This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, May 3, 2000

May 3, 2000 - Difficult Gifts/Great Books

[This week's column is written by John Sheehan, a Board member of the Douglas County School District. John was responsible for the recent "Difficult Gifts" Great Books Seminar. I asked him to report on this highly successful program.]

In 1952, Robert Maynard Hutchins, then the president of the University of Chicago, asked us to imagine a time in which the younger generation and the adult community drew common inspiration and understanding from a shared set of great literature. "We could," Dr. Hutchins wrote, "talk to one another then."

As a member of the Board of Education in Douglas County, I have often felt that this vision is merely a chimera to be chased in vain, itself too often chased off by the realities and pressures of a society too impatient to see its value. But, just a few weeks ago, that vision took on very real dimensions. Two dozen adults and two dozen high school students met for three evenings to talk to one another about an important moral issue - childhood.

We did not use some new-fangled technique for facilitating "consensus" on this difficult issue. Instead, each of us agreed to a few simple rules that have stood the test of time:

1. We came prepared to discuss our ideas on an equal playing field by reading from a common set of texts taken from great literature.
2. We were committed to expressing and supporting our ideas through evidence we could all relate to in our shared readings.
3. We were committed to open and honest dialogue.
4. We sought enlightenment from each other's ideas and perspectives.

The roughly 50 participants were split into three groups to participate in what have come to be known as "Great Books seminars". With the help of seminar leaders from Hutchins' very own Great Books Foundation in Chicago, adults and students talked to each other about childhood, guided each evening by a particular reading. William James, William Faulkner and Mary Shelley acted as our teachers.
In a sense, what we did was a very literal realization of Dr. Hutchins' vision. We came together to prove a point - that, starting from common sources of wisdom, both young and old COULD indeed talk more truly to one another. The result was astounding. We created, if only for three nights, a genuine community built across the generational divide on a foundation of shared enquiry and learning. It was pretty powerful stuff.

But, don't take my word on the results. Surveys given throughout the week and at the end of the project hint at the impact that these seminars had on both the adults and the students. If you need to see numbers, consider these simple stats:

1. Every participant indicated that they wanted to see more opportunities for adult-student great books seminars;
2. All but one participant told us that they planned to participate in future seminars, if offered;
3. Asked to rate the Great Books seminar as a tool for learning on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the best possible response), adult responses averaged 4.79. Student responses averaged 4.84. I've been involved in a lot of school-sponsored activities, and I have never seen such universally high endorsements.

The numbers only tell half the story. One particularly poised student told us there are many more students in her school who want the kind of opportunities for intellectual engagement that these seminars offer. In many ways, she finds her classroom environments are, in contrast to what happened in these seminars, often dull, uninviting and unchallenging.

Why is that? Rarely do we give our high school students the respect and credit that they deserve when it comes to asking for their views on important questions affecting their lives and ours. "Even in my English class," wrote one student, "we have a discussion such as this. Here, however, [we are allowed] to make judgments and debate values concerning topics much more important and interesting dealing in the society today." These students are hungry for a chance to talk to adults about moral issues. Great Books seminars offer them this chance to raise difficult and genuinely unanswerable questions - questions that they will ponder for the rest of their lives.

The adults responded with equal alacrity. In a world of work filled with constant deadlines and a world of leisure mostly filled with vacuous entertainment, we too are starved for intellectual engagement. One participant's comment simply read "Please - more discussions!"

This pilot project was a success by any measure you choose to consider. So what's next? Therein lies the ultimate measure of success. The worse thing we could do now is to allow the spark we have ignited here to die out. I, for one, feel morally compelled to take steps to encourage our community and our schools to adopt Great Books seminars. We do offer Junior Great Books programs for students in the classroom, but not nearly enough. The adult-student format is unique. Now that we know how powerful it can be, lets begin offering it through our schools, libraries, churches, and businesses. The Douglas County Educational Foundation and the Douglas Public Library Districtóthe two community organizations who made this project possible - will be looking for ways to continue and expand these seminars. Want to get involved? Feel free to contact me at (303) 932-2628.

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