I’ve joined a great books book club, and my first experience as part of this small (very small) group was invigorating. The preparation was intimidating, as I was jumping into a group that was already established, and indeed works from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to The Republic were already in their rearview mirrors. My assignment was to read The Sophist, one of Plato’s later dialogues. While I remember reading The Republic over twenty-five years ago and struggling to hold onto its key concepts and arguments, I had never gone further in my reading of his works.
I will not embarrass myself by recounting the Stranger’s arguments hunting down the Sophists or sorting through the conundrum of being and non-being; however, I will say that after struggling with my own reading of The Sophist and enjoying fleeting moments of clarity regarding its central ideas, it was fascinating to be in a conversation with people who were so engaged and flexible of mind. In our conversation there were wide-ranging allusions to literature (Greek tragedies, modern novels), history, later philosophy, physics, and religion. Participants tested ideas and made assertions, and they illustrated ideas from one traditional academic discipline with examples from another.
During our conversation sitting on a patio on a lovely early June evening, I was reminded more than once of my experience teaching Humanities at Asheville School. The sort of conversation we had the other night was similar to Harkness discussions I remember from teaching European Studies to high school seniors with my teaching partner, Trey Wilson. When the discussions were at their best, the making of connections served as the engine that elevated our learning. For instance, as we neared the end of our study of the French Revolution, in the course of ten minutes of discussion, students made connections from Robespierre to Danton to Coleridge to Wordsworth and forward to Delacroix and the industrial revolution and back to Swift and Pope. The ease with which they moved across disciplinary boundary markers was remarkable. Even more salient here, the extent to which their understanding of this watershed moment in Europe was both deepened and expanded by the freedom to make connections was transformative.
Where next for the book club, which will meet again in August? The Henriad—Shakespeare’s tetralogy of Richard II, Henry, IV, pt. I, and Henry, IV pt. II, and Henry V. It will be a perfect moment to look back to these plays, as the BBC is producing them this summer in conjunction with the Olympics coming to London. I will get to Henry V and the St. Crispian’s Day speech in late July—perhaps just in time to inspire me for the dawn attack on the 2012-2013 school year!