Lesson 2: Interview with Eva Brann
Join Dr. Perrin as he interviews Dr. Brann about reading Homer and the St. John’s approach to leading seminar discussions.
Outline of Session
Lesson 2: Interview with Dr. Eva Brann and Dr. Christopher Perrin
On Conducting a Seminar and Other Topics
(0:05) CP: Why should a teacher—or someone aspiring to be a teacher—need to become familiar with Homer? What if he or she is not a literature teacher?
(0:28) EB: If you’re going to be a teacher, the first thing you need is something to teach—a subject matter. Why would you pick a dreary, boring, banal subject matter, when you could pick the best of the best?
(0:48) CP: It seems there are so many different stories within Homer that you can pick out for students of all ages. I remember my children listening to a children’s Homer…
(0:59) EB: Oh yes, the earlier you start, the better. It seems to me that if you become familiar with the gross story—the big happenings—early on, and learn to pronounce the names, when it comes to actually reading the text in English, you will be able to pay attention to all the subtlety. I do not think that there’s a more subtle poet than Homer. I think that isn’t what Homer scholars by and large think. They are deeply interested in where he got the material and how he arranges it and the verbal misuse of Greek and the dactylic, the heroic line—but that there might be real subtlety in it, that’s not usually what they look for, and therefore it’s not what they find.
(2:07) CP: To catch that subtlety, though, you said you need to keep a watchful eye. It requires a careful reading, and perhaps a reading with other people…
(2:18) EB: Yes, if a bunch of people are doing it together, more is going to get noticed than if you’re by yourself. Reading at home and coming together and discussing it seem to me to be complementary activities.
(2:36) CP: And perhaps reading it again and again. Is this a book that bears rereading?
(2:42) EB: I was asked to deliver a talk so I’ve made up a talk, but the best teachers shut up! This isn’t generally observed. Teachers feel an obligation, a sense of duty when they’re in front of a class, to talk. That’s exactly what they shouldn’t be doing. They should incite others to talk.
(3:10) CP: You’ve been a tutor here at Saint John’s College for some time—
EB: Sixty years!
CP: So I guess over sixty years you’ve perfected the art of not having to speak to your students, but to ask the right questions.
(3:26) EB: Look, here’s a confession. The older you get, the more talkative you get, especially at my age, whenever seminars take place. So I don’t always follow my own rule. But I think it is the best rule. All of us talk probably more than we would have liked to, in the end. And that’s because the longer you’re at it, the more full you are of things you want to convey. But the best thing is to sit and wait for the students to bring it out, which usually happens eventually, if you have patience.
(4:05) CP: I was reading Augustine’s On Teaching recently and he makes the comment that one of the two errors we make as teachers is either to make things so accessible and easy that the student is bored, or to make it so obscure that the student is frustrated. In the middle is discovery.
(4:24) EB: And I was saying don’t make them at all. Allow the students to ask questions. And actually Augustine himself was a great writer of dialogues and he knew how to ask questions.
(4:41) CP: I’m thinking of the teacher who might be 24 or 25, teaching at a classical school, teaching high school kids, and wanting to be better at the art of conducting a seminar…
(4:57) EB: I believe in being reasonable about things. There is, especially in high school, material as the term goes that you have to cover. Sometimes you just have to tell people things. Or correct them. So set times aside for a different mode. Students too like some variety. Now you are learning certain things I want you to remember and learn by heart. Later on, there’ll be a test and you’ll have to regurgitate this stuff. But now is a different time to say whatever’s on your mind. I’ll encourage it and interpret it and I’ll ask you if I’ve got it right. I’ll ask you more questions. We’ll live in a different kind of universe for three hours a week or whatever. Don’t overdo any particular method.
(6:05) CP: As you look back over your teaching career, how would you describe the way you evolved as a tutor and a Socratic teacher?
(6:17) EB: There’s a long, discernible development. When I was much younger (I came here in my late twenties), I used to like to play games with students. It was clever. I didn’t say what I thought very much. I thought that was required. But the older I get, the more in class I try to do it with questions. But if someone wants to know what I think about anything, we make an appointment, we have coffee, and I tell them. It’s easy candor. It’s part of growing older.…
(7:45) CP: One of the things I noticed about seminars I attended here when I was at the graduate institute—there was a kind of dance about what the tutor might think and what the class was doing and the way the text was speaking. It was kind of a dance that the tutor directed attention away from his thoughts to the text.
