The Seminar Method
What is the seminar method?
The seminar method, which is central to the mission of The Agora Foundation, is very different from the educational experience of most people. Tutors, who help to guide the discussion, do not lecture about the meaning of the texts; rather they ask probing questions which, after careful discussion, help to illuminate the power of the ideas that arise in the discussion. As one of the seminar participants observed, "the tutors guide the discussion minimally to keep it on track, but the real teachers in the room are the authors of the works themselves." The reading and discussion of the great books, organized in terms of special themes, is an approach to learning which requires an active role of each participant. The seminar setting emphasizes the collaborative nature of our approach. The search to understand what the text says and what its implications become a shared enterprise. Such active participation is an excellent way for one to claim for oneself an understanding of the great issues which continue to inform our culture. There are some subjects where the seminar approach, combined with relevant lectures, provides an ideal learning context. Many of those who have attended these seminars and mixed offerings over the past twenty years have discussed the importance of the events to their lives, and how their character and thought has been transformed as a result.
The great books of the Western tradition, from the ancient Greeks to the present, contain some of the best that has been thought and written about nature, human nature, and the divine. Whether it is a Greek tragedy by Sophocles or Aeschylus, Aristotle’s Ethics, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, or Darwin ’s The Origin of Species, such texts invite us to join in a great conversation about topics which transcend the particularities of the time and place in which these books were written. The texts are not the special preserve of any one ethnic or national group; they are part of a patrimony which belongs to all. As Isocrates, the Greek rhetorician, once remarked, what makes one an Athenian is not the blood that runs through one’s veins, but the ideas in one’s mind.
One need not be a specialist in literature or philosophy or science to read and discuss great texts in these areas. Agora Foundation seminar attendees have included business people, lawyers, doctors, teachers, students, administrators, artists, and more. There is no reason why a science teacher, for example, ought not to join English teachers and writers in examining a great literary text, or for English teachers not to benefit from reading Euclid with mathematicians. As Aristotle observed, the sign of an educated person is not being an expert in every field, but being able to examine intelligently the work of experts.