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Setting Realistic Goals in a New Academic Curriculum
Setting Realistic Goals in a New Academic Curriculum
by Herman Sinaiko
Remarks Presented at a National Great Books Meeting at Wright College, Chicago, March 31, 2006

Introduction by Bruce Gans, Project Director

Professor of Humanities Herman Sinaiko is the project evaluator for the Great Books Curriculum Academic Community. A distinguished scholar and renowned teacher, Professor Sinaiko over the course of his career has initiated and observed and been an outside evaluator on many new program initiatives. He has seen some grow, others prosper and others wither and die. At the second national conference of faculty leading new Great Books Curricula under the FIPSE and NEH grants, Professor Sinaiko was asked to give the participants of these nascent programs, what a proper sense of proportion one ought to have concerning the pace of a programís evolution and growth. This perspective is especially important because these are faculty driving programs initiated by faculty who undertake the work not to demonstrate a worthiness for rising in an administrative career but out of love for the Great Books. Such faculty normally have therefore no experience in growing programs.

And so Herman was asked to tell his audience what one might realistically expect, what the typical problems are and what realistic goals would look like and what would constitute a realistic sense of how we are doing.

Herman Sinaiko

What I thought I would start with is to talk a little bit both about what the aims of a Great Books program are and what kinds of problems there are, and I want to talk about both what I call internal and the external aims and problems. Let me start with the internal, because thatís really in a certain sense what we are each of us individually about - solutions.

So what do we want from these courses? And I would put it something like this. I think we want to introduce our students to intellectual excellence. Thatís pure and simple what weíre after, right? And that excellence as it is preserved, as it exists, and it is preserved in works from all over the human world, and from any time from ancient and from distant antiquity to the immediate present.

Whether written, visual, or auditory. I donít care whether it is a Beethoven symphony or a Michelangeloís Last Judgment or a play of Shakespeareís. But as soon as you say that, it becomes clear and obvious that these works pose serious problems for students as well as for everybody when theyíre first encountered. The most overwhelming fact of these works is they are not easy. They represent the best that humans can create, and that means most of us who are not among the best; we are most of us pretty ordinary, right? We find these works extremely demanding and difficult. If we donít find them demanding, itís almost for sure that weíre wrong - misreading them. If we think, in fact, that they carry their meaning on their sleeves, weíre probably wrong. And if you find Shakespeare easy, right, youíre misreading it. Or youíre not thinking about it enough. Because heís not easy. Look at any passage at random and who the hell can figure out the syntax? So these works pose problems for our students, right? And this requires, among other things, not only that we introduce them to the works, but then we have to help them develop the skills and the knowledge base that they need in order to perceive them.

So it isnít enough just to give them the stuff, right, and thatís what many people do, you donít just give it to them and they donít need anything. They already have the knowledge base, and they already have the skills. But thatís not true with these works, really. Now, again, thatís not true across the board. There are some, obviously, contemporary works which - for which our students already have the background, okay, just like works written in the twentieth and twenty-first century. But it is true for anything older than that.

It is true if the works come from somewhere else: China or India, or ancient Rome or Greece, or maybe even Europe or Africa, maybe.

They need those skills and that knowledge base, I think, in order to perceive the works, to appreciate them, to analyze them, to interpret them. They need to do all these things, including to contextualize them. And by that I mean to understand them in some sense in the context in which they emerged in the system, because every work is conditioned by its time and its place and - but also to contextualize them in the modern world, the world in which they live. Itís one thing to read The Republic of Plato and understand it to some extent in relation to classical Greece, but itís also important to try to understand it in relation to contemporary politics.

In other words, we have bitten off a very - itís a tall order and a very difficult one, and I think we ought to be very clear about the way in which the program is immensely difficult to undertake, and thatís one of the reasons my message to Bruce is moderation in your expectations. Understand youíre doing something that is extremely ambitious, extremely difficult, and when I say moderate your expectations, I donít mean to cheapen the thing or downgrade it, I mean to understand that itís very difficult, that you have a lot to learn - a lot to do.

I think thatís what weíre after. Let me pose, then, a few of the dangers or difficulties with all that we face - specific difficulties, specific issues. I think there is an enormous tendency to canonize the Great Books. These are great masterpieces. They sit up there looking down on us and we see them as untouchable entities that have to be worshipped from afar. If Plato said something, it must be terrific, even if he doesnít seem to treat women very nicely, or he has a class-structured society and all kinds of things that we would object to - we effectively - we have to be respectful and accept all kinds of terrible things.

