Charicles, one of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens, said, “The fact is, Socrates, you are in the habit of asking questions to which you know the answers. That is what you are not to do.”
– Xenophon, Memorabilia I, ii, 36
Discussion is made much of today: Much is made of discussion techniques, the function of the discussion leader, and that sort of thing.
There are things one can do to make discussion more effective-things to be learned from instruction and things to be picked up from experience. But it is important to keep in mind that discussion is not something to be pursued for its own sake. In fact, an undue concern for discussion can bring out the worst in students. This should be kept in mind as one hears much made today of “participation” and of discussion leaders.
The ultimate leaders of the best seminar discussions are the authors of the best books. It is only in the best books that one is likely to encounter the finest examples of minds at work-and it is vital to the development of the best in students that they become aware of how the very best do think. Is there any reliable way to develop such an awareness except by helping students begin to grasp what the best minds-that is, minds truly thinking-say?
There is a need, then, to figure out what the particular author being discussed on any occasion has argued: What does he stand for? How does he put what he says and why? What position is he speaking against?
Critical to a full understanding of any argument is an informed opinion as to whether it is sound. Still, we should not make too much, in our circumstances, of having students pass judgment on the best minds, especially when it is easy to come to believe in an egalitarian age that one man’s opinion is just as good as another’s. Rather, students should be helped to appreciate that one is always obliged to reach in order to grasp what the very best minds have thought.
It should be evident, then, that I am talking about how one learns to read. Of course, various technical skills are needed. Often, they follow from, or are enhanced by, mastery of the subject. Of course, also, the opinions of students-opinions grounded in whatever experience they happen to have had-should be drawn upon if discussion is to be vital.
But all this is, I repeat, subordinate to the inquiry: What did this author say here?
This means, among other things, that students should be disciplined to examine and to understand their text, not to talk about it as if they were preparing a new text of their own. Only when they understand properly the guides available to them can they usefully apply what they learn to issues of the day.
On the other hand, a text is treated differently (and all too often inadequately) when it provides little more than an occasion, or the point of departure, for discussing matters of current interest.
This means, in turn, that the discussion leader must have a confident sense of what is relevant, what contributes to an understanding of whatever is being said by the text, and what is (however “interesting”) no more than a digression, if not even mere self-indulgence. The better the leader knows the book at hand, the better he knows what questions should be pressed, what lines of discussion should be pursued, and what more remains to be explored.
To know a book means, among other things, that one is aware of its presuppositions, principles, and ends. One is hardly likely to be an “expert” with respect to each text one leads a discussion of; but a tentative grasp of each such text is useful, especially if one is aware of one’s limitations.
To say that the leader is limited is not to say that he cannot do good things. In fact, just the opposite may be true. That is, the best discussions often depend upon the fact that the leader himself has a genuine inquiry which he is personally pursuing with his class. Much is to be said for not doing the same things each time one discusses a particular book, for not going over the same parts each time one returns to that book. Indeed, one must be careful not to make too much of the teacher as actor.
The most effective way to proceed may be to settle upon a particular passage, using it as the occasion for studying the whole work. In order to do this, of course, oneshould have a reliable sense of the overall organization and argument of the work. (I mention in passing the suggestion that students be permitted, as much as possible, to do all the reading aloud that is done in class. This not only helps accustom them to using the best language available to them, but it also helps their teacher resist the temptation to put on a show.)
One advantage of an approach which has the class settle upon a particular passage is that it helps remedy the short attention span evident in students, especially those steeped in television. They need to be encouraged to make sustained intellectual efforts. (Working through poems, as well as through Euclid’s demonstrations, should also contribute to this end.) Another advantage of settling upon a particular passage is that it helps compensate for any lack of preparation among the students present.
The discussion “method” I have been sketching is one which is much richer for everyone concerned than what usually goes on in class. This way the teacher is constantly learning and hence is more likely to remain vital himself. Indeed, the alert “teacher” should expect to learn more than anyone else.
Students surely do want the best for themselves, but they need repeated testimonials as to what is truly good. Not the least of the ways in which young students are helped is by their observing and imitating adults who are obviously (and with considerable effort and satisfaction) constantly learning themselves.
It is important, then, when considering books of the highest stature, to suggest by precept and example that there is an argument to work out, that such an argument depends on certain presuppositions and objectives, that there are better and worse points to be made in such arguments, that we do have the ability to understand such things, that we also have the ability (as well as the duty) to judge what is often said about such things, that some people who talk a lot (even quite intelligent people) simply do not know what they are talking about much of the time, and that others (also quite intelligent people) can actually believe that such talkers know what they are talking about. It is important, I say, that students come to appreciate these things.
Thus, in this way, students should get a better idea than they would otherwise have of a first-rate text, of how to talk about it, and of how to assess others who talk about it.
They should develop, over time, an awareness of the fundamental and enduring questions that the best books define and try to answer. And when they do have this awareness, they can better notice, and do something with, the facts all around them.
Until the enduring questions are grasped, one cannot truly notice (that is, even see) what is immediately around one. Nor does one know what to ask about or what to do with the facts that one does happen to notice.
Perhaps the most important thing for many students, and especially for the more intelligent and articulate among them, is that they develop a proper sense of their own limitations.
Of course, they should also have developed in themselves both a confidence in their abilities and an assurance that there are standards to be applied to what they do. But first and foremost, they should be led to sense what one needs to know in order to know enough for the matter at hand.
All this, it should be impressed upon contemporary students, is not just for the sake of utility. Too much around us stresses utility already-and this can mean mere hedonism, which tends to be shortsighted and fragmented, and ultimately frustrating and destructive. Rather, students today should be encouraged to recognize that much is to be said for “understanding for its own sake,” including that understanding provided us by things of beauty.
Among the many consequences of an emphasis upon utility can be the notion that discussion should be made much of. But however useful discussion may be for providing students practice in thinking things through, it bears repeating that students should be taught that they should not want merely to talk. Rather, they should be thoughtful-and this depends upon, among other things, an awareness of what one needs to know in order to become thoughtful. This can also mean that students should come to respect, perhaps even to defer to, genuine thoughtfulness in others.
Or, put another way, students should be so trained that they come to discourage facile talk wherever they are likely to encounter it, thereby promoting serious public discourse all around them.
In short, then, a proper respect should be developed in our students for the art of reading and for the ability to think-that ability to think which serious reading, as well as fruitful discussion, promotes, depends upon, and cherishes.