(8:22) EB: That’s what I was trying to describe. It fits a younger tutor to play these games. But the time comes when you’re more confident in what you’ve thought out. Divide your life between the classroom way, which is not to tell but to listen. But if people want to know what she’s thinking about it—tell them.
(9:02) CP: If you were to describe the Saint John’s approach to leading seminars, in distinction from others, what would it be?
(9:15) EB: First I would discourage the idea of Socratic method for two reasons. Everyone knows Socrates didn’t converse in this way. He bullied people. Our freshmen think of him as a bully. He’s by no means the most-loved character. And secondly, it’s not a method. It’s a way of doing justice to whatever it is you’re after.
One of the nice things we do is distinguish between the tutorials and the seminars. In the tutorials, we do exercises, we do translations, we correct students, we make students correct each other, they go up to the board and demonstrate. It’s a normal learning experience, not so different from what’s done in a good prep school.
In the seminar, it’s very different because a question is asked, and people begin to talk. You never know what is going to happen. Sometimes it’s the most interesting matter in the world, but no one has anything to say. You have the responsibility but never any power—you cannot make people think. It’s impossible. Then you go home in despair and ask yourself what in the world you’re doing. And then other times, it works wonderfully and people get each other excited to think of things. Not only do different tutors do things differently, but there’s usually two of us, and that makes for yet a different way.
If someone comes and visits, I guess they could think it’s much alike. And the way it’s much alike is that people are really trying to figure out first what the book says, and then whether they believe it. And the second part is what is not asked at the universities: Is this truth? is not asked. People think it’s indecent to ask.
We think it’s important. if you’re reading a book on theology or law or social behavior, you have to ask Is what he’s saying true? If you don’t, why are you reading it?
(12:33) CP: I know the text is very much valued, and the text becomes the teacher. The truth exists and is to be sought…
(12:45) EB: Well, the search for truth exists. The question whether truth exists is not prejudged. It might be a fool’s errand. I think most of us don’t believe that, but some do. I have colleagues who don’t believe that the search has a real goal. But they think that the search itself is good for you. I don’t believe in looking for things that you don’t think exist
(13:14) CP: But in a place like Saint John’s, where you’re trying to welcome people from various philosophical and theological backgrounds, it provides a wide door for everyone to come in…
(13:27) EB: Everyone’s committed to allowing the question. And the answer is really up to the students who respond to it. The students are pretty canny about figuring out who believes what. They know.
(13:44) CP: And you have to ask to see your grades (except for seniors). It was refreshing to me to be in a class in which the way you understood other students was by what they said and wrote rather than by grades.
(14:25) EB: Tutors are encouraged to have quizzes when there are things to be learned by heart, especially when they learn Greek in the first year. But no one puts a grade on them—they make a comment such as “You weren’t really paying attention” but not A, B, C, etc. I was a leader of the senior seminar and at the end of the first term, we had to sit down and make up grades, which are quite important for the seniors. I was amazed at how much agreement there usually is. Every once in a while you had very different opinions about a student’s work but by and large, we have no difficulty finding the right grades.
(15:30) CP: Could you comment about the don rags? Because that’s a way of assessing the students that is very personal but not numerical.
(15:40) EB: It’s never numerical and it has two purposes. One is to convey to the student what our opinion of their work is, and the other is to tell them what they should do better and different. Some tutors are very good at doing it, and other tutors sort of vaguely wander around what the students can do. It can’t be helped. We’re all different.
(16:15) CP: Before we turned on the cameras, you were making comments on education in general. As you’ve surveyed what’s happened in American education in the last sixty years, what are your observations and concerns and what gives you hope?
(16:36) EB: What gives me hope is the same thing that’s true of the American economy: startups. Christian schools, classical schools, little local homeschooling associations. They tend to show much more good sense about what it’s good for adolescents to be doing than public schools. There are some very good public schools, but by and large it’s a pity how boring it seems to be, how thoughtless. I’m afraid it’s due to teacher education. If I were czar of American education, that’s the point where I’d like to intervene.
