. Simultaneously, the Great Books’ authors and their ideas serve as examples of the highest in creative thinking skills.
Properly schooled to think deeply about these works, a student economically recognizes patterns, trends and influences everywhere in culture, from art to business, from job trends to medical discoveries.
One small example: Did you know that there was a time when people were confused about how something could be one thing now and another thing in the future? The ancient Greeks pondered this for some time. In the 400’s BCE, “What is, is,” said Parmenides, who believed existence is timeless and change impossible, a mere illusion. “I can’t step into the same river twice,” said Heraclitus, who argued that all was continuous change. The Greeks couldn’t reconcile how states and change could co-exist. How could something be an acorn now and yet the very same thing an oak tree later? They could not figure out how that worked.
It took the genius of ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle decades later to resolve this problem with the identification of the concepts of “actual” and “potential.” Try to imagine our world without these ideas—how could we think about science and technology, societies or evolution?
Students need to learn about such great ideas as Aristotle’s breakthrough, along with the important fact that so much we take for granted in our great civilization was invented by creative individuals all through the ages. And reflecting on concepts that we take for granted raises students’ analytic thinking skills. This is just one benefit of studying the Great Books.
Knowledge Across Categories
Carefully crafted assignments, classes can purposefully integrate knowledge from one domain to another and encourage students to find connections between seemingly disparate material, just like creative thinkers such as Feynman and Mestral. Teachers can urge students to constantly seek connections among these great ideas and between the ideas and our contemporary world. Unfortunately, most college curricula and faculties make no attempt to execute these crucial tasks.
Discussing the place that a fact, idea or theory has in human life should be a constant aim. Teachers should consistently require—and offer–—proof for statements and beliefs, and explicit logical arguments. Everyone should examine the premises from which they draw their conclusions. Facts and truth, however unpleasant, should be the standard. By modeling and emphasizing these practices, faculty can encourage students to have excellent observational skills.
How to deal with unpleasant facts without denying them should also be a highly encouraged skill. Teachers who model such thinking teach volumes. And teachers need training to insure these aims—something which the rare university professor gets.
Ultimately, by consistently applying these practices, students will learn the skills needed to think objectively.
“First We Must Inspire, Not Just Inform”
Maria Montessori, pictured at left, noted that the student is a “spiritual embryo,” with his or her own innate pattern of growth ready to unfold, delicately and amazingly, given the right psychological and physical environment. The teacher’s role in this unfolding cannot be underestimated.
Maria Montessori said: Teachers “have to conquer minds stirring up the great emotions of life,” to achieve real learning in students. In other words, teachers must tap into students’ deepest desires and values, such as love, joy, and pride, to motivate students. And, although Aristotle’s dicta “All men by nature desire to know” captures the human species’ trait of curiosity, curiosity can be squashed through ridicule or sapped through boredom by teachers—or coaxed into riotous flowering.
Great teachers are often transformative to the student, helping him or her learn to love knowledge and serious work, to acquire heightened reasoning skills, to look at many sides of a problem, to gather information from far-reaching domains in order to find solutions and to be self-reflective and reasonable – all important ingredients to future success.
Famed investor Warren Buffet, who did not want to go to college, said of his time achieving a master’s degree at Columbia University, “But I didn’t go there for a degree, I went for two teachers who were already my heroes.”
These principles necessitate teachers of the highest order: those with the utmost respect for their students, who can teach by example and guidance through difficult material. To encourage the development of particular values and virtues in students, faculty become essential as role models. For example, by embodying great thinking, respect for independent judgment, and deep appreciation of individual freedom, the faculty model the very values of a free society, reason, individualism, and freedom.
While it is possible to be competent in communicating information and in conveying some of these traits long distance, in-person interaction is the most compellingly effective method. It’s important to have a program that actively uses technology of all kinds to creatively facilitate learning and collaboration and make scholars and public intellectuals from around the world accessible to students. But in-person classes with skilled, specially trained role-model teachers are indispensible for a great education.
Let’s examine some ways teachers influence students.
Teachers and Activation Energy
Csikszentmihalyi notes that human beings have limited mental resources and energy when it comes to paying attention (focusing on material), and these should be used wisely. Hence, a good program keeps these factors in mind and seeks to facilitate attention. And interest is one of the key ingredients to minimizing the use of attentional energy.
A small group of people, like concert violinist Rachel Barton Pine, seem to find riveting interests when they are mere toddlers. This kind of person often barrels full speed ahead in what they want to do; but most people are not as definite or enthusiastic about any particular interest. Teachers can make a difference in the subjects in which students become interested and even their choice of profession.
Often, a passionate teacher triggers an individual’s interest in a new subject. A previously unknown, boring, or distasteful field becomes the person’s area of professional interest through their teacher. I’ve seen many a student with no previous interest in, or maybe even a repulsion to, cicadas or worms, become enthralled with them after an enthusiastic teacher shows them the fascinating parts of the worm, the weird way the cicada flies, or how to eat it. The teacher fuels what research psychologist Csikszentmihalyi calls “activation energy,” i.e. the energy invested in learning to do something new.
Many complex and deeply engaging areas of knowledge and skill require an enormous amount of unrewarding work before they become enjoyable. Ballet dancing, mastering physics, or successfully managing employees are a few examples. Initially, the learner must expend intense mental energy in order to focus on the learning and become interested in the subject or skill: this is the “activation energy.” Learning a musical instrument is a good example: the student spends hours practicing physical movements and enduring awful sonic productions before acquiring enough skill to make enjoyable music!
In the early 20th century, Montessori noted the same phenomena and realized its connection to teaching: “I believed that at the start the teaching material had to be associated with the voice of the teacher which called and roused the [students] and induced them to use the material and educate themselves,” Maria Montessori.
A great teacher like the character of Edward James Olmos in the movie “Stand and Deliver,” or Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” helps students through difficult material with contagious excitement and the ability to make it dramatically interesting and well-related to students’ deepest needs and values. This goes back to the principle that human interest drives learning.
Long-time Montessori teacher, Pat Schaefer, summed it up, “First: we must inspire, not just inform. Second: It is in relationship that the secret of [human learning] power is released.”
Teachers and Great Questions
On the precipice of full adult life, the college student needs answers to the great questions: “Why am I here?” ”How should I live?” ”How should I deal with other people?” “What should I do with my life?” If the student is not already asking himself these questions, it is his teacher’s job to show him how to ask them and how to find good answers.
