Discussions Often Surprise

One of the delightful aspects of having discussion classes on original works is how often I am completely surprised by what students uncover that I didn’t expect. Four brief examples from recent discussions:

1) A very simple one: In discussing the Amendments to the Constitution with students, I was pointing out the dates of ratification. One of them asked why Amendment XXVII had such a big difference between the dates of proposal by Congress (1789) and ratification by the states (1992). I thought it must have been a typo at first, but then discovered it was originally proposed by James Madison, but not ratified by the required number of states until over two hundred years later!

2) I have been reading through Dante’s Divine Comedy with high school students as part of their Moral Theology class. I planned in our first discussion on the Purgatorio to talk dante-in-purgatoryabout Dante and Virgil, but I started with a general question, “What is Purgatory like?” Some students early on noticed that Dante was casting a shadow, and that was because they were out on the surface of the earth, and had day and night. This led to a lovely discussion of the extent to which Purgatory (in Dante’s vision, and perhaps really) is very like our life on earth – a sphere of change ordered to our full development – while hell is “timeless” in the sense that it is going nowhere. It provided a wonderful point of view for thinking about Purgatory and our life’s journey.

3) “Original texts” need not always be Great Books; they often are just books that readers serious about learning would read. Even a real dictionary can provoke great discussions. My Latin class with college freshmen has been using a common pocket dictionary instead of a glossary written for students. One student translated “caritas” naturally as “charity”; another student who consulted the dictionary asked why it didn’t list “love” or “charity” as a translation, but instead listed “dearness, high price, high style of living; affection”. The discussion revealed that most students equated charity with giving money to the poor, while the Romans thought of “caritas” as the way you felt toward someone dear to you whom you value as worth a great price. The fact that “charity” is such an important Christian concept suggests that as Christians we are to feel about the poor as Romans felt about their most cherished friends.  Cool!

4) In our latest online webinar, I discussed the Rule of St. Benedict with several teachers. Among many wonderful aspects of the Rule that came up, I was most surprised by how inspiring participants found his instructions to abbots, in which he showed how real authority can be exercised with power, love, and the utmost concern for subordinates. One participant was so inspired she read the entire section to her family. I had never considered how the father of Western monasticism’s words might be profoundly helpful for parents and children today. (You can enjoy listening to the conversation through this link and this.)



About Andrew Seeley

Executive Director, Institute for Catholic Liberal Education Tutor, Thomas Aquinas College
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One Response to Discussions Often Surprise

  1. Tom V says:

    Imagine how much better our students would learn, and how happy they would become, if we could implement the Rule of St. Benedict in our classrooms! Well, many of you already do this because you are private school teachers, and discipline and obedience are integral parts of the system. But as a public school teacher I often lament the loss of so much that public school students could learn due to the absence of true, loving authority. This is not to say that teachers don’t care about students learning, it is just that the system eschews authority, equating it with an autocracy which will produce unhappy kids and parents. Truly, the authoritarian who does not love his subjects will not get them to cooperate, while the authoritarian who is serving a higher authority–God–cannot fail.

    In a discussion with a former graduate school classmate, I made the statement that “Students are not required to be obedient, but this should be a given if they are to learn from us.” Thinking I had made an agreeable point, I was astounded to learn how she and many others in the class, including the instructor, totally disagreed with the thought of children being obedient. In an instant, I knew why I seemed to always be swimming upstream in getting students to take complete accountability for their own learning. My classmate mentioned her own rebellion against a “restrictive, Catholic upbringing”–hence, it made perfect sense to her that for children to be happy they needed to be free from authority. I guess St. Augustine wouldn’t have too many fans among my peers in that class. Thereafter, I was thought of as the caveman; my internal instincts were just not quite simpatico with the sterile, clinical public school approach.

    But I learned the hard way that my students craved discipline and authority, and that unless I was personally connecting with the source of all authority, by reading and contemplating God through Holy Scripture, I would simply be an ineffective windbag. The author is right in pointing out that St. Benedict and his Rule remind us that when the leader is focused on God, who is Love, authority is re-imaged as benevolence. One cannot turn it on as if acting; the leader must be uniquely focused on the well-being of his subjects. When this happens, kids sense it and they will follow every time.

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