I’d recommend a classical curriculum—by which I don’t mean ancient classical. I mean good stuff from any period. I’d recommend learning how to ask good questions. I’d recommend a relation between students and teachers which is at once formal and very close. Teachers should learn what it means to be close without being intrusive or improper. You can’t really be friends with students because being a friend is another self and there’s got to be an equality. An older person and a younger person are not equal with respect to what we’re doing. So it’s not a friendship. It’s a very peculiar and subtle and difficult relation both parties should think about.
If I were making up my ideal teacher training program, I would have a segment devoted to questions of proper teacher-student relations. With no PowerPoints and no mantras and no rules, just discussion. I think our faculty is particularly good at that.
(19:50) CP: What have you seen in students who have come to Saint John’s who have been well prepared?
(20:10) EB: Someone’s tried to teach them English grammar—it’s fundamental. Some of them have had a second language—Spanish or Latin. Some of them are terminally difficult to deal with because they think they know things, and you have to disabuse them of that notion. (They come from fancier private schools.) But some knowledge of English grammar is very important. Simple mathematics—arithmetic and a little bit of algebra. Some vague notion of the way things developed in the world, for instance that the Romans came after the Greeks. You don’t need to know much.
(22:12) CP: Are you finding students decently read, having read classic literature?
(22:18) EB: Some of them are absolutely amazing—they’ve read all over, particularly in other literatures. Some haven’t read very much. They’re very differently prepared.
(22:31) CP: What would be a reason why a teacher would benefit from coming to the graduate institute?
(22:48) EB: For two very different reasons: one is they are actually learning interesting things. We’re reading really fundamental, interesting texts. You know something that it’s very good to know.
If you’re going into a system that’s “rigged,” then what you’ve learned is that reading is a nice thing to do for your own self-development and there’s a gain in that. But if you’re going into a reasonably flexible system, you’ll know something about how to run a discussion and what to choose to discuss, and that’s what teachers do.
(23:38) CP: You mentioned that the way to learn how to lead a discussion is simply to start doing it.
(23:48) EB: That’s exactly what they will have done. I don’t know how it is in the graduate institute, but for our own undergraduate tutors, we have a week’s orientation. That’s not enough to learn any of these things. The best way to learn it is by being together with someone who’s done it before. That’s part of the reason why we have two tutors leading seminars
(24:21) CP: That’s how newly hired tutors will be trained here at Saint John’s?
(24:25) EB: Yes, in as far as it’s called training. Being together with someone who has experience. Those relations are very different for different people. Some believe in leaving the less experienced tutor to their own devices. Others believe in giving them lots of advice. It’s done in different ways.
(24:57) CP: If you were to hire a new tutor, how would you assess if the person is a good fit?
(25:02) EB: It’s the devil. I’ve lived through many appointments (we never speak of hires; we speak of appointments) and the mistakes—you wouldn’t even call them mistakes. There’s no way to tell who somebody is by talking to them for an hour or hearing about their experiences in classes. We’ve had this over and over—people who are letter-perfect in these interviews, but it doesn’t work out.
(25:48) CP: That itself is an art.
(25:50) EB: It’s an art, but it’s not an art that works very well. We don’t like making people leave once they’re appointed. We want to keep them. But it’s the way that we get a good faculty. People who really don’t get the idea, they ask, “What idea?” Well, if you don’t know, I can’t tell you! It’s very difficult, but somehow a good faculty comes out of it.
(26:25) CP: What would you say to a classical teacher—a K-12 school teacher—who wants to become a better classical educator?
(27:18) EB: There are some general rules, but everything has to be done flexibly. One general rule is don’t make kids do too much. Don’t give very long assignments. The older you get, the more you can get out of a little—but a beginner can’t. So it can’t be too little or too much. Be reasonable. Don’t squash them by doing the talking. Let them be the initiators.
Especially in the lower grades, emphasis on music, drama, poetry, fiction is more important than on heavy things. That can wait. And be nice is a good rule!
(28:37) CP: What about their reading life? What advice would you have for teachers or a young homeschool mom? What should they be reading?
(28:55) EB: Read your passion. If you’re interested in bugs, read entomology for a couple years. It will do you a world of good. Eventually there will be nothing you haven’t read a little bit about.