Knowing how to pose the right questions can lead to a great awakening with unforeseen, amazing consequences. Forestry Consultant Charles Tomlinson often regaled friends and family with stories of his experience at The University of the South (called “Sewanee”) with “Abbo.” Charles claimed himself a rather complacent product of a middleclass Southern family when he encountered “Abbo,” English Professor Abbott Cotton Martin. Abbo spent considerable hours poking holes in everything Charles took for granted, from football to religion, with some English literature thrown in for good measure. This was Abbo’s stock-in-trade.
Abbo taught Charles to thoroughly question and examine what he thought he knew, as well as his beliefs. But Abbo didn’t just throw students in the water of quandaries, he made himself available to talk all during the week, not just during Sunday office hours. Charles learned to “check his premises” through Abbo’s prodding as well as reading Ayn Rand. The other wonderful teachers at Sewanee helped too. They inspired him to demand more of himself, leading to a long, creatively productive, exciting life.
This included deeply influencing many, many people, including Jaroslav Romanchuk, a major figure in the opposition to Belarus’ authoritarian government.
Active Listening and Independent Judgment
“Be “careful not to ask [your] questions of the [students]. Only when [students] seek to answer questions which they themselves ask, do they commit themselves to the hard work of finding answers that are meaningful to them…give only as much guidance and encouragement as is necessary to elicit the [students’] interest.” — Maria Montessori
Inspiration is the fundamental mission of the teacher, because of motivations’ deep importance to learning. Active Listening is a powerful teaching tool which promotes an inspiring relationship between teacher and student. For one thing, Active Listening conveys deep respect for the individual’s independence in thought and value.
Active Listening is a key skill enabling teachers to nurture independent judgment. The Active Listener authentically tries to understand what the other person means, empathizing with the other’s point of view by working hard to grasp his or her full context. This means trying to understand the other person’s level of knowledge about a subject, their age, what emotional issues may be affecting their thinking, and the set of ideas they are using to grasp the subject.
Active listening promotes the spread of truth. Only by Active Listening do we end up having a full idea of what the other person means and thereby gain the opportunity to respond with appropriate facts and reasoning.
Used in teaching, this means the Active Listener asks clarifying questions about the student’s terms, respectfully allowing the student time to finish what he or she is saying before responding and, importantly, conveying an attitude of alert interest in what the student says.
The Active Listener must try to leave aside any personal feelings about the subject and squash the desire to assert and forcefully drive home the rightness of his or her own opinion. These actions only serve to distract a student from deep thinking and learning by bringing in issues of social hierarchy, personal power, and self-worth (i.e., do I know enough, what does the teacher think of me, he’s got more status than I, I should listen to him). These issues elicit powerful, distracting emotions.
Further, the Active Listener tries to sense any motives in the student’s statements beyond the informational. For example, if a student in a class on Freud asks “What if a son is extremely fond and affectionate toward his mother—does that mean he has an Oedipus complex?” The teacher needs to be aware that the student’s study of Freud may have caused him to feel anxiety about his love for his mother. The teacher needs to respond with gentleness, general reassurance, and kindness.
Independent judgment is the well-spring of real choice, and good discussions nurture true individuality and judgment.. Unfortunately these days, teachers sometimes find it difficult to conduct good discussions because students have been led to believe all opinions are equal in value and everyone should open their mouths to babble whatever they wish, no matter how inaccurate or trivial. Resulting from the reign of the Post Modernist attack on objectivity, this belief cripples students’ minds by encouraging them to think that any opinion is acceptable, regardless of foundation, as long as it is theirs.
While stoking their egos by making them feel whatever they think is important, this practice stops them from learning that true, valuable opinion must be grounded in facts and good reasoning.
Postmodernist ideology further deforms a student’s concept of self by equating diversity with group membership. In the Post Modernist schema, one’s diversity depends on race or ethnic background or sexual preference rather than considered, ideological judgment. It promotes a collectivist concept of tribal or social diversity rather than true ideological difference.
In contrast, Active Listening in the classroom conveys a deep respect for the independence of the other person’s mind: the Active Listener takes the student’s ideological point of view seriously and tries to respond to it carefully. The aim of Active Listening is full understanding of what the other is saying in the service of arriving at truth. Just imagine the kind of productive political discussions we all might have if we used these principles!
Some people have a rare, natural ability or tendency to listen like this, but since it can be learned, there’s hope for the rest of us. It is also typical of the Montessori teacher, because of his or her deep training in careful observation of students.
For university students, we can bring together all the elements I’ve discussed through a special way of crafting curriculum by a special methodology which the teachers can use.
Part IV. Socratic Practice: A Methodology That Serves Young Adult Needs
“It is a sign of crudity and indigestion to throw up what we have eaten in the same condition it was swallowed down; and the stomach has not performed its office, if it has not altered the figure and shape of what was committed to it for concoction…Let the tutor make his pupil thoroughly sift everything he reads, and lodge nothing in his fancy upon mere authority…To the fragments borrowed from others he will transform and bend together to make a work that shall be absolutely his own; that is to say, his judgment. His education, labor, and study aim only at forming that.” — Michael Montaigne
Socratic Practice is a formidable discussion methodology that, when used properly, incorporates Active Listening at its best and nurtures reasoning skills and independence powerfully. Classrooms using Socratic Practice are active learning environments, intellectually, socially, and physically engaging. By encouraging the learners to ask their own questions of what they are studying, the motivating power of individual interest is harnessed. Furthermore, because they are so engaging, Socratic Practice discussions don’t tax attentional resources, making learning much easier and enjoyable; students often get into a Flow state, forgetting how much time is passing because they are engaged.
I am referring to a very specific, carefully crafted methodology of teaching, which I will describe shortly. Some of you may have been to classes called Socratic Seminars which are quite different from what I mean. In these, a teacher might ask a question like “What is justice?” and then proceed to tell students they’re wrong when they give an answer the teacher doesn’t want. Well, that’s wrong; Socratic questioning is meant to develop the student’s ability to think about a subject, not to test them and catch them when they are wrong or call them on the carpet for the right answer.
Teachers looking for the right answer encourage students to focus on pleasing the teacher, not on thinking for himself or herself. But the truly excellent teacher aims at helping students learn how to find the right answer themselves.
Students often view school as the place to feed back the answer the teacher wants to hear, not learn new knowledge in order to figure out the truth with their own powers. Teachers skillfully using Socratic Practice often have to spend time rehabilitating students after a lifetime of being told what to learn, what is the “right” answer—or that any answer is right, with no standard of truth.
Consequently, in the beginning of a program using Socratic Practice, the teacher (often called “tutor,” i.e. guide to learning) must work especially hard to shape the learning environment. Just as in any Montessori school, the prepared environment is a key to success in developing the thriving, independent-minded learner.