And Aristotle gives an argument that slavery is natural, right? Which is what a - I say go easy if you read the - Book One of the Politics if youíre in a class of minority students, that can create an explosion. But the idea of saying no, no, no, this is Aristotle, therefore we have to buy it, you have to be prepared - to argue - so these works are not immune to criticism. They are in fact from the beginning almost always controversial works. Aristotleís defense of natural slavery is not a defense thatís put in because everybody believed in slavery. When he put that into Book One of the Politics there were lots of arguments against slavery at this time and he perfectly well knew it, and heís making a defense of slavery. You have to understand that it is controversial, it can be argued, he understands that, and he is willing to go after it.

These works do not have to be liked. They are frequently - were unpopular works. And they are not intended to be attractive, as it were. Most important of all, they are not works that were intended to be treated in a perfunctory way with a set of clichťs that frequently just summarize in very great, all too frequently works that seem, at least, at their first encounter, essentially irrelevant to us and to our lives.

In effect, then, not only are we tackling something difficult, though once-over lightly means at a level of seriousness that they have not experienced before. That is to say, itís not simply that they havenít read these books; they havenít done anything at the level of seriousness that these books call for. These books call for a willingness to acknowledge and to question fundamental beliefs, ideas, understandings of the world that they have not questioned before. They will frequently and theyíre going to - they may not even see that these works are frequently doing that.

And part of our job is to get them into those - what was it someone said before? - soul-changing experiences. These books if they are to be encountered seriously are soul-changing experiences, because they will ask you to think about things . . . possibilities which you may never even have acknowledged as possibilities.

I think they are deeply serious - but that means, because thatís a tough thing to do, to ask people to reshape and to rethink their fundamental parameters with which they see the world. You canít do that in a half hour or an hour. Thatís a long, slow, difficult process because people are protective, theyíre resistant. They - because this - itís not a question of intelligence. They may be disturbed by some of the things that they think they see.

Maybe some of the things that they actually do see . . . if you come from a . . . conventionally religious family and you read Nietzsche itís going to be shocking. And you had better either not read Nietzsche, or expect to shock your students, and then you have to think about how you are going to deal with that issue.

So the encounter with these books takes time; it takes time to read them. They are not rapid reading. I had the misfortune last summer with a class of very bright public school - public high school - Chicago public high school students at the program that weíre running at Chicago - I gave them a chapter from Gibbonís Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to read - Oh-ho! Try eighteenth-century prose on fifteen-year-old Chicago high school students. And they couldnít get through the first paragraph. They literally couldnít read the sentences. Theyíd never seen a sentence that was 120 words long.

Find the verbs - it was really quite extraordinary. That was a problem. And they were not stupid; these were very bright, very alert kids. So donít underestimate the overwhelming surface difficulty.

So it takes time and it takes effort and one has to go, as I say, slowly and struggle with just to come to begin to appreciate just how good these books are. How well put together they are. How subtle. How insightful. How profound and interesting. Even when we profoundly disagree with them. And I think we have to be prepared to really disagree with them because they disagree with each other.

Again, there is a general kind of clichťd version of - thereís something called the great tradition - as if somehow or other when you read one of the books and they all agree with each other. The fact of the matter is they fight like cats and dogs with each other. Plato and Aristotle do nothing but disagree with each other right from the beginning, and both of them think that all of the pre-philosophicals, that all of the tragedians are just wrong, that Homer is a disaster, that - the first thing that Plato wants to do in his state is to escort Homer to the gates. I mean, get him out of there!

So we ought not to kid ourselves that there is in some sense a kind of tradition where we can all appreciate the same ultimate values. They are fighting about ultimate meaning and ultimate values and ultimate significance. All the time. And . . . itís not just the Greeks - the entire Christian tradition, the biblical tradition as it emerges is in opposition to the pagan tradition. And modern thought begins with a rejection of the classical tradition in the Renaissance. So thereís fight after fight after fight, and part of what the students will, I think, perceive as they get into these books, as they begin to explore them and understand them, is to begin to see what the issues are.

What are the things, the important things about which we can fight and have thought? What are the perennial issues - because these are not just historically situated issues, they are perennial struggles, perennial disagreements from the very beginning.

