Classroom as Greenhouse: A Response to Joshua Gibbs’ “Harkness Cautions”

By Ian August Mosley

Editor’s Note: On October 10, Joshua Gibbs wrote a piece for Circe Institute entitled, “Harkness Cautions: You Need a Sage on the Stage.” On November 16, Circe Institute published a response to that piece by Bill Zimmerman entitled, “The Sage at the Table: A Response to Gibbs.” We highly recommend both articles and the excellent conversation regarding pedagogy that arises out of the issues these authors discuss. This piece by Ian Mosley of School of the Ozarks was written, like Zimmerman’s piece, as a reponse to Gibbs’ original article, but we hope it will serve as a further contribution to an ongoing discussion regarding classical pedagogy. As a guest post, we think this article is a worthy contibution to the discussion, but does not necessarily constitute an official position of The Classical Thistle. With these introductory remarks, enjoy this article from Ian Mosley.

How is a classroom like a greenhouse? I once spent several months working as a farmhand for an operation growing organic vegetables. One of the most interesting environments on the farm was the greenhouse: rows of plants under metal hoops and insulating plastic. In the heat it felt like an oven, even with the plastic walls rolled up and fans blasting; in the winter time it was a refuge of permeating heat.

A greenhouse is used for two things: starting plants and growing them. That is, a greenhouse may give a head start before transplanting outside, or it may serve as the sole place where a plant can grow. A common suspicion regarding Christian schools is that we are growing “hothouse tomatoes,” carefully protected plants that will wither in the real world, whereas the purpose of a school is to give pupils a head start before they finish their lives out in the field.

But this criticism predates the unique circumstances of Christian education in a largely secular world. Scholae, non vitae discimus, is a lament that can be traced to the works of the Roman philosopher Seneca: we learn for school, not for life. The purpose of education is to equip us for living, but a perennial temptation is for education to equip us for nothing except further education.

It is a temptation that those who spend most of their time within the bubble of the educational world are especially susceptible to. We spend most of our days evaluating how things are going from within: rarely are we asked to follow our plants out into the field and evaluate their growth. It is easy, then, to assume that the things that make a plant flourish inside the greenhouse will equip it for life out in the elements, without ever really testing the results.

It will be a great disaster for our movement if we turn out to have been producing “hothouse tomatoes” all along. But avoiding this predicament requires us to ask some hard questions about the assumptions we are making about pedagogy and authority in the classroom. Is the way we teach, including the kind of authority we exercise in the classroom, really preparing students to interact with the kinds of authority they will see in the wider world?

Joshua Gibbs, by all accounts a gifted teacher and a perceptive writer, has criticized the use of Harkness Discussions in Classical Christian Education, and most of his criticisms center around the way the Harkness format structures authority in the classroom. I confess that as a mere Latin teacher I have not had much experience with the Harkness method, and I have no particular commitments to either the particularities of its pedagogical theory or its eponymous furniture. I am, however, a student at the graduate program of St. John’s College, which famously employs seminar discussions not dissimilar from the Harkness in reading, interpreting, and appreciating the great books. My affection for this way of learning has caused me to try to bring it back to my fellow teachers, so that I and some colleagues lead periodical seminars on the great books among the faculty of our school. Through these experiences I have come to the firm conviction that the discussion method cultivates indispensable habits of mind without which no student can be well rounded. Mr. Gibbs, in devaluing discussion, is making the tragic mistake of confusing what seems to work in the classroom and what will actually prepare students for the world.

How does the seminar or discussion method serve the goal of preparing students for the world? To consider this we will have to look in detail at some aspects of the method, because superficially many of its features can look like dogmatic skepticism when they are really methodological necessities to cultivate critical reflection in students. The environment of a seminar at St. John’s, that is, can appear very relativistic at first. The school’s culture even avoids referring to professors (called “tutors” in the argot) by any kind of special titles, preferring to have everyone go by “Mr. Smith” or “Ms. Jones.” Though the tutor has a key role in guiding discussion and keeping the threads of the conversation coherent, his role is certainly not to guide the discussion towards some predetermined goal or interpretation of the text.

Having read some of the same texts for philosophy courses in my undergraduate career and then again at St. John’s, I would explain the difference this way: in my undergrad courses, our goal in reading and preparing was to come up with a credible interpretation of the text. What counted as a credible interpretation, however, was always subtly oriented towards approximating what we thought the professor’s interpretation would be. Any time the professor expressed a definite opinion on any topic in the text, further inquiry along those lines was subtly precluded.

At St. John’s, on the other hand, most tutors practice a pious reticence towards giving away their own interpretation. This puts the burden on the individual student to come up with an interpretation he can stand by. Now obviously some are more careful in forming these interpretations than others, so that you will occasionally hear a really off the wall reading of, say, Kant. The odd thing is that even outright misunderstandings seem to add to one’s understanding: they force you to confront elements of the text you may have a tendency to ignore, and trying to sift what is wrong about the mistaken interpretations sharpens your own even if you don’t revise your own in the process—and obviously you often have to.

What may appear relativistic initially, then, actually serves the purpose of working towards the interpretation of a text that has objective content. Bona fide relativism would not be so effortful: all it would require is the exchange of opinions, and then we could go away thinking the same thing we thought before. There would be no need to engage in real conversation, the turning-together of our thoughts in an attempt to get at the truth. And yet it is precisely this messy and difficult activity that the St. John’s seminar attempts to foster.