For the college level, these are the conditions that foster good discussion and develop excellent reasoning and social skills, as well as a strong sense of autonomy:
Physically, the environment must be quiet. All participants are required to respect the appointed time of discussion, with no phone calls, text messages, etc. They sit in a circle facing each other. Attention must be on the discussion, and all participants are expected to have read the assigned text.
Psychologically, the tutor shapes the environment by many principles. He or she requires a formal politeness among discussants, to encourage rational, civil discourse. Sometimes participants must address each other by title and last name (e.g., Ms. Smith and Mr. Murphy).
The tutor picks a text or work that has rich meaning and is well-made. It is most often a text but can be other things such as a painting, sculpture, building, or experiment. The Great Books classics are often used because they embody “The best that has been thought and said” and because they powerfully combine ideas and knowledge from multiple domains, aiding the work of integration. The right piece elicits many interesting thoughts and questions in the participants’ minds. This becomes the meat to explore in the discussion. The goal of the discussion is to reason together about the material, in order for each person to arrive at his or her own, independent judgment about the piece and the ideas and values discussed. Participants think together to think independently. The tutor guides the discussion by evidence-based rules as follows:
- Ask questions of the text and each other.
- Cite the text to give evidence for your ideas and interpretations.
- Try to make connections between the ideas in the text and what other participants say, and your life.
- Each person takes responsibility for his or her own learning and for the quality of the conversation; if you would like to change the direction of a discussion, please feel free to ask the other participants if they are okay with that; then if they are, proceed.
- Treat the other participants respectfully.
- References to material outside of the text must be cogently linked to the text and discussion at hand, and explained in general principle, comprehensible to general reasoning. References dependent on knowledge not available to every participant are not considered cogent to the discussion.
- Be concise.
- In the discussion, reason is the only authority. This means no person is the authority on the text, but each must use logic and facts to support their opinions.
Unless a student starts the discussion, the tutor leads off with a thoughtful question about the reading—or often a factual question if the material is mathematical or scientific. The tutor always finds a question to which he or she genuinely wants to know the answer. This initiates a real inquiry. Students recognize leading questions requiring prescribed answers—which cuts off the student’s own thinking.
Learning to reason objectively about complex material requires the willingness to entertain possibly incorrect ideas in order to examine them fully, to measure them against the facts, and to analyze their rational foundation.
The tutor skillfully encourages questions and comments evincing an earnest search for truth, while discouraging or disallowing talk in which the student is proving his knowledge or disingenuous agreement with the tutor.
For example, during a seminar on Aristotle’s Politics, the tutor might deflect a student who says “Richard McKeon says that Aristotle’s politics…” from lecturing about these details by a question such as “What does Aristotle say that makes you think that is true?” The tutor aims to bring the discussion back to the facts of the text studied, plus the student’s own experience and reasoning. In order for the discussion to be excellent, all participants should be able to judge the facts discussed for themselves, firsthand. If a participant brings up a lot of facts and claims he alone knows, how can anyone else examine those claims firsthand? Instead, the tutor encourages observations of the facts, generalizations closely derived from the facts, and conclusions reasoned from the facts of the work the entire class is studying together. Any outside material must be explained in general terms, understandable to general reasoning.
The tutor must walk a fine line, skillfully encouraging excellent reasoning while being careful not to discourage students from talking because they might have errors in their arguments. If a student is too fearful of looking foolish or feeling humiliated when caught in an error, he or she won’t explore complex ideas thoroughly enough to find out if they are true.
To help students be more consciously aware of how to reason well, both inductively (e.g., how to make an accurate generalization) and deductively (e.g., how to derive a conclusion from already-given facts and ideas) the tutor gives students extra, explicit instruction in reasoning skills and logic. Sessions on logical fallacies especially valuable in sharpening students’ awareness of reasoning’s pitfalls.
When Socratic Practice is implemented well, the group engages in excellent objective reasoning, learning from each other because each person brings their understanding and thoughtful interpretation of what the text and its implications mean. The tutor doesn’t aim at a “right interpretation,” yet it is common to see well-functioning groups reasoning together arrive at solid conclusions, conclusions an expert would reach, about the meaning of very difficult texts, whether Plato’s Meno, Einstein’s Relativity, or Mises’ Human Action.
An excellent seminar leader asks intriguing, deep questions respectfully, keeps discussion on important topics but lets students diverge from the set topic if it means exploring something important and meaningful to them. Clearly, much art and judgment is involved, which is why extensive training is necessary.
To be a good listener, a teacher must be a careful observer. As a scientist, Maria Montessori, incorporated the scientific method into her teacher-training program. She urged her teachers to spend time every day sitting back and watching the students work, interact with each other and deal with problems. In this way, teachers learn a great deal about each student, their interests, abilities and difficulties, thus enabling the teacher to guide him or her well. Observe, empathize, respect—these are the basics of good teaching.
The only way teachers can learn these methods is by intensive questioning and self-reflective experience. Guidance by mentors with great knowledge and skill, plus plenty of experience, helps. Such training should be a key component of every teacher’s education—yet few university professors get any training in teaching at all. Good professors know their area of expertise, from philosophy to physics. But whether they know the subject of human learning and development is idiosyncratic.
The evidence that the methods of Socratic Practice, consistently applied, increases cognitive skills is strong. Our advisor, Michael Strong, extensively discusses these methods in The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.
Strong established remarkable programs in four high schools around the country. He measured program outcomes with the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, a cognitive skills test correlated with performance on intelligence tests and college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT. Administering this instrument before, during and after a year at school, he found cognitive skill gains ranging, for example, from 30% to 84%. The mean score of one school’s 9th grade group moved from below the national 9th grade mean to above the 12th grade mean in one year, while one inner city student who scored at the 1st percentile on the initial test, scored at the 85th percentile by the end of four months. While more work is needed to fully validate his results, they were consistent from school to school. Any teacher would be proud to so deeply help students learn to think well.
Professor John Tomasi implemented this method in his hugely successful special program, The Political Theory Project at Brown University. He says: “Kids are sick and tired of being told what to think. They want to make up their own minds. They want to be challenged.” The kind of work done through Socratic Practice discussions of the Great Books does exactly that.
Scott Buchanan, architect of the Great Books program at St. John’s College, voiced the ultimate goal: “Have you allowed adverse evidence to pile up and force you to conclude that you are not mathematical, not linguistic, not poetic, not scientific, not philosophical? If you have allowed this to happen, you have arbitrarily imposed limits on your intellectual freedom, and you have smothered the fires from which all other freedoms arise.”