I want to make a warning that you not overstep our reading lists. Be careful. Be careful about that. We will never have sufficient time to do sufficient and real justice to any of these works. I know for many of you, if you do a standard Introduction to Philosophy course, one of the first works that anybody ever reads is Platoís Apology - Socrates, which is a Platonic dialogue, which is easy because there arenít complicated arguments in it and then Socrates "facing the court," defending himself. A year ago, I gave a quarter course to an advanced undergraduate group of about 10 or 12 students, a whole quarter on The Apology, and by the end of the quarter we had gotten about 6-7 pages into it!

And I want to tell you we really looked at it. Well, it was really fascinating. I kept trying to move the class along; they kept seeing things and pulling me back and so we didnít get very far. No, we got very far, we got deep - we didnít get far, we got deep. And you can do that, and in some ways that can be - we never finished The Apology, we didnít get halfway through it, but it can be a soul-changing experience when you encounter something at that depth.

Iím not suggesting you do that all the time, but it is something which you might consider thinking about as a way of introducing people to what these books are about.

So we have to ask ourselves, and I think itís a terribly difficult problem for each of us as teachers, how much do we lecture to our students? How much do we encourage significant discussion, which is much slower than lectures and you have to tolerate all kinds of wacky and inaccurate, foreign, boring remarks, but - and what do you say to a student thatís really [uncomprehending]?

You know you can avoid all that by lecturing, but you also know that the minute you start lecturing 75 percent of it goes right over their heads and they all start - their eyes glaze over - so these are really pedagogical issues which I think are intrinsic to the program, and intrinsic to this material. And in a certain sense, the standard course that each of you would give in your own disciplines avoids most of this difficulty because the works that you deal with, the material that you deal with, doesnít have this degree of difficulty and this degree of - itís not that [material] you can charge with meaning and significance and therefore in moving through [Great Books material], the very reason why you people are as excited by it and enjoy it so much [is] because this stuff is absolutely terrific and calls for every ounce of intelligence, sensitivity, whatever you want - imagination that you have.

You didnít become teachers and scholars for nothing. Thatís where we live, right? And thatís exciting, and thatís wonderful, but it also poses an enormous problem for the people who are just getting started who donít have your years of experience, your tolerance for difficulty, and all kinds of things and skills. I mean . . . [many students donít come to Great Books with knowledge] of how to do this without [lots of assistance or] a tolerance for sitting with a text that you donít understand and sit with it, and sit with it and keep on sitting with it until it begins to unravel a little bit, and people begin to see whatís going on, or maybe give it up and come back to it a week later or two weeks later or a year later.

We do that sort of thing. Right? You have to understand our students donít. And thereís a certain sense you cannot shortchange - you canít short-circuit that process.

So the coverage versus depth problem is simply insoluble, and I think youíd better understand that right from the beginning. You are battling something which you will not resolve. My guess is that from year to year you will oscillate, youíll try widening it at one point, youíll try to widen it another way, youíll explore something different, but itís always going to be there. Now all of this is before we get to any of the issues of organization, structure, testing, or any of those - this is intrinsic to the material that youíve taken. And this is the toughest possible stuff that you could imagine.

My solution, for what itís worth, after fussing with this for my entire professional life as a teacher, is to aim for a significant experience from each student at least once in the course of their work. Let there be one class or one argument or one passage or one work where the kidís eyes blink, they look up and suddenly you see that blank look and you realize somethingís going on inside that you canít see, but you can see that itís going on and something has happened. And if you want to call it the soul-changing experience, I donít know. Whatever it may be, there should be some significant experience at Chicago, because that was one of the moments in which the possibilities change, the structural possibilities change.

Okay. As if thatís not difficult enough, now let me shift to the external process. Externally, what we are doing is introducing a new program into schools. Iíve had some experience with this kind of thing. And if youíre looking for a quiet, happy life, donít try this one. There is - and always - educational institutions are profoundly conservative. They do not like change. And you are introducing a fundamental change; youíre not introducing a new field, you are saying, whether you say so explicitly or not, you are saying all of you are dealing with the superficial stuff and we are dealing with the serious stuff. And nobody wants to hear that message except people who want to do what you want to do.

So you have to understand that not only will you face the ordinary struggles of introducing something new into a setting in which the resources are already stressed to the limit and there is no fat in the budget, right, and you are saying across the board thereís something wrong . . . youíre not really as serious as you ought to be, and we are the serious ones. Weíre going to do the serious stuff.

So you will not only have the conventional struggles for insufficient resources, youíre going to have faculty and administration envious, jealous, feeling put down by you, look[ed] down by you at them - theyíre going to think youíre looking down your nose at them because theyíre not really as intelligent and articulate as you are. This is extremely hard to deal with.