Another feature of the St. John’s culture that can appear relativistic is the emphasis on questions instead of answers. It is often considered no fault in a St. John’s paper if it starts with a question that it never gets to answer. Instead of setting out to prove a definite thesis students are often encouraged to explore a question. But this exploration is not intended to be aimless: it must work towards a better understanding of the question, and when appropriate towards an answer. To the uninitiated it would be easy to think that this is because St. John’s believes there are no answers worth arriving at. But the most casual conversation with students and faculty will reveal that most are quite opinionated, even dogmatically so. (And not just opinionated about the standard liberal convictions: one finds conservative religious people rubbing elbows with atheist existentialists.)

The emphasis on questions is methodological and pedagogical, not borne of epistemological pessimism. The point is that questions better exercise our faculties of inquiry and contemplation than answers often do. Students who think they must prove something do not take as many risks. Often, in fact, a kind of academic hypocrisy arises: students always feel they must project more understanding than they actually possess. If they have a 50 page reading assignment, of which they understood a page and a half, which part will they want to discuss when they come to class? Which part will they want to write about when essay writing time comes? The page and a half, of course, because their “insights” into this will show the teacher they are smart, capable students.. But their time would be better spent wrestling with the forty-eight and a half pages they did not understand.

But an emphasis on getting to answers, on the teacher as a “communicator of truth,” which Mr. Gibbs defends so zealously, inculcates an environment where it is not safe to display your ignorance. If the teacher asks questions which do not invite thought but are merely aiming to elicit a definite response, a statement which is already totally formulated in the teacher’s mind, students are discouraged. They know they are not mind readers, and they know the shame they will receive for answering wrongly far outweighs the approval they will get for divining the correct answer. The emphasis on answers, as well as encouraging hypocrisy, also leads the students towards a play-it-safe strategy that amplifies the natural reticence of adolescence to paralyzing proportions.

Let’s return to the question we began with: are we preparing hothouse tomatoes? How can we be skillful in our pedagogy so as to prepare students for the real world? We must begin from a few fundamental questions. Do we live in a world where students can depend on authority figures to faithfully and unerringly deliver the truth to them, without the necessity of thought on their part? Or is this world something else entirely? A class devoted to lecture and in which everything passes through the purifying fire of the teacher’s authority is well-suited to preparing students for a world that does not exist—one that not only does not exist now, but never has existed. If it ever had, there would have been no need for, among other things, the Protestant Reformation, or indeed Christianity in general.

Assuming we are to prepare students for the world as it does exist, we must equip them to interpret, to think, to argue. This hardly means we need to teach them to be dismissive of authority, but an exclusive reliance on authority will cause the critical faculties to atrophy, just as a long time confined to a bed will cause the muscles to atrophy. It would be absurd to argue from this that beds were always detrimental; but it is just as clear that we must not rely on them constantly if we hope to develop.

Let us consider some of Mr. Gibbs’s objections to this structure of authority in the classroom. “The good teacher lays out a model for students,” he says, “and he cannot do this if he is physically postured like a student.” There is certainly a time and a place for the teacher to model from an authoritative posture, but a teacher in the posture of a student can certainly model how to be a student! Surely this is a model students ought to have?

Gibbs says the discussion mode does not replicate the teaching methods of Christ, and the teacher ought to be like Christ. True, Christ taught as one with authority, and not as the scribes. But we are not Christ. It would be silly, it is true, to engage in an “exchange of ideas” with our Lord. He is the Truth, we are merely truth-seekers—seekers, that is, of Him. To try to engage in dialectic with Christ would be like trying to light a candle to see the sun better: our feeble efforts are superfluous in the presence of such fullness. But that hardly means that, mortals that we are, we are not called to make our feeble contributions, to light, to inquiry after truth. To pretend we are preparing students for a world where every authority figure will be Christ for them, where candles are unnecessary, is, again, deeply unrealistic.

Even the Apostles did not attempt to so closely replicate Jesus’ mode of teaching.  Paul and the other apostles debated and disputed, argued from the scriptures, tried to refute error. But despite their inspiration they never claimed to be sources of truth in exactly the same way Jesus was; rather, their inspiration made them reliable witnesses of the truth. And we can’t even claim inspiration! Moreover, the great teachers of the church have often employed a dialectic mode of teaching, sometimes proposing many alternative answers to a question and suspending judgment about the actual conclusion. Think, for instance, of St. Augustine, St. Anselm, or St. Thomas.

But what if we teach students to think and they form the wrong opinions? Isn’t it just easier to say “your opinion is not required”? But students will form opinions, good and bad; all lecturing guarantees is that you won’t hear about them. Possibly students will develop a habit of deference to authority figures, a conviction that there is no point in trying to figure things out on their own because the experts—teachers or others—are so much wiser than they. But many of them are destined to ultimately enter a world where the “experts” have concluded everything they were taught at their classical school is an ugly, hateful mistake.

At that point, they will be called upon to make a critical judgment: were the former authorities correct, or these new ones? Having no experience in making critical judgments by design, possibly they will punt, declaring that both authorities are somehow correct, or that the new ones are better without feeling the need to specify why. What we can be reasonably certain they will not do is put the two perspectives together dialectically to make an ingenuous search for truth. That’s not something hothouse tomatoes know how to do.

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