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Leaning Into the Text

by Alexi Sargeant

 

The hope of Great Hearts seminars is to help students see where they are today by reviewing the pages of history— and leaning in to hear some wisdom from our past.

The room is decorated simply, with photos of the sitting president, vice president, Congressional leaders, and justices of the Supreme Court on the walls. Twenty-five students are sitting around a set of tables forming a rectangle, debating Article III of the Constitution and Federalist Paper No. 78. A peer’s probing question—“Is that just what you think about the role of the judiciary? Or is it what Hamilton thinks?”—sends a student leafing through her copy of the Federalist Papers for textual support. Students, eager to voice their opinions and question their classmates, manage to chime in without talking over each other. The teacher occasionally calls on a quieter student or asks a student to source a claim in the text. The conversation zeroes in on the powers of the Supreme Court. One ninth-grader asks another, “Do you agree or disagree with Hamilton that the judiciary is the weakest branch of government?” “I’d like to say it’s one of the most powerful, considering it kind of has the power of the Constitution,” comes the response. As the seminar wraps up, the teacher lets the class know they’ll see the founders debate that very answer in the next lesson on Marbury V. Madison.

I was there as a freelance writer, putting together a primary-source-based teacher’s supplement meant to capture some Great Hearts pedagogy (a sister project to a new history text begin written by another contributor to this issue, Wilfred McClay). I was writing entries on major documents of U.S. history, and each entry included sample discussion-starting questions for the classroom seminar. It was a delight to observe, as a fly on the classroom wall, how seriously Great Hearts students and teachers took the project of pursuing truth together through spirited discussion of crucial American texts. These high schoolers, gamely grappling with ideas one might think too big for them, were embarking on the same sort of journey that I’d taken in Yale’s Directed Studies program.

Many factors help set the stage for students to enter into the great conversation of American history. I was particularly impressed by the way Great Hearts classroom décor abetted the seminar project: everything garish and distracting was banished, and the tasteful appointments—e.g. framed copies of key documents like the Declaration of Independence, maps from old atlases of the Thirteen Colonies—reinforced the sense that students were engaged in the important task of studying history. But the most essential aspects of the Great Hearts approach are the ones that Great Hearts Irving teacher Ron Bergez pictures as a “pedagogical Venn diagram” consisting of great books, Socratic instruction, and the seminar format.

Bergez is a close reader of the intellectual godfathers of Great Hearts, and the broader classical schooling movement: Mortimer Adler and Mark Van Doren. Bergez points out that Adler and Van Doren discussed how this “humanities triad” can be separated (Socrates himself was not a seminar leader), while in the best schools great books are Socratically discussed in the format of a seminar—and Bergez concurs: “I believe that the genius of the Great Hearts approach to the discussion of texts is the intersection of those three parts of the triad.” As a teacher, Bergez cherishes seeing students draw connections between different documents in seminars, even documents vastly divided by time, place, and purposes. For instance, his students picked up on how both Andrew Carnegie and Benito Mussolini posit that there is a natural inequality among men. Though different men with different motives, both writers were taking a position on the question of equality, which Adler considers one of the “six great ideas.” Bergez says, “There’s a great satisfaction in watching students come to a realization that there’s an underlying unity of human concern.”

As for the particular question of teaching American history, Bergez admits there’s something paradoxical about applying a classical approach. Ancient thinkers like Thucydides thought history was not simply old things being displaced by new things, but “something permanent and perennial revealing itself.” But Americans often think of themselves as an exception or aberration. This nation is “A New Order of the Ages,” something new under the sun. Can American texts like presidential addresses be studied in continuity with older great works? Bergez thinks Lincoln’s speeches, saturated with Biblical imagery, show how American history lives in a larger tradition. “There is some sort of heritage there that we don’t escape from and I don’t think we want to.”

The choice of texts is an important consideration for every teacher. There are more fascinating primary sources dealing with American history than can fit into a ninth-grade Humane Letters course. Teachers hit on different ways to offer students a window into the American story. Joseph Labadie at Scottsdale Prep, for example, structures his class around a pattern of foundations and challenges.