The Delicacy of the Young Spirit
Achievement and success require the vision of the possible and the ability to weather the actual.
To navigate the stormy waters of life, the difficulties, the disappointments, the setbacks and the failures, students need cognitive skills and plenty of encouragement and emotional fuel. They need great examples of other human beings who have successfully dealt with many difficulties.
As the scientific findings of Positive Psychology have recently identified, knowledge and cognitive skills integrate with emotional habits and character traits. Healthy, successful, happy people tend to have cognitive habits that deeply influence their emotional tone in a positive direction.
Models are particularly important as they provide concrete experience and A higher education program should always include instruction about human achievement and what makes it possible, both existentially and psychologically. Further, the teachers should implement his or her best attributes:
- commitment to clearly knowing what he or she knows and doesn’t know (the first step on the path of objectivity);
- passion for learning new material and integrating it with other knowledge;
- commitment to modeling the highest virtues of the free person, including honesty, responsibility and respect for the rights of others;
- commitment to the restless pursuit of personal improvement and growth;
- willingness to submit to careful investigation and evaluation in order to improve.
Through embodying these virtues, the teachers inspire students to the highest ends of the free man and woman.
To prepare a young person for life as a free, autonomous individual, capable of making his or her own choices and putting them into action, an excellent curriculum should endeavor to educate the student in the full range of ideas, history, and knowledge. This means using the works of the Classics as well as modern science, and significant modern works, which should include the usually neglected works of the liberty movement. The curriculum should include the study of philosophy as the basis of all knowledge and self-understanding, but also take into consideration findings in scientific psychology and neuroscience. And the teachers and other staff should be available to help students in many aspects of their lives.
This way, students come away from their education armed with inspiring and invigorating knowledge, skills, experiences, and habits that help them achieve their goals.
Published originally at TheSavvyStreet.com, Spring 2015
Written by Ronald Merrill and Marsha Familaro Enright, and edited by Enright, Ayn Rand Explained is now available at Open Court Books, Amazon, on Kindle, and in bookstores everywhere.
Ayn Rand and her ideas are in the news more than ever – 50+ years after her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, was published. What’s driving this rising interest and influence – even politicians like Paul Ryan and Barack Obama talk about her?
Who was this Russian fireball? Why do her ideas speak to the hearts of Americans generation after generation? How are her ideas giving courage to people of all walks of life, from business to art?
Ayn Rand Explained is an engrossing account of the life, work, and influence of Ayn Rand: her career, from youth in Soviet Russia to Hollywood screenwriter and then to ideological guru; her novels and other fiction writings, including the perennial best-sellers, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged; her work in ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics; her influence on—and personal animosity toward—both conservatism and libertarianism.
Merrill and Enright describe Rand’s early infatuation with Nietzsche, her first fiction writings, the developments behind her record-breaking blockbuster novels of 1943 and 1957, her increasing involvement in politics in the 1950s and 1960s, including her support for the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater.
Rand’s Objectivist movement was first promoted through the Nathaniel Branden Institute, headed by her young protégé and designated heir. The Institute advocated a complete worldview on politics, economics, religion, art, music, epistemology, ethics (“The Virtue of Selfishness”), and sexual relationships. For several years the Institute grew rapidly, though there were ominous signs as some leading members were ‘put on trial’ for their heretical ideas, and ignominiously drummed out of the movement.
In 1969, Branden himself was expelled by Rand, the Institute was shut down, and all members who questioned this ruling were themselves excommunicated and shunned by Rand and her disciples. Branden became a best-selling author of psychotherapy books, with a following of Objectivists who had dissociated from the official organization headed by Rand, and after her death in 1982, by Leonard Peikoff. One of Rand’s inner circle, Alan Greenspan, later went on to get his hands on the steering wheel of the American economy.
Objectivism offers a comprehensive package of beliefs encompassing the ethics of rational egoism and dedication to a consistently rational method of thinking and acting. This includes a rejection of all religion and outright atheism and a view of the arts as expressions of deeply held, mostly subconscious, philosophical views of the world. It also advocates personal freedom from political interference, a moral defense of laissez-faire capitalism, and radically limited government as a protection of the individual, positions deeply aligned with the project of the American Founders.
The last few years have witnessed a resurgence of Objectivism, with a jump in sales of Rand’s novels and the influence of Rand’s ideas in the Tea Party movement and the Republican party. While gaining membership, the Objectivist movement continues to be divided into warring factions, the two major groupings led by the Ayn Rand Institute (Yaron Brook) and the Atlas Society (David Kelley).
Ayn Rand Explained is a completely revised and updated edition of The Ideas of Ayn Rand, by the late Ronald E. Merrill, first published by Open Court in 1991. It includes not only new information about Rand’s rocketing influence, but new stories about her personal relationships, and new analysis of her life and ideas.
Here’s what people are saying about it:
“Ayn Rand is in the news now more than ever—but the media consistently misunderstands her. Read Ayn Rand Explained for a thorough and clear introduction to her ideas!”—JIMMY WALES, founder of Wikipedia
“Ayn Rand Explained takes us on an exciting exploration of Rand’s provocative worldview and expertly traces its huge contemporary impact on politics, economics, art, and culture. Marsha Familaro Enright provides much new information and probing, in-depth analysis. A surprising, intriguing take on a controversial writer.”—CHRIS MATTHEW SCIABARRA, author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical
“I immensely enjoyed reading Ayn Rand Explained. Packed with fascinating information, much of it new, the book is a real page turner—and a reminder of why Rand’s novels are continuously making their way onto best-seller lists.”—VERONIQUE DE RUGY, Senior Research Fellow, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University
“Co-authored by two thoughtful admirers of Rand’s, Ronald Merrill and Marsha Familaro Enright, this modest volume is full of new tidbits about her life, the evolution of her thought, under-recognized aspects of her ideas, the ongoing development of the Objectivist movement, and Rand’s influence on society. An updated revision of late entrepreneur Merrill’s “The Ideas of Ayn Rand”, educator-author Enright adds biographical details, sociological updating, and thoughtful summaries of Rand’s ideas to this little gem.
“Ayn Rand has penetrated our societal conscience. Deceased since 1982, her books continue to be best-sellers, decades after their original appearance. She is known to have inspired VP candidate Paul Ryan; a second movie based on her 1,000+ page magnum opus is currently in theaters; and she is even discussed in a current Rolling Stone magazine interview with the President. Her cultural presence is remarkably polarizing – she seems to inspire either deep-seated admiration or equally passionate resentment. The opinion-less commentator is as rare as the proverbial black swan or an independent voter. Love her or hate her, Rand continues to draw widespread attention for her passionate defense of rationality, self-interest, capitalism and atheism.
