“Very informative introduction to ‘the classics.’”
“We discussed a broad spectrum of texts, multiple perspectives.”
“I am finally able to draw connections between the different authors.”
As proof of concept: the basic course “Sources of the Western tradition”
From February until June 2017 AILAS organized a proof of concept course in the library of the National Maritime Museum, taught by academic faculty. During this period students filled out two short questionnaires, sat one exam and wrote ten small and one medium-sized essay. Amongst the authors and texts read were Homer, Iliad (selections); Plato, Apology; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (selections); Bible (selections); St. Augustine, Confessions (selections); Descartes, Discourse on Method; Newton, Principia Mathematica (selections); Hobbes, Leviathan (selections); Smith, The Wealth of Nations (selections); and Mill, On Liberty (selections). Attention was also paid to the Western traditions of music and art.
Participants had to be (or had to have been) registered as students at an accredited institution of higher education. The number of participants was limited to a maximum of fifteen.
The course offered students an introduction to the Western intellectual tradition. Emphasis lay on the supervised study of the large monuments of this tradition, often called the core texts or great books.
Due to its introductory character and the limited number of meetings, there was no expectation that students would absorb the books completely. Instead, we read carefully selected fragments and chapters. Nonetheless, several shorter works were considered in their entirety, such as Plato’s Apology and Descartes’ Discourse on Method.
The texts were discussed in such a way that for students they would function as coordinates on a mental map. For example, the student would see how the concept of ‘virtue’ changed in meaning between Homer and Plato, how Augustinian themes returned in Descartes, and how Hobbes’ political thought had been influenced by the scientific revolution in which Newton played a prominent role. In this way students developed a hold on the structure of Western intellectual history and acquired insight into the coherence between the different academic disciplines.
Students began by acquiring basic facts, such as dates, names, and elementary context. Subsequently the emphasis shifted to the study and comprehension of the textual sources. In this phase students wrote weekly essays in which they clearly and logically presented the main argument of the assigned author. The course concluded with a longer essay in defense of a personal thesis on a theme chosen by the student, in conjunction with the teacher. In this essay the student engaged in dialogue with various authors read during the course, confronting them with each other and with himself.
Weeks 1 to 3: basic facts
In these first meetings emphasis was placed on acquisition of necessary facts, including names, dates, and elementary context. The meetings were not lectures, however, but took the shape of seminars. In preparation students read articles provided to them.
To encourage a decent preparation, twenty-four hours prior to the meetings students received a brief list with factual questions that had to be answered by making use of the assigned reading. Students were asked to submit this questionnaire at the beginning of class.
This first part of the course ended with an exam. Students were given one hour and fifteen minutes to answer a series of questions – by heart – on the content of the previous two weeks. The exam was followed by a break and instruction in how to write an essay. This was the bridge to the second part of the course.
Weeks 4 to 17: study and comprehension of the textual sources
During weeks 4 to 17 students studied ten classic texts. An important learning outcome in this phase was careful reasoning and phrasing, both in writing and speaking. This was expressed in both the nature of the meetings and in the examination.
The meetings had the character of a structured discussion between the teacher and the students, more or less as a Socratic dialogue on the literature assigned for that week. Each session made use of the triptych facts, logic, and rhetoric, mirroring the structure of the course as a whole. Thus students were challenged to read carefully and with attention to historical context, reflect critically on their own thinking, and lucidly express complex ideas.
This style of teaching was possible only if students had read the assigned literature with attention and attended the meetings well-prepared. Prior to each seminar the student hence wrote a brief essay (800 words) on the assigned literature. This essay functioned as a ticket of admission. Needless to say, in this phase there was not the expectation that students offered innovative interpretations or creative applications, but simply that they presented the core reasoning of the assigned text in a clear and concise manner, with respect for the rules of language and logic. The student received the essay topic exactly one week before the meeting and had the essay returned one week later, with a grade and comments. In this way students improved both their writing skills and their ability to independently read complicated texts.
The texts and their authors were hence given centre stage: Homer, Newton, and so on were the main teachers. The instructor posed as a more advanced student, using questions to support the other students in their attempts to better comprehend the great books, both as separate works and in their relationships.
Weeks 18 to 20: defending one’s own reasoned thesis
Students concluded the course with a slightly larger essay (2000 words) on a relevant topic, independently chosen by each in conjunction with the teacher. The idea was that the student would make use of two of the great books discussed during the course, but unlike in the previous essays he was expected to engage the classic texts in a more critical way and to take an argued position of his own.
Examples of possible topics were: the Apology and Mill on freedom of speech; St. Augustine and Descartes on doubt; the Bible and the Principia Mathematica on natural order; Homer and Hobbes on courage.
The final grade was the weighted average of the questionnaires (10%), the exam (15%), the essays (40%) and the final essay (35%). In case of remarkably good or disappointing participation the final grade could be increased or decreased by a maximum of one point (out of ten total).