Remember the last time you had one of those late-night, non-stop conversations with a dear friend? Topics arose and metamorphosed as you discovered new pathways of thought in the exchange of ideas, feelings, and experiences. Time seemed super-charged by the release of conversational energy.
For many of us, such encounters are rare. But those select conversations remain personal treasures drawn from the connection of souls—for, as John Henry Newman phrased it, cor ad cor loquitur (“heart speaks to heart”). Newman certainly understood that perennial ideas, like justice, mercy, and love, are constantly rediscovered by persons who join in common cause, pursuing truth and striving for goodness.
This edition of VIRTUE explores how seemingly simple acts of conversation reveal a host of pedagogical purposes: enlarging the imagination, refining terms, clarifying thoughts, etc. For those interested in a classical approach to education, a wealth of resources lie just beneath the surface of a thoughtful classroom conversation.
We begin with an autobiographical reflection from a woman whose classical education reoriented her life. Jerilyn Olson serves as the Chief People Officer at Great Hearts, but her educational journey stretches back to those earliest conversations at home as a student, and then as a teacher. Though her administrative role now serves thousands, she humbly admits, “I’ve only ever been a midwife. A teacher can only teach out of who they themselves are, and we discover each other through dialogue.”
Relatedly, Professor Angel Parham’s essay explains the role and purposes of commonplace books in the life of the mind. Parham learned the practice of keeping a commonplace book from a colleague and, in turn, discovered its deep, classical pedigree. More than anything, Parham uncovered a way of storing up intellectual delights—both to relish now and to return to later. Today her students use commonplace books that equip them with “a long-term resource for their future hinking and writing on a variety of subjects that will travel with them beyond home or school.”
Not surprisingly, classical educators return time and again to those good words of poetry, penned to “purify the language of the tribe” (Mallarme). But how do teachers cooperate in that purification of language? For Professor Fred Putnam, they refuse to straightforwardly “teach” poetry. They prefer to allow each poem to play its part, initiating readers (including Fred himself) into the mysteries and music of specific poems: “We don’t read or study ‘poetry’ (a vague, abstract concept), but rather we read this poem and then we read that one, and so on.” For as Fred and his students came to discover, real communication is taking place around the table as we explore the thought-felt world of specific poems—an ever-widening experience of the possibilities of common language.
In this issue, we also discover the poetry of arithmetic, geometry, and calculus, as explained by two seasoned math teachers (and teacher trainers). Melanie Brintnall and Mike Austin offer ample evidence of the experiential beauty of puzzling over math problems and finding meaningful solutions. For Brintnall and Austin, “collaboration is necessary [for the genuine mathematical experience] because the problems are too difficult for students to solve on their own. Yet, through conversation, each student’s partial insight contributes to an overall solution that was initially beyond the grasp of any individual student.”
The last essay in this issue explores the surprisingly effective methods of Socrates. Surprising, for we barely conceive the untapped power of good questions, and surprisingly effective, for we discover that Socrates fails to conclude with a straightforward, ‘right answer’ to virtually any of his queries. Matt Bianco provides a searching assessment of the great philosopher’s gift: a philosophical method of inquiry that remains with us more than 2500 years later.
We hope you will enjoy this sampler of conversations from classical educators across the country. Though the conversational all-nighter may be rare, the possibility of real, heart-to-heart dialogue inspires a way of life in the company of good people (both living and dead) in pursuit of the common good.
Dr. Robert L. Jackson is the executive director of the Great Hearts Institute.