“For those interested in what “all the fuss is” about Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism — especially those afraid to commit to her ultralong novels — will find this concise summary of her life, ideas, and influence a godsend. Those who are already familiar with her life and work, but who are looking for a fresh perspective, will find that here, too.
“Enright is responsible for bringing novel material with the brand new first three chapters. They add excellent material on Rand’s life, her thought, and her impact on our society. This is especially helpful given that Merrill’s original book was published in 1991, so updating is welcomed. Also, Enright’s own experiences with the Objectivist movement from the beginning, including personal interactions with Rand herself, add intriguing material, interweaving these up-close observations with the development of the wider movement. The remainder of the book is a thoughtfully edited version of Merrill’s thoughts, intertwined clearly with Enright’s own insights, especially at points of disagreement, which are clearly delineated. It is a model of even-handedness.
“One welcomed aspect of this book, given the subject matter, is its consistent tone of critical admiration of Rand, her life, and her ideas. Too many books are either fawning, sycophantic cheerleading for Rand or harsh, condemning diatribes against her. This supportive volume, with a critical, independent touch where needed, is a welcome addition to the growing literature surrounding this unique Russian immigrant to America.” — William Dale, M.D., Ph.D.
Thoughts from an expert teacher
by Marsha Familaro Enright
Very, very often when I tell people about our project to open a new college program, their first question is: “Will it be online?”
And they have good reasons to expect that it would be: online is vastly cheaper than in-person teaching and it can reach people everywhere in the world. Companies like the Floating University are trying to utilize the best of online resources to game-change higher education. With top lecturers and teachers, they have online tools offering certifications rather than the whole enchilada of a college degree.
Let’s look at a few of the best things online education can do:
- Provide the best lecturer on Shakespeare, or Feynman, or Von Mises, when and where you want to hear him or her.
- Provide the best demonstration of angular momentum at 3 AM when you can’t sleep.
- Teach you how to make a bowtie or what the ancient Romans ate for lunch, just by Googling.
- Connect people who might never have a chance to meet, and help them collaborate.
In other words, the Internet gives you access to an enormous amount of the world’s knowledge about facts, ideas, skills, procedures, and analysis. And it allows you to connect with experts you might never be able to access otherwise, as well as and others all over the world. This is a fabulous resource for learning! And, don’t get me wrong, the RIFI program incorporates all these uses.
But our program requires a significant amount of in-person learning, and some people look askance at this.
Tales from the Front
About six months ago, I mentioned this issue to an applied scientist from a big lab who’s a friend and supporter. She immediately said “Oh, remote learning is never as good as in-person!”
I was a bit surprised because of the usual enthusiasm which technical people have for remote learning: they’re often the most adept at using these resources. So I recently interviewed her to get her story:
About once a month she is either teaching or learning something for her job. She often teaches other scientists, engineers, and technicians how to use the information on the website of their mutual organization—which has facilities all over—and how to explore new ideas for their projects.
Sometimes she teaches on-site but, often, she’s using teleconferencing or video-conferencing with a group of people at another site. During these sessions, they see her presentations, hear her voice, and see her image. If she sees them, it’s not close up, but they can make comments and submit questions.
She finds that the distance teaching never works as well as in-person. And she’s thought a lot about why. “If you go into a restaurant decorated with real plants, there is a different feeling than if the plants are artificial. A different atmosphere. The same thing happens in class.”
So what are some of the differences?
It’s in the Atmosphere
Remotely, “I have no idea what the audience is understanding,” she says. She can’t see them in enough detail in order to notice whether they have questions, are confused—or bored out of their minds. Consequently, she can’t adjust her presentation to suit their needs.
If she could see their faces and their reactions, she might get a sense of how to interact with them. I suggested having shots of their individual faces onscreen while she teaches, but she thinks that would be too difficult to absorb, probably because they would be separate images and because they would lack the detail of the real.
What’s the data she’s likely missing? Information from 3-d body movements, facial expressions, subtle eye movements, tone of voice or even pheromones that would indicate mood and reaction. I also wonder how comprehension is affected because mirror neurons can’t operate.
Mirror neurons identify and respond to others’ emotional expressions, helping us navigate social relationships. It’s the lack of these factors that can make email and online discussion a nightmare of misunderstandings.
Further, she thinks the remote participants feel, “’I can’t learn how interested the lecturer is in ME.’ A good teacher genuinely wants to help you learn something,” and, consequently, conveys excitement, interest and, concern about whether the participants are learning and enjoying what’s being taught.
And this “atmosphere,” these motivations, are essential to encouraging audience questions. Why does this matter?
Because questions, are crucial to good learning. They allow the teacher to find out how the students are understanding the material, and adjust what she conveys to suit them. And they ensure that the students are actively learning, i.e. thinking about the material in relation to their other knowledge. This is how new material is best absorbed and integrated.
Yet, most people are reluctant to ask questions, for a variety of reasons. A common one: they don’t want to appear stupid or draw attention to themselves. Asking a question in front of the whole class is akin to public speaking—and most people fear that worse than death! They’re often concerned about appearing stupid, ignorant, or foolish.
My friend’s experience with in-person classes demonstrates this problem and how it’s even worse with remote learning. In a one-hour in-person class, if the class is very active, she may get a dozen questions. Infrequently, the class engages in a deep conversation. But when she runs the class remotely, she rarely gets any questions whatsoever, and never a deep conversation.
Another example is what happens to her group’s “Zen presentations.” These involve perfectly crafted visuals with no words on them. The pictures have to convey everything the teacher is going to talk about, so the audience can grasp the ideas just by sight. In the presentation, the teacher gives them the words to go with the picture.
Further, the Zen presentations have to have exactly the right pace to be successful—with the teacher conveying casual thoughtfulness and considered responses to the audience. This simply cannot happen through mere audio or even video.
What’s the Relationship?
She’s identified a few of the causes for these problems with remote education:
- There’s a slight time shift, a gap between when she talks and when they hear, causing participants to be unsure of the right time to ask questions; this results in a feeling of formality, making them hesitate to speak up,
- It allows no eye contact, so the participants can’t convey when they might have a question; consequently, the participants don’t know when it is polite to interrupt the speaker,
- The teachers and participants cannot easily share knowledge and interest in the subject, even interest and motivation for the work they are doing together, yet motivation is so important to learning.
As a result, a weak relationship develops between teacher and participants, or participants with each other.
