Established orthodoxy indicates that the ideal pedagogical method centers on small, discussion-based classes. Such a model enables "active learning" that, coupled with on-the-spot guidance from a skilled faculty member, is much more likely to change deep thought patterns than traditional lecture-based approaches. The emphasis shifts from the assimilation of content (and its regurgitation) to learning how to learn — how to be a better reader, how to think more critically and creatively, how to collaborate with others in the task of learning.
Few would doubt that this model sounds very appealing. Yet the experience of many educators inclines them to believe that it is unrealistic. Students, it seems, are generally too unmotivated to make it work. As a result, discussion falls into the all-too-familiar patterns: a mostly silent classroom tunes out as the same students dominate the conversation, more intent on getting “participation points” than advancing anyone’s understanding. Even worse, students apparently don’t regard the discussion model as an ideal and often actively prefer lectures. After all, why should they have to listen to the free associations of their peers when they’re paying a lot of money to have access to an expert? Thus, teaching evaluations often push us away from current thinking on “best practices.”
My early experience in teaching also led me to believe that the discussion model was overhyped. Yes, it could work in grad school or even in upper-level courses — but first-year students just didn’t know enough. Everything changed, though, when I started teaching at Shimer College, a small liberal arts institution in Chicago with a distinctive discussion-centered pedagogy based on a Great Books curriculum. Within the first few weeks of teaching there, I realized that the central problem with the pedagogical ideal of small, discussion-based classes is that hardly anyone is really doing it. Many pay lip service to it, but administrative pressure to increase class sizes and a lack of buy-in from faculty ensures that the ideal model always remains a supplement to more traditional methods.
What Shimer’s approach showed me is that if you’re going to do a discussion-centric model, it has to be the main event. I think of the skills required to succeed in such a pedagogical model as a foreign language—you can’t learn them in a handful of supplementary discussion sections per week. The very best way to learn them, of course, is through immersion. The way this works at Shimer is that every single class, from day one, is a small, discussion-centric class, where class participation accounts for roughly half of a student’s final grade. There is no way to “opt out” of the hard work of discussion: students have to figure out how to learn in this style if they are going to succeed at all.
First-year courses can certainly be difficult, though the amount of progress from the first to the second semester is often remarkable. All the familiar pitfalls of class discussion make an appearance: the vague free-association, the off-topic remarks, the sense of competing monologues that don’t quite come together into a real conversation. The faculty’s primary job in these class sessions isn’t so much to supply content as to help students get over these problems and become productive participants.
The key to cultivating a productive discussion, in my view, is Shimer’s Great Books curriculum. Many associate such curricula with cultural conservatism and a narrow focus on “dead white males,” but that is misleading. For me, the importance of the model stems from three crucial pedagogical advantages. First, it provides a center of reference and authority for the classroom other than the professor — or the students’ own personal opinions. The standard for whether students are on-topic is whether they can support their views from the text, and the standard for whether a remark is helpful is whether it advances our understanding of the text. Second, the emphasis on reading primary source texts means that the texts reward and require discussion. In contrast to a textbook or an introductory secondary source, primary sources don’t come “pre-digested” and must be worked on.
Third, it allows us to get past the dreaded “why are we reading this” syndrome: the model guarantees that the texts under discussion are always widely agreed to be worthy of attention. The exact configuration of core texts of course varies from school to school. St. John’s College, for example, one of the leading Great Books institutions in the country and an indispensable point of reference for all such programs, takes a basically chronological approach  in its core reading list, with a strong emphasis on classical antiquity and without much concern for disciplinary boundaries — but still with considerable diversity, particularly in the modern period. Shimer’s core curriculum  follows what’s known as the Hutchins model, which is divided into the three primary disciplinary areas of humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and includes a greater emphasis on more contemporary works. Other colleges use other models, but the shared feature is a concern to choose texts that students will agree that one “should” read — with no requirement than any text be written by someone who is dead, white, male, or any of the above.
The combination of the discussion model with the use of primary texts creates a situation where students are forced to take responsibility for their own education. Instead of getting the material pre-digested in the form of lectures and introductory textbooks, they have to grapple with it themselves. Class sessions then become a chance to actively work on the text with an experienced faculty member and a group of similarly-motivated peers. To me, the real turning point in a Shimer education comes when students come to fully understand this and hold themselves and each other accountable for their contributions. Things don’t automatically go smoothly after that point — people are people, after all, and personalities are bound to clash in unpredictable ways — but the older students generally take an active role in working to solve the problems that do arise, rather than tuning out when things don’t go to their liking.
