The discipline of understanding

TACClassroom

My oldest son is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College, a “great books” school that rejects textbooks and lectures. Students read only the great books themselves, and the classroom utilizes the discussion method. The professors, who are called “tutors”, are present only to facilitate the discussion and keep it on track. Furthermore – and this surprised me at first – the college discourages reading outside sources as class preparation. The idea is that one is supposed to grapple with the text itself, not someone else’s interpretation of the text. Students are trained to ask “what does the text say?” and “what does the author mean?” without prejudice.

When I first attended one of their junior classes as a parent-guest, I found myself extremely impatient with the discussion. I had the answers, or so I thought, and wondered why the students would spend so much time on a single sentence when the meaning was obvious to me.

I have since been humbled. The meaning was only “obvious” to me because of the prejudices in my head derived from other sources and my own rash judgments. These students, by their junior year, were mastering the discipline of putting all of that aside for the sake of authentic understanding. What does the text say? What doesn’t it say? What can we learn from the context? What is the author’s perspective? How do we really know? Furthermore they were forced to listen to each other, to be challenged and corrected, and sometimes embarrassed by their own mistakes. By their junior year these young scholars were thinking clearly and methodically, choosing their words very carefully, and best of all, in true Thomistic fashion, interpreting each other’s words in the most reasonable sense possible. It was a beautiful sight to behold.

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