Instead of mutual engagement, learning some new, fascinating information and working well together towards their mutual goals, there is a void, the void of the learning relationship, of the learning and working community in which they should belong.
The importance of the personal relationship becomes very apparent when she compares two different kinds of classes they have at her organization. In one, they learn information and procedures, and rather introverted, scientific and technical types are the participants. They often do this remotely.
But the other kind of class is with extroverted, sociable types who need to work with the engineers, scientists, and technicians. The purpose of the class is to help the more sociable types, administrators and the like, learn how to interact with the technical people. These classes can never be done remotely. There’s simply no way the people can learn what they need except in person.
Maybe When We Have Holodecks?
I think my scientist friend has trenchantly identified some of the basic problems with distance classes of any kind. That doesn’t even address the needs of young people going to college, who are trying to learn not only information but also how to think well and what kind of person they want to become.
However, that’s a discussion for another day, soon.
As far as my friend’s classes, she thinks it would be just as productive to tape her presentations and let participants watch when they like, as to do them remotely.
Alas, until we develop holodecks, those simulated reality rooms in which people meet and interact on “Star Trek,” online education cannot replace the kinds of learning only possible with in-person interaction; the full learning relationship. We’ll talk about that more in the future.
“Joy, feeling ones own value, being appreciated and loved by others, feeling useful and
capable of production are all factors of enormous value for the human soul.”
(Maria Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence, p. 87)
by Marsha Familaro Enright
SOCRATIC SEMINARS are a method of teaching, which, if properly implemented, foster independence, develop excellent reasoning skills, and nurture a sense of the rightness of individual liberty. These seminars significantly increase the participants’ abilities to think for themselves. The term “Socratic Seminar” is used variously, but the following describes the kind I am talking about:
A discussion in which all participants read a common text, or study a common work of art, or scientific experiment, or film, etc. and examine its meaning and implications together, following a delineated set of principles which will be described in the following. In this type of discussion, no person or persons are accepted as an authority about the material studied; Reason is the only authority, i.e. facts and logic concerning the material.
Also called a Collaborative Seminar because participants reason together to understand the material.
PRINCIPLES OF SOCRATIC SEMINARS
THE GOAL OF THE DISCUSSION IS TO THINK CLEARLY AND
TO THINK CLEARLY TOGETHER
Rules of the discussion:
- Ask questions of the text or work studied, and each other.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions about what you don’t understand, no matter how trivial it may seem – the goal is to understand the meaning of the work clearly.
- Cite the text or indicate the feature of the work which gives evidence for your opinions/conclusions.
- References to material outside of the work must be cogently linked to the work and to the discussion at hand, and explained in general principle, comprehensible to general reasoning.
- References dependent on knowledge not available to every participant are not considered cogent to the discussion.
- Be concise.
- Keep comments related to the work while making connections with your other ideas and experiences.
- Each person takes responsibility for his or her own learning and for the quality of the conversation; this means that if you are not happy with the way things are going, please speak up and suggest solutions so as to make the discussion better.
- Each person treats the other participants respectfully.
- In the discussion, Reason is the only authority.
THINKING SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE
Most methods of teaching assume the teacher’s goal is merely to convey a given body of information. Lecture, testing, review are preferred. What good things are left out of such conventional methods?
– INSTRUCTION AND GUIDANCE IN FIRST-HAND THINKING: e.g. in how to look at any aspect of reality for yourself; a skill needed in order to be independent.
– EXPLICIT TUTELAGE IN THINKING SKILLS: Asking questions while learning is essential to develop thinking skills; it is a way of determining what you know or don’t. But, in a conventional classroom, questions about the ideas being taught are often quashed as interfering with the business of information acquisition.
– TUTELAGE IN CREATIVITY SKILLS: thinking of many different possibilities and combinations of ideas and facts—the substance of creativity—are not usually encouraged in traditional classrooms. This has been especially true with the focus on testing these past decades because of the assumption of most tests that there’s only one right answer. Creativity researcher Ken Robinson has a very informative talk about this at TED.com.
– INTEGRATION OF KNOWLEDGE: Very little is done to connect subjects across domains of knowledge. Students aren’t taught the relationship of math to history, science to English, geography to politics, or the relationship of philosophy to all the subjects, and to your life. Yet, the ability to use diverse information and ideas from many sources and knowledge domains is crucial–practically, creatively, and productively.
– CONNECTION OF ABSTRACT TO CONCRETE: Very often students are given little help in connecting the ideas and theories they are taught to the facts, or what they are learning to the practical. What’s the connection between the Napoleonic Wars and my contemporary life? Yet, there is a crucial connection.
– PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT: No special learning or guidance is taught about inner development and interpersonal skills. Yet these skills are crucial for self-control, self-direction, productivity, and working with other people.
Here’s what one of my students said about her education before coming to our The Great Connections summer seminar, which uses Socratic seminars:
“I knew about dates and facts, but I wasn’t able to view processes along history, the connection between the facts and philosophy….in many cases, learning is not meaningful for the student.”
LEARNING TO THINK FOR YOURSELF ISN’T EASY
Identifying your own opinions, how you arrived at them, and whether they comport with the facts is difficult. It’s a lot of work to continuously analyze ideas and assumptions down to their base. One has only a limited amount of time to think; it’s hard to constantly stop and think about fundamentals. But that’s exactly why it’s so important to develop the habits of mind that make it easy to think about fundamentals in everyday life. Once you have developed these habits, you can analyze and understand events, ideas, readings, people, etc. much more quickly.
Thinking in fundamentals also leads to more creative thinking, because you’re going to the root of the ideas, to the actual reality on which the ideas are based. You are looking directly at the facts, and not accepting the conventional package of thinking, the conventional “box” about the issue or problem. This is how hugely productive, innovative thinkers such as Aristotle or Michelangelo or Michael Faraday or Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs proceeded.
PRINCIPLES TO STRENGTHEN THINKING
All of the following skills and values–and more–can be developed through Socratic Seminars.
- CHECK YOUR PREMISES: identify the facts and ideas on which your conclusions rest and their justification, follow the chain of ideas from the abstract to the fact it rests upon, thereby developing the habit and ability to identify the fundamentals of an argument or work.
- LOOK FOR THE CASH VALUE OF IDEAS: Connect abstract ideas and theories with concrete reality.