The aim here in this kind of issue is to hang in long enough, to be kind enough, and friendly and supportive enough, with everybody that you encounter to become a regular part of the landscape. What you want is to be, I think ultimately, simply to be seen, oh wow, thereís English and who knows what they do, and then thereís chemistry and who knows what they do, you know all these various programs and every one of our institutions is very large and highly diverse, and you want to be just a part of that.

Now, part of the genius and part of the difficulty of the programs, as Bruce has conceded, is that it isnít a program like other programs. It has no parallel inside your institutions, because it cuts across practically every intellectual and academic discipline, specialty, and departmental structure in the entire institution. Now part of the genius of it was precisely that Bruce didnít come along and say I want a new department. Not a chance. Not a snowball in hell that youíll be getting a new department.

So what heís done is to have insinuated and integrated the Great Books into the curriculum across the board rather than isolated and segregated [it], the way a new discipline when it comes in usually is given a little piece of the terrain and then it can go and do its thing and not bother anybody so it doesnít really add too much in the way of resources.

So in a certain sense, the very thing that has permitted this program to start small, and if you will, modest, is exactly the thing, right, which is going to gradually run into trouble, and some of the things that Bruce was talking about this morning, some of the administrative troubles that he was talking about, I think are inevitable; that is, your success is going to breed your own resistance.

All right, let me talk a little bit about some of those things. Bruce, for example, talked this morning about the fact that heís been doing a lot of things for a while and how he doesnít want to do them anymore, but thereís nobody else to do them. Why is there nobody else to - because you donít have a department - you donít have a committee, you donít have a formal structure, right? And so that youíre running on, essentially, bottom-tiered energy. And thatís what Celeste is seeking.

Sheís a whole department in herself, but the fact of the matter is if Celeste depends some day on somebody coming along and being Celeste second generation, sheís not going to find them, right, and so her problem among other things is to find a way to get the things that she is now doing, and doing happily, and have somebody else do them. Right? And have them do them as a part of their job, not as a volunteer, because if you depend on the volunteers itís going to die in the second generation.

And you have to understand that you need not only to be set with your school structure, but you need to develop some kind of actual administrative structure [in] which these are understood jobs to do until somebodyís going to take them or somebodyís going to do the web site, or maybe itís going to be an undergraduate doing a work study or something, but it has to be done.

If, for example, thereís going to be a program that ends up being forty or fifty classes and Bruce cannot individually look at every one of those classes, and if thereís a mistake about the method or the course at some point, thereís going to have to be a decision: whose authority is it to say that a course can be a Great Books course or not?

The point is at some point youíre going to have to say no. Your very success is going to make you attractive, and to be attractive means other people are going to want to get in on it, and youíre going to have to watch out that it doesnít get diluted, cheapened, distorted - there are all kinds of possibilities of what can happen.

So youíre going to need to think about it, and I want to tell you as somebody who has been involved in a series of educational experiences, almost all of which were educationally wonderfully successful and bureaucratically disastrous. Because we never figured out a way to fit them into the ongoing structures of the institutions.

You have to do that and you have to think about it from the beginning, because when you bump into the problem, what it really means is youíre bumping into the opposition. And then itís too late.

You have to begin with surplus energy; thereís no way and no place else to find the stuff to innovate. But that also means that that surplus energy will have to come from ordinary, regular, receptive, instructive people.

So you canít do it individually, you need a group - a group of people, and you need to recruit teachers who are not just [there] to teach courses but to take part in the governance of the program, taking responsibility. Bruce cannot do that alone eventually, and none of you can do that alone at your own schools. And you need to begin to understand - a comment was made about adjuncts.

I tried this because the issue was much wider than the adjuncts. Youíre introducing a new kind of enterprise into your schools and another thing you notice, there is no bureaucratic structure, there was no budgetary category, thereís no option, thereís nothing, thereís no way to provide for this except for the grant, and thatís not going to go on indefinitely. Thatís funding - and again, Iíve had experience with that. You get a nice big grant from a foundation or the government, the grant runs out and there you are.

I think the issue of the adjuncts in the community colleges is a really interesting issue, because there is a great deal of energy among people who are adjuncts, [who] do it because they want to do it, they like teaching and then theyíre a wonderful resource. But itís a limited - itís limited - they have to live like everybody else, and so if they want to leave, then if youíre going to make use of these people, youíre going to have to rethink and find an argument for your school to treat adjuncts differently, to reconsider their position. In some sense youíll have to change the system.