In the first quarter, says Labadie, the focus is on the founding of the United States. In the second quarter, students see the constitutional order shaken and tested by the great debates over slavery and the Civil War. A similar pattern governs the second half of the year. The third quarter sees new foundations laid, as Americans reconsider the role of the federal government in the lives of ordinary citizens (the Progressive Era, the New Deal) and the role of the U.S. on the international stage (both World Wars). In the fourth quarter, those commitments are put on trial by the Civil Rights movement and the Cold War. This structure helps determine which texts and periods receive particular emphasis—Labadie says that the letter to Abraham Lincoln from Hannah Johnson (on behalf of black Union soldiers like her son) always prompts a good discussion tying into the semester’s overall theme of Americans adjudicating who “We the People” really encompasses.

The culmination of Labadie’s class is a seminar on this topic: “What aspect of American history could help define one’s moral compass?” (He instructs students not to focus on the atomic bomb in this discussion, since it would otherwise take over the whole conversation—besides, they’ve already debated it at length in the WWII section of the course.) He’s heard a student compare Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech with Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural, saying the lesson from the more favorable public reception of the latter is that when you address a crisis you should offer a strong positive vision, as Reagan did. Labadie feels he’s helping prepare students to do great things in their lives. “These students are going to be leaders,” he says. “I’d like them walking out of this class with some sort of lessons in leadership.”

Tools beyond seminar discussion can add a lot to students’ facility with the ideas at stake in a history class. In Amy Lively’s classroom at Trivium Prep, I observed a student practicing oratory during a lesson on the Industrial Revolution, by delivering a poem written by a Lowell mill girl, in favor of striking. And, there’s a particular outside-of-class skill that can help students grow as seminar participants: the skill of annotating texts to flag key words and phrases.

Doug McCauley of Great Hearts Monte Vista puts emphasis on annotation in his class, because “Annotating is a really good way of constantly pulling the students back to the text, so they’re really reading actively and thoughtfully.” In his classroom, I saw him ask students what key words they had circled in a reading about Theodore Roosevelt’s time in the Badlands—he advised them to focus on notable words that would make immediately clear where they were in the reading. McCauley thinks if students annotate well, they’ll be better prepared to marshal textual evidence in seminar discussion and have an easier time navigating their texts. He learned annotation from a book he read when he got out of the navy in 1997: Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. He demonstrates to students how his annotations allow him to review a full speech or chapter in under a minute before sitting down to discuss it, and to easily picture where a particular point is made in the text—such as finding the reference to “bimetallism” in William McKinley’s inaugural address. He says a student excitedly reported he was gaining the same ability, saying, “It happens to me, too! I’m starting to know where things are on the pages!”

The hope of Great Hearts seminars is help students see where they are today by reviewing the pages of history—and leaning in to hear some wisdom from our past. Students of American history have a chance at a rite of passage: to begin formulating for themselves their notions of our nation’s history. By bringing their minds to bear on great American texts, they can come to see America a little more completely.

 

We are looking to the past—its lessons, achievements, and exemplars—to draw inspiration and a vision for the future. We must strive to understand our historical moment if we are to act wisely and for the common good.

History always begins in the middle of things. It doesn’t matter where you choose to start the story, there is always something essential that came before, some prior context that is assumed.

Like a river, time’s restless force pushes ever forward, relentlessly. But its beginnings lie far back, eventually extending far beyond what we can see, fading into the mists of time at the edges of lands beyond our knowing.

Typically reserved for college students, a thesis is an academic rite of passage for high school seniors at Great Hearts Academies. As the culminating experience of their studies, students work to master the rigor of rhetoric, demonstrating their critical capacities.

The room is decorated simply, with pictures of presidents, congressional leaders, and Supreme Court justices on the walls. Twenty-five students are sitting around a set of tables forming a rectangle, debating Article III of the Constitution and Federalist Paper No. 78.

Robert Jackson recently interviewed the president of the Bill of Rights Institute, David Bobb, who discusses how classical education helps promote leadership; what he considers the most crucial issues of our day; and how to get students beyond test preparation.

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