- INTEGRATION: Connect the facts and meaning related to one set of ideas to all your others. This method of discussion emphasizes connections between ideas. Combined with the study of the Classics, this leads to much integration of one’s knowledge. That’s because many of the works used cover issues and questions that span multiple domains of knowledge, such as Plato’s Symposium, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or Nietszche’s Ecce Homo. This practice is important for understanding, living, and creativity;
- PHILOSOPHICAL DETECTION: Identify the moral implications, the implications for living, of any set of ideas. What would idea X mean if I put it into practice?;
- KNOW YOURSELF: like Socrates, identify information/data about yourself and your motivations; learn how to introspect successfully.
FOR A GOOD SOCRATIC SEMINAR, A PREPARED ENVIRONMENT IS CRUCIAL FOR LEARNING
It has three elements:
The text or work.
The physical set up.
1. Role of the Work: You must use a text or work (art, movie, scientific experiment, musical composition) of stimulating depth and interest, because of the CENTRAL ACTIVITY, which is: Participants discuss the exact meaning of the text or work, carefully thinking about the wording (or aspects relevant to the kind of work it is) and the implications, and inferences.
PARTICIPANTS ACT AS SCIENTISTS, with the work as the reality to explain, the facts to grasp and analyze, and to integrate with their knowledge and life.
THE WORK must be able to elicit deep thought, significant insight, and add much to knowledge, which is why the Classics or Great Books are so often used. Examples of useful works:
- The Pledge of Allegiance,
- Plato’s Republic
- Film: “Gattaca”
- Sculpture: The Winged Victory
2. The Role of the Teacher: the teacher is a guide who demonstrates rather than talks about ways of investigating. He or she must be a highly self-reflective person with a great love of learning, whose passionate aim is the nurturance of minds and spirits.
The teacher must present himself as the Expert Learner who serves as an example of rational inquiry, independent examination, and discovery—rather than an expert in the information. To reiterate, the discussion follows these principles:
- Each person recognizes that Reason is the only authority in the discussion.
- Participants must ask questions of the text and each other.
- Participants must cite the text to give evidence for their ideas and interpretations.
- References to material outside of the text must be cogently linked to the text and discussion at hand, and explained in general principle, comprehensible to general reasoning. References dependent on knowledge not available to each participant are not considered cogent to the discussion.
- Participants should try to make connections to their lives.
- Each person takes responsibility for his or her own learning and for the quality of the conversation.
- Each person treats the other participants respectfully.
The teacher guides the discussion, helping participants reason together by asking questions that encourage participants to actively think about the work and its meaning. Questions such as:
- What does the author mean by using this word instead of that word?
- How does what the author says in this paragraph relate to what is said in that paragraph?
- How do these ideas relate to other ideas I know? How can I relate these ideas to general principles I know?
- If I tried to do what the author suggests in real life, what would happen?
The teacher also models how to respectfully talk to others in the discussion.
Further, the teacher encourages students to take ownership of the discussion by encouraging the student to suggest different strategies to approach issues and do any work needed, such as listing ideas on a blackboard, elaborating on the meaning of a passage, or suggesting a way to make the discussion better.
At the end of the seminar, the teacher leads a DEBRIEF: a 5-minute self-reflective discussion about the process of the discussion, including the reasoning and the personal behavior. The teacher asks what ideas, comments, principles, or conclusions advanced or detracted from learning and how to improve the conversation and the behavior for the next time. Blaming is discouraged; constructive ideas encourage.
The Debrief improves future discussions and develops self-awareness and responsibility by encouraging each person to reflect on:
- What they could have done differently or better to improve their or their classmates’ understanding of the work or their understanding of what others said,
- How they could have encouraged others to speak, or how they could have modified detracting discussion habits.
The Teacher’s Guiding Principles:
- Find exceptional works which require careful thinking and analysis to understand, and which have complex import.
- Help students with careful questions to understand these texts or other material (artworks, scientific experiments, musical compositions, etc).
- Keep his own opinions mainly to himself; instead, lead by example as a most enthusiastic and careful inquirer into the meaning of the study material; showing relationships to other important ideas, with reason as the only authority.
Encourage students to:
- Voice their own responses to the work and point to evidence in the work to demonstrate what gave rise to these responses.
- Be unafraid to admit thoughts about the work that don’t seem, at first glance, obvious conclusions, and then explore why they may be thinking them.
- Carefully listen to and respond to the meaning of what others are saying.
- Help other participants voice their reasons.
- Competitive displays of knowledge.References to other works and sets of ideas which cannot be simply explained to other seminar members and/or related directly to the material studied.
- Anything but respectful comments and behavior towards other participants.
All must be done subtly and artfully, so as not to take away the initiative of students or squash their egos.
The Teacher must also give students lots of rein in the direction of the discussion, even if it gets off the specific topic of the text, as long as the discussion still actively and seriously explores ideas. These diversions are perfectly acceptable as a learning exercise because the goal of the discussion is to learn how to analyze materials well, not to master specific material (mastery comes as a result of learning and thinking about the material on your own, before and after class).
Off topic discussion can sometimes be very effective in achieving the discussion goal.
THE ROLE OF THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT
The discussion group should be small, preferably not over 15 people.
- Enables a controllable discussion.
- Develops personal relationships among the students; they get to know and care about each other, and gain a depth of understanding which galvanizes the discussion, just like a talk with a good friend.
The discussion should be held in a quiet room, with chairs in a circle, no materials except the works being discussed and water, paper, and pen. This environment:
- Encourages each member to view others as co-learners;
- Emphasizes that each person’s mind is his or her ultimate authority.
- Allows concentration on learning.
- Establishes seriousness and respect for the learning endeavor.
THE VALUE OF THE GROUP INTERACTION
- The practice of putting your thoughts into words in order to communicate with others develops your clarity of thought.
- Each person brings a different focus to the work, thereby drawing participants’ attention to far more aspects and meanings than one person could think on his own.
- In the discussion, students learn different ways in which the same information can be reasoned about and integrated.
- The respectful atmosphere can lead to close personal relationships, which can be encouraging and psychologically validating.
- Students learn how to collaborate to achieve understanding, a very valuable skill in adult life in which trade requires collaboration between buyer and seller and in teams of workers.
- The ability to ask good questions to find the meaning of any work, skill, or situation in reading and analyzing any text or problem, even outside one’s area of knowledge.
- The ability to be exact about the meaning of words and their definitions, which sharpens thinking and knowledge tremendously.
- The ability to identify the logic of arguments.
- A vastly expanded network of information and knowledge, particularly about some of the greatest, most influential thinkers, writers, artists and scientists.
- The ability to be self-responsible about learning, not dependent on what a teacher says to learn or think.
- The confidence and ability to question anything and anybody;
- The confidence that one’s mind is capable to grasp reality and the most difficult ideas, theories, and works available in any domain of knowledge;
The confidence that one can learn anything.
