by Nancy J. Ashmore
with Plato, Thucydides, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky
and others who have produced great works
has been the mission of the Great Conversation
at St. Olaf for more than 20 years.
The conversations are as fresh as the
morning headlines. And as old as the hills. They take place among
classmates, between students and professors, among the faculty who
are teaching the courses. They occur in classrooms, over meals and
in the corridors of Ellingson Hall, where the 69 first-year students
participating in the Great Conversation program are housed in proximity.
The questions under consideration are as profound
as “Is God bound by the rules He sets forth for humanity to
obey?” and as prosaic as a professor’s housekeeping query: “Does anyone have a response paper for me today?”
At the heart of the discourse is the most important
exchange of all, the “great conversation” between men
and women born centuries apart that takes place through “direct
encounter with great works of human achievement.”
For the past 21 years, the program known as the “Great Con” has been introducing students to the major
epochs of Western civilization. Since its initiation in 1981–82
with the support of a grant from the National Endowment for the
Humanities, the program has engaged and challenged the heads and
hearts of more than 1,200 St. Olaf students, including two Rhodes
Scholars and a Marshall Scholar. And it has inspired the creation
of similar programs that focus on American studies, Asian studies
and the intersection of first-year studies in religion and general
The tradition beginning
“Learning in community is the central trope of the Great Con,”
says Professor of Religion and Philosophy Edmund Santurri. He has
taught in the program in five different cycles and has directed
it since 1996. “In an important sense, the program embodies
the notion that learning is a social process and knowledge a social
product, that intellectual inquiry is intimately bound up with learning
community, that to pursue the truth is literally to engage in a
great conversation,” he says.
Participants live in the same residence hall
during their first year in the St. Olaf program and go through the
two-year program with a teaching team of three faculty members drawn
from a variety of disciplines. The students learn together as a
cohort, and the faculty teach together, jointly establishing the
syllabus for the five courses they will teach in community.
In the recent past about 20 percent of the texts
have differed from year to year. Great Con 113, “The Tradition
Beginning: The Greeks and the Hebrews,” will always include
Plato, notes Santurri. “But which Plato?” The choices
the professors make — together with their own personalities
and those of their students — will give each cycle a distinctive “flavor,” he adds.
Professor of Classics Anne Groton, Professor
of English Jonathan Hill and Professor of Philosophy Ed Langerak
are in the second year of their teaching cycle. The team working
with this year’s entering group consists of Professor of Religion
Doug Schuurman, teaching in the program for the third time, and
Great Con newcomers Jolene Barjasteh, an associate professor of
Romance languages, and Steve Reece, an associate professor of classics.
Before their 55-minute classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday,
the three confer in Reece’s office on the top floor of Old
Main. After sharing a cup of coffee and making sure they’re “all on the same page,” they head down the stairs and
next door to Steensland Hall.
The first-year students are buzzing today. In
each group, two teams of six have spent the weekend preparing to
recreate in a formal debate the conflict that arose between the
Athenians and the Melians in 416 B.C. — as described by Thucydides
in The History of the Pelopponesian War. Reece waits for
Barjasteh’s students to pass through his classroom to an adjoining
room. Then he asks for someone from each team to present a five-minute
opening statement. This will be followed by a quick group consultation
and a few more minutes each of debate.
The opening salvos stick close to the account
provided by Thucydides. Later Reece encourages the players to expand
beyond the fifth century B.C. and to tap into contemporary issues.
Conversations shift to the mistreatment of aboriginal peoples, the
Holocaust and World War II, and the current situation in Iraq.
Barjasteh’s class has a very different
sound to it — literally. Judging from the noises escaping
from the next room, Guns N’ Roses, ’NSYNC and Britney
Spears are adding their voices to the conversation, via a soundtrack
created by one of the teams.
In each debate, however, things wind inexorably
to the same conclusion: The Athenians choose to view the Melians’
desire for continued neutrality as resistance and respond to it
with brutal force. They put the adult male population to death and
enslave the women and children.
Dissenters and defenders
While the notion of pursuing ideas for their own sake could be considered
old-fashioned or out of step with students’ need to pursue
a vocation in the world, the conversations that grow out of that
pursuit are far from fusty.
By its nature the Great Con resists trendiness.
It also necessitates a critical engagement of a tradition that leaves
space for a variety of voices. Just as the Holocaust has made its
way into an exploration of the Pelopponesian War, so will the voices
of women, people of different faiths and people of color contribute
to future conversations, growing stronger as the program progresses.
By the second semester of their sophomore year, students will examine
attempts to restate the Western tradition in the face of continuing
intellectual and social transformations — via conversations
with Darwin, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Virginia Woolf,
Martin Luther King, Jr., and Spike Lee.
The connection the program makes with the concerns
of 21st-century students is underscored the next time Great Con
113 meets. The conversation two days before about an early assertion
of “manifest destiny” makes way for one on the subject
of covenants, the ones God made to the Israelites and the ones the
Israelites made to God. The day’s readings in the Oxford Study
Bible are Deuteronomy 30–34, Joshua 1–12, 24, and Judges
1–16. Doug Schuurman calls it “some of the toughest stuff
in the Bible.”
He starts the discussion by asking if anyone
has a response paper. Students are supposed to write four during
the semester, each about 500 words long, in which they analyze the
day’s readings and reflect upon their claims, arguments, examples
and implications. Those who have prepared papers summarize them
for their classmates — and the conversation is once again
off and running, touching on everything from the genocidal treatment
of Native Americans to whether Joshua’s actions mirrored Osama
Bin Laden’s apparent assumption that you don’t have
to follow the rules of your faith when God is “on your side.”