All this leads me to believe that when the ideal model is used in a thorough-going, uncompromising way, it really is ideal. Yet I can already anticipate an objection: this all sounds great, but it would cost too much. In an era when colleges and universities are constantly trying to cut costs through large classes and online education, Shimer’s approach admittedly may seem unrealistic. I believe, however, that it’s not a matter of “cost” in an abstract sense, but rather a matter of priorities. At Shimer, the priority is classroom instruction, and everything else takes a back seat to that. We have no athletic programs, a relatively low number of administrators (with academic administrative responsibilities rotating among current faculty members), and no buildings to maintain (we lease space from the Illinois Institute of Technology). Faculty salaries are lower than average, but aside from a handful of courses (taught by semi-retired faculty members or administrators with academic expertise), all teaching is done by full-time faculty. Overall, Shimer manages to remain faithful to its model while keeping tuition levels comparable to other small liberal arts schools — without having the luxury of a large endowment.
Another possible objection is that the outcome is ideal because Shimer students are ideal — this would never work at a less selective institution. It is true that Shimer students, like the students at basically all small liberal arts colleges, tend to be more privileged by most measures. Even more crucial, in my view, is the fact that Shimer’s student body tends to be very self-selecting: students are very clear about what the college is offering, and they aren’t going to attend if they aren’t interested in our pedagogical model.
I’ve spoken of the lack of faculty buy-in at other institutions, but I think this points to an even more important factor: student buy-in. If students don’t care, if they’re enrolled for utilitarian reasons and have no intrinsic love of learning, they will most likely wind up failing — and dragging the class down with them. Hence it seems to me that less-selective institutions could offer an optional program for interested students, much like those at two of the City Colleges of Chicago (Harold Washington and Wilbur Wright Colleges). Shimer has worked with Harold Washington in particular for many years, and several of their Great Books students have ultimately finished their four-year degrees at Shimer as a result. Many other community colleges around the country have found success with Great Books programs as well.
The more difficult problem, though, is what to do with students who have the motivation, but are less academically prepared. Shimer deals with this in part through an innovative scholarship program where students come to campus for a day to simulate the kinds of discussion and writing we require — and they can earn a full-tuition scholarship on the strength of their performance alone, regardless of their official credentials. However, one could argue that that merely allows us to reach students who really do already have the skills, but haven’t signaled those skills in the accepted ways. One might suspect that something similar is going on in community college programs, which often tend to attract the more precocious students.
One potential solution might be to organize the core curriculum, at least in the early stages, explicitly around difficulty or accessibility. This might mean starting with more contemporary works (Toni Morrison rather than Shakespeare, for example) or works with more immediate contemporary relevance (Foucault’s Discipline and Punish rather than Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason). It might also mean focusing on works that appeal with particular urgency to one’s target population. For instance, a Great Books program serving students on the South Side of Chicago might do well to lead off with great works in the African-American tradition, then branch into other intellectual traditions with which those works are in dialogue.
More broadly, a new Great Books program that aims to serve underprepared students should be bold and experimental, ruthlessly cutting works that fail to reach students and reaching in unexpected directions for those that do. If one needs to start with films and graphic novels in order to get the discussion started, even that shouldn’t be out of bounds if one embraces the view that the point of the Great Books curriculum isn’t solely to represent a particular vision of our cultural heritage, but to cultivate a collaborative learning environment that allows and requires students to take an active role in their own education.
Developing ways to make this type of curriculum more widely available is hugely important as a matter of justice — why shouldn’t everyone have the opportunity to try their hand at the “ideal” pedagogical model? On my more cynical days, I do agree with the view that there are some students who are simply never going to be motivated enough to do this kind of work, who are in college just because their parents are making them, or because they feel like they vaguely “should” be, or because they want to get a good job. Yet I don’t think its idealistic or unrealistic to assume that there are students who really do love learning and who are coming to college to pursue that love, at least in part.
In fact, I think we should ask ourselves whether our supposed “realism” about students’ abilities and motivations is foreclosing the possibility for students to really blossom. We should consider the possibility that it is precisely the more passive instructional methods that we “realistically” embrace that in part produce the “reality” (boredom, instrumentalization of learning) that those methods are supposedly responding to. Under different circumstances, perhaps even some of my best Shimer students could have wound up resigning themselves to tuning out and resentfully waiting for the professor to just tell them what’s on the test — and by the same token, I suspect that some of those bored students could be successful in a model like Shimer’s if given the chance.
Adam Kotsko is assistant professor of humanities at Shimer College. He is the author, most recently, of Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television  (Zero Books) and blogs at An und für sich.