Michael Strong is an expert in Socratic Seminars and the author of the book The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice. In addition to this book, you can find him discussing Socratic Seminars on YouTube. He created 5 high schools based on a Socratic Seminar curriculum, over a period of 15 years.
He administered the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (WGCTA), a cognitive skills test, to his students before beginning his program (of 5-day-a-week classes), after four months, and then at the end of the school year.
Here are some of his results:
- 9 of 12 minority females gained a 20% or more increase in their WGCTA scores in four months.
- One inner city student tested at the 1st percentile at the start, then at the 85th after four months.
- Even highly achieving upper middle class Montessori students gained cognitive skills. In four months, the average 8th grade Socratic seminar student (n=71) scored 6% higher than the national average.
Through my organization, The Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, we offer week-long and weekend seminars using the Socratic method described here, and emphasizing integration across domains and with practical knowledge. Here’s what a former Great Connections Summer Seminar student said about her experience:
Liz Parker was a senior at George Mason University in Economics when she attended in July 2009, interviewed in the fall of 2010:
“When my college classes started they were a big disappointment.
“I normally struggle with ideas on my own and say to myself “It’s not too important to understand.”
“But when you share with people, you’re not so scared about getting the wrong conclusion because, together, you find different ways to think about the readings and the ideas. It makes it more fun to read really hard texts.
“For example, we were reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics onThe Principle of Non-Contradiction and we spent so long on just the first sentence, we were going crazy—
“And then, all of a sudden, someone said something that made it all clear, and I thought “Yes, that’s exactly what I understand it to mean!”
“When two people find that same common understanding, that same interpretation of words that someone else wrote hundreds of years ago, that’s so precious—you hardly ever get that moment of understanding with anybody.
“And there’s no upstaging one another or seeing who knows the most. The way you gauge someone is not whether they get all the answers right because the questions you’re asking don’t necessarily have an answer. It’s more how do you interpret this word or sentence or paragraph, or what does that mean.
“Now when I’m reading something about politics, I can take things to their logical conclusion and see if they’re contradicting themselves—it makes a big difference.
“It helped me at an IHS seminar last year with students from Harvard and MIT who were really intimidating political science guys.
“You could tell who really pays attention to the fundamental ideas, who knows the principles.
“I often found that their ideas were just wrong. Maybe they were just following the ideas of their teachers or maybe some intellectual they like, but they really didn’t have good reasons for what they said.
” What the seminar taught me was that no matter what text I have in front of me, or what my knowledge on a subject, I can understand something that the author is trying to say. I can interpret it from their words. I don’t need to do a lot of research or to consult a lot of experts. I can use my reason, and their words and the text and find my own opinion, and their opinion. It was so empowering just to know I can figure out such difficult ideas.
“Also, now when I go to job interviews, I’m not shy and timid about what I have to offer. I think that I can contribute good work and I’m productive. I think “Not only do I have technical skills, I can analyze texts, no matter what they is, I can figure them out, even if I’m ignorant on the subject.”
You can read the full interview and that of 2 other students on our website, www.rifinst.org.
As September 11th approaches, Americans remember the morning in 2001 when the World Trade Center turned to rubble. It is a fitting time to consider the nature of the civilizations that collided that day—and how to defend ours.
In their quest to establish a worldwide caliphate, radical Islamists invoke morality, claiming they have God’s sanction for performing their barbarous acts.
To defend Western civilization, we, also, need to invoke morality. But although the world envies the wealth we’ve achieved, it is widely seen as the product of soulless materialism, of unbridled “greed,” of unscrupulous self-indulgence.
What moral claim, then, can we make for our way of life?
To understand the moral values of the West, let’s turn to its beginning. In her prescient 1943 work of political philosophy, “The God of the Machine,” Isabel Paterson chose as the symbol of Western man a figure from Ancient Greece: Pytheas. This enterprising merchant left his homeland to explore Britain and beyond, seeking tin to make bronze. Insatiably curious, Pytheas also discovered the relationship between the moon’s phases and the tides, and was the first to describe the aurora and other phenomena.
Pytheas epitomizes the Western spirit: a self-directed man whose free will determines his life’s course, a thinker who employs reason and science to understand the world around him, and a producer who seeks to sell goods in peaceful trade.
From its founding, America was intended to be the country where Pytheas could flourish—the first nation established to protect the life, liberty, and property of the individual. It did so by curbing government power over the peaceful activities of its citizens.
In this, the contrast between America and radical Islam could not be greater.
Whereas Thomas Jefferson exhorts us to “Question with boldness even the existence of a God,” militant Islam kills people for apostasy.
Whereas James Madison proclaims a man has “a right to his property” and equally “a property in [all of] his rights,” Palestinian Islamists strap suicide belts on five year-olds, seizing their young lives to fight ancient vendettas.
Whereas the Declaration of Independence affirms America’s devotion to life, Osama bin Laden declares: We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the difference between us two.
“The excellence of the West” lies in its “respect for the human being, the recognition of his individuality, the liberty it has granted him,” observes Saudi Shura Council member and Muslim reformist Ibrahim Al-Buleihi.
“Humans are originally individuals,” he continues, “but cultures (including Arab culture) have dissolved the individual in the tribe, sect, or state.” It is only “with the diffusion of philosophical ideas from [Ancient] Greece” that “the human being became an individual of value for himself . . . and not merely a means for others.” (Profile of Al-Buleihi, The Aafaq Foundation, July 6, 2010)
Thus, in our civilization, a person is born free to live for his own sake and to pursue happiness. In radical Islam, a person must obey a central authority and sacrifice his life to its aims. Which society is better?
Granted the West’s superiority, why is radical Islam advancing? Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim, cites “an active propaganda campaign” in which “the Saudis invested at least $2 billion a year over a 30-year period to spread their brand of fundamentalist Islam.” (Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2010)
Why aren’t we passionately defending our civilization? Certainly, money isn’t the obstacle. Is it because we don’t understand the nobility of our individualist foundation, including the virtue of private advancement and profit?
We must never forget that we’re the country of Pytheas: a people of free will, free minds, and free enterprise. Our spectacular prosperity is not our dishonor, but the glory of our liberty.
It is said that Ground Zero is “sacred ground.” In truth, all of America is sacred ground—because the individual is sacred here.
We must assert the moral superiority of our civilization—or lose it to our enemies.
Marsha Familaro Enright is president of the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, the Foundation for the College of the United States. Gen LaGreca is author of Noble Vision, an award-winning novel about the struggle for liberty in health care today.
Originally published at The Daily Caller, 9/8/2010.
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