One student compares the “boring lists”
in Joshua 12, the names of the kings who have been killed, to a
résumé or prospectus, a way to keep alive Joshua’s
accomplishments. Another notes the increased visibility in the accounts
of women (Rahab, Deborah and Ja-el) as central figures.
The question of the day is why God, who commands
His people not to kill, orders Joshua to participate in what amounts
to “ethnic cleansing,” the slaughter of thousands of men,
women and children. That’s something a lot of the students
are struggling with.
Virtually every member of the class contributes,
and does so with civility and sensitivity. Just five weeks into
the 15-week semester, Great Con students are at home with each other.
Santurri suggests that this is a natural consequence of living next
door to one another, going on field trips together and attending
monthly dinners that could feature everything from Professor of
Classics Anne Groton’s ukulele-strumming impersonation of
Homer to an evening of tableaux vivants, in which posing students
attempt to replicate famous works of art.
The Con in context
J. Scott Lee ’71 is executive director of the Association
for Core Texts and Courses (ACTC) at Temple University and the Univer-sity
of Dallas, a national professional organization of 90 higher education
institutions dedicated to the advancement of core curricular programs
using required, primary texts in courses. He calls St. Olaf’s
program “an early prototype of ‘alternative track’
general education programs designed to offer students a coherent,
rigorous, broad-minded ‘story’ of the intellectual heritage
of Western life and liberal education.”
That story, he notes, has chapters drawn from
a timespan of some 2,000 years and many ethnic groups, nationalities
and religions. It’s also a story that has many interpretations
— the voices of the students as they sit with works of art
and seek to understand the ideas and links of intellectual life.
”St. Olaf’s Great Conversation led
the way as an early entrant in a protracted and extended strengthening
of general education that has been going on for 20 years in North
American education,” Lee says. “St. Olaf’s larger
general education program has participated in this strengthening,
too, and, as in so much else, St. Olaf is a national leader among
institutions which seek to develop superior liberal education programs.”
By completing the program’s courses, Great
Con students fulfill general education requirements in Biblical
and theological study, first-year writing, historical studies in
the Western culture, artistic studies, literary studies, writing
and oral communication.
What makes the St. Olaf program nationally distinctive,
however, Lee says, is its focus on “collective learning”
and the three-person teaching teams attached to a student cohort.
“Many institutions are adopting
learning communities joined to learning teams,” he notes. “What
really distinguishes St. Olaf is that the three-person teaching
team stays with the same cohort of students over the two-year duration
of the program. That is a unique opportunity for students to encounter
the thinking of three professors and their own fellow students’
thinking as well.”
Teaching in teams
At St. Olaf the teaching teams bring expertise from a variety of
disciplines to bear on the material they explore with their cohort
Team teaching was a controversial part of the
program when it was proposed, recalls Lowell Johnson, professor
emeritus of English and a former director of the Great Con. “So
much of what we do now is interdisciplinary, but this was really
St. Olaf’s first formal experience with team teaching, which
had been pretty much ad hoc up to then.”
What faculty once viewed with suspicion has become
one of Great Con’s strongest selling points. Santurri concedes
he knew little about art history until he was inspired to add a
Caravaggio unit to the course on the Renaissance and the Reformation.
Building it was a “liberating experience,” he says —
both in what he learned about the subject and what he learned about
”What I find most rewarding about the Great
Conversation,” says Santurri, “is that it fosters collaborative
learning at so many levels. Teams of faculty from different disciplines
join together to fashion the courses, and the intellectual interchange
is as good as it gets in liberal arts education. From the very first
day of the first course, students are invited into a substantial,
vital, intellectual conversation as co-learners with their teachers.
”As teacher and as director, I have been
energized by that conversation; I know that students and other teachers
in the program similarly have felt energized. Given reports of Great
Con student performances in courses outside the program, there’s
considerable evidence that the energy the program generates also
contributes to the intellectual vitality of the college as a whole.”
Admission to the program is based on an essay
in which students explain why they want to participate. Less than
half of those who submit essays are accepted.
the Great Con is not an honors course,” says Santurri. “De
facto, it has an ‘honors feel’ because of the selectivity.
Participants tend to be students who read and write well, who are
interested in a systematic, rigorous examination of the ‘big
ideas,’ and who are attracted to the self-motivational nature
of the program.”
Is every Great Con conversation “great”?
Probably not. The program has a good retention rate, however. For
one sophomore, being in the program is “like eating peas”: “It’s not something I necessarily like to do. But I know
I should, and that some day it will be of use to me.”
Then there are Great Con participants like Katie
Larson, an English major with a concentration in women’s studies
who was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 2000, and Beth Truesdale,
the English and chemistry double major who received a Rhodes Scholarship
ancient Greeks to Elie Wiesel, my classmates and I learned to question
each other, challenge each other and learn from each other,”
says Larson, who has just completed a master’s degree in 16th-
and 17th-century English literature at Oxford University and is
remaining there to pursue a master’s degree in women’s
studies. “We argued and listened and laughed through discussions
that continued long into the night. Great Con challenged me to think
for myself while respecting and integrating the perspectives of
a remarkable group of classmates and professors.”
had told me in my last semester of high school to read Plato, Marguerite
de Navarre and Nietzsche and draw conclusions about human self perception
or the role of women, I would have been stumped,” Truesdale
says. She earned bachelor’s degrees in modern history and
English literature at Oxford and a master’s degree in theology.
She’s married now, living in London, and managing freelance
writers. “Two years of the Great Conversation gave me a supportive,
exciting atmosphere in which to tackle works like these.”
Her time in the program, she says, was
“simply the most amazing academic experience I had on the
St. Olaf campus.”