In “Adventures in Horizontal Education,” Travis Mushett opens up an interesting challenge, how to create alternative educational occasions for serious study that flourish outside of the normal academic structures—dynamic, non-hierarchical, and responsive to the interests of participants. Let’s hypothesize that present times are opportune for organizing productive study in novel ways. In a material, logistical sense, open access to quality cultural resources has been broadening both extensively and rapidly. Technical constraints