Some people have a natural passion for reading. I think I was born that way. I used to read the labels on the bottles in my parents’ bathroom closet just for fun. If a student wants to go a certain way and wants to do nothing but that, let them for a while. Supposing it’s the Bobbsey Twins or whatever it is nowadays, even comic books—let them be. But ask them questions about it. (Comic books are quite interesting as a genre in any case.) The point should be eventually to find everything interesting except for one thing—entertainment, which is terminally boring.
(30:32) CP: Could you comment about that? That’s a huge issue with students nowadays, spending five or six hours a day in front of a screen. It creates a torpor in students.
(30:54) EB: Anything that’s passive. Parents have the power to stop it and should exercise it.
(31:14) CP: What comes to mind in terms of books or advice for a young teacher who wants to learn what education should be? Is being an education major the best way to become a teacher?
(32:08) EB: The mother of all education books is Plato’s Republic. It seems to me that if you read it you learn about what teaching ought to be—or you can read other dialogues too. There’s Aristotle’s Politics and Rousseau’s Emile. It’s a horrible but important book—both a romantic and tyrannical approach. There are lots of classics. There’s an educational classics series of books which are moderately interesting.
(33:04) CP: Since you mentioned the Republic, I can’t resist asking you about Plato’s idea of musica— elementary education inspired by the muses.
(33:17) EB: That’s what I was saying—that young kids should do a lot of art and music. Every child (unless they are absolutely terminally deaf to music) should learn to play an instrument, even if it’s only the ocarina or the recorder. All children should sing in the choir—and not just flabby popular songs but real stuff, baroque stuff. Their taste should be shaped. If you do homeschooling, most are in associations and are associated with churches, so they have opportunities to sing.
(34:19) CP: Can you comment on Aristotle’s ideal of scholé, a leisurely, restful education?
(34:29) EB: You’re asking the right person at the moment, for just a couple of days ago I read up on it. It’s interesting that the word that gives us school is the same word for leisure. Leisure is the time for learning things. Aristotle is particularly interested in the abuse of leisure in citizens—not to know what to do with your leisure. Don’t we know that’s true!
(35:13) CP: Yes, he uses Sparta as a counterexample of doing the wrong things with their free time.
(35:22) EB: We think of school, business, work—and then there’s vacation, a void, a vacuum. Both Plato and Aristotle think of it as the opposite…. It’s not a vacuum but the full time. And that makes sense to me. But people have to make a living. It’s a modern problem—how to combine what is often very wearying daily work (commuting, the boss is nasty) with doing something in your free time that isn’t soul-destroying. A good education makes it possible to use your leisure in a good way. The American passion for fixing things is not a bad way to use your leisure—building things with your hands, gardening, etc.
(37:12) CP: I too have studied Aristotle’s scholé—so ironic that it’s the root word for school, but also such a refreshing contrast to the way we frenetically go about education today, with great stress, anxiety, and high-stakes testing.
(37:37) EB: This is the fault of parents. A parent can do something about it. If you live all your life in competition—who’s going to get into what school and who’s got the top score—it’s misery. A sensible parent should say to the kid, “I don’t care. Do it well, produce something, and we’ll talk about it.” Make some life out of it.
A lot of the parents of our students are that way. They discourage the competitive aspect of education. It’s soul-destroying. That said, there are some people (they tend to be more often males, but I think in the next century they’ll be female) who are innately competitive. The old, still useful way to drain it off is into sports, where it’s appropriate.
(39:24) CP: What are your general thoughts of advice to teachers who are in this growing movement of classical school, homeschool educators? Some of them are excited but daunted and they feel their own educations are lacking.
(40:03) EB: The first problem that should come out early, whether this is religious teaching or not. How will you give your children a religious education without impinging on their thinking? A thoughtful teacher will know how to balance on the one hand to have the child see the beauty and depth of faith, and on the other hand that it has to be a choice in the end. It takes courage.
People should be daunted by the prospect of being a teacher—it’s real teaching! But I don’t know any general precepts except do it!
(41:42) CP: That comes back to your advice to be a good leader of seminars—do it with another person.