Now, thereís a further and interesting positive aspect which emerged toward the end of our discussion, which is that community colleges, like every other educational institution, higher educational institution, they tend to see themselves as independent, stand-alone institutions. And if you are the University of Chicago, Harvard, Berkeley, you can do it. Because the resources are there.

You need something, you can get it. You donít have those kinds of resources, you know? But what you do have here around this table is the beginning of an institutional sharing, with your web sites and personal communications. You can make use of each otherís discoveries, discoveries of things not to do, as well. Itís not a bad idea to broadcast to your friends or your disasters so that they donít have the same disaster.

If Bruce is right, all of you are going to shortly face a series of problems that heís now facing. Youíll face them in a couple of years. You will be forewarned and that will be his role or benefit, rather. His headaches are going to be your protections against all these difficulties. Start thinking about those things now. But that often becomes - if you take seriously about serious coordination, because [by] following these suggestions, itís very possible from this kind of thing you might get some substantial foundation funding.

Thatís a kind of project where you might ask for some specific help, think of a way of doing it. You might hire somebody to serve as a kind of coordinating body. Because itís entirely possible as this group continues, if you are as successful as you all seem to feel, you might find other schools coming to you because youíre not even going to have to go looking for them, theyíre going to come and find you - theyíre going to hear about it and people of higher institutions are just as excited about [it] as you are. Youíre going to need a coordinating body of some sort.

And there ought to be annual meetings, and that costs money. And there are all kinds of things that you can do that cost - while itís not a great deal of money, not enormous sums, but they cost something. So what Iím trying to say is, I think youíve tackled something very big and terribly serious, and let me just say a last little thing about that.

I mentioned this morning my experience in Chicago where this tradition, as I say, I think, you know, because - how can I can put it - this is a kind of sociological way of looking at what weíre doing - the Great Books were traditionally what the elite nobility, what you went to Oxford and Cambridge for, right? And you were, the people who went there and who read Plato and Aristotle and Shakespeare, and so on, they were the ones who were going to be in charge of the country. And there was no crap about that. They didnít have to earn that right; that came to them by virtue and with the resources available.

Well, in the United States some time after the Revolution, with the emergence of the public school system, we began to have a literate population somewhere in public education after the - some time at the end of the nineteenth century, some time at the end of the nineteenth century, early twentieth century, we discovered an eighth-grade education wouldnít do, so we created high schools, you know?

While in Europe maybe 5 or 10 percent of the population went beyond basic education to something like a high school gymnasium or a lyceum, here it became standard for everybody. And then came the Second World War and with the GI Bill of Rights, we suddenly decided college is for anybody and everybody. If you can qualify for it you go. And somewhere along there it was discovered that education is pretty expensive, but that community colleges can make it possible for anybody, the community can support it - if they can support a high school, they can support a community college.

And so roughly, I think, half of the students in the United States today who have engaged in a higher education are engaged in community colleges. Itís an enormous undertaking, and itís a really new one. And to introduce Great Books, and letís be very straightforward about it, the student body at community colleges are people who are not only not expected to go to university, they were never expected to be anything more than merely barely literate. And you are introducing them to the elite basis of education, and leadership, and rule, and it still holds. I mean let me, it still holds that the people, although a bit less - I mean let me tell you, it still holds that the people - although they read less good stuff now at Harvard than these days - but they still are the - they still are the elite places.

Well, it seems to me important that we should understand, I mean I think you all do understand, that in introducing your students to these books thereís something surreptitious, a little bit revolutionary, about it. This is - it really is of where theyíre coming home to roost of the democratic dream - that the elite education could become available to everyone. Not just high school, not just college, an elite - a liberal arts college. The kind of education where rulership, leadership is what youíre engaged in. So I think it has enormous implications, particularly since it spreads - since itís been given up by the elite institutions for the most part - if it spreads where you guys are, it can make a real difference in American education. And itís very possible that 15-20 years from now you will be attending a national annual conference of Great Books studies at some of the major institutions - elite institutions will be sending you - people to come to the institutions at the annual meeting that you people have started. And you may - I wonít be there, but you guys will be there. I mean thatís very possible.

So - and I think - as I said, what I hear around this table, and what Iíve heard in terms of the excitement and energy that this unleashed in you, and the almost natural excitement of - among the students that it will just grow. That, I think, is likely to be generated in every community college in the country if they have the opportunity to present it. And it may very well.

So thatís what youíre thinking with all of these problems. But I do think, donít think too small.

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