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The Great Books

by Nancy J. Ashmore

Encountering, examining and ‘conversing’
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 education.

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 of students.

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 teaching.

”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.

In principle 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 in 1997.

From the 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.”

If someone 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.”