(41:52) EB: Yes, do it in community. If there is no community—suddenly become a leader. That’s the moment to discover if you’ve got some ability to lead in you. Even if it’s nothing more than taking a Post-it note and inviting some people to discuss the matter. Someone’s got to start.
(42:18) CP: There’s one school I consulted for in Minneapolis—a classical charter school—and I suggested that maybe every teacher should read Homer. Any human being should have read it. And when I went back a couple years ago, they had started cohorts around the school centered around reading Homer. Every teacher, including the business manager, was reading Homer. He picked me up at the airport and told me how excited he was and how much he loved reading it for the first time.
(43:11) EB: That makes a lot of sense to me. I think we should make every effort possible to draw the administration into the teaching part. Not only does it make them friendly to actual education, but it’s a pleasure to them.
(43:30) CP: I think it’s exactly that. If we believe this is so important to cultivating our own humanity, then all of us need to be doing it to some degree.
(43:40) EB: It makes the school a community if everybody’s in it.
(43:45) CP: Touchstone texts, common vocabulary, common experiences… I’m hoping that your comments and this recording are going to help schools to say we need to read Homer. On this site we’re saying every educator, at some point in his or her life, needs to know Homer.
(44:09) EB: I haven’t followed this, so you’ll know more about this, but are religious schools in touch with secular ones?
(44:21) CP: Yes, more and more the secular classical schools are largely growing in the charter school world. When they start, they grow very quickly because they have public funding and tend to start with only five or seven grades. Their challenge is to get all the teachers trained quickly enough…
It’s possible to have a secular public school that holds to a philosophical realism, and they can engage all of the religious texts and read them without advocating anything in particular.
(45:29) EB: What mediates between secularism and religious tests like the Bible is imagination. You can imagine what it would mean to someone who believes it’s the Word of God. It puts it into the mode of imagination without requiring anyone to believe or confess it.
(46:21) CP: I think it is possible to subject it to different readings. But religious thought and texts have been so influential in Western culture that we have to imagine it in order to understand where we are.
(46:35) EB: That’s how we accept another’s world without putting our faith in it—by imagining what it feels like. That’s a way of summarizing what I think about early education. It’s got to appeal to the imagination. The civilization of the imagination is the great task of early education.
(47:10) CP: Would you see some seminal thoughts regarding that in Plato’s Republic?
(47:18) EB: Oh yes, that’s how he begins education, with poetry.
(47:25) CP: I don’t know if you’ve come across Vigan Guroian at the University of Virginia, but he’s thought a lot about this and written a book called Tending to the Heart of Virtue. It’s essentially taking this idea of what we can do to cultivate imagination, story, and virtue in younger kids. Just another voice making that case since our children very much need it.
(48:00) EB: Particularly since the mass offerings to the imagination are so corrupt, so ugly.
CP: Thank you so much.
EB: Thank you—it’s been a pleasure.
The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer
On Teaching by Augustine
The Republic by Plato
Politics by Aristotle
Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Tending to the Heart of Virtue by Vigan Guroian
- How would you summarize the St. John’s approach to teaching or leading seminar discussions? What is distinctive about it?
- What do you think about the St. John’s approach to leading seminar discussions? What do you consider its strengths? What do you note as potential weaknesses?
- Eva Brann says teachers should neither make things too easy nor too hard for students—we shouldn’t make them any way at all. Instead, we should allow the students to ask the questions. What do you think about this idea? How would it work? How practical would it be to do consistently in your classroom?
- Brann says that often people think it’s indecent to ask if the text they’re studying is true. What stance does your school culture or school statement of philosophy take on this issue, especially if it is a widely accepted belief? How do you handle student (or faculty or parent) questions of whether something truly fits the ideal of truth, goodness, and beauty?
- Brann recommends that younger children be allowed to follow their interests only for a period, and to be immersed in the arts (poetry, drama, music, fiction). How does she see that impacting their imaginations and thus their education when they are older?
- What do you think of the Saint John’s College practice of not giving out grades—students have to ask for them? What about their don rags? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of such a system?
- Brann gives a little twist to the idea of scholé for adults, that having a good education makes us better able to cope wisely with what to do in our leisure time. What do you think of this insight? Can such a habit tie in with learning in a restful way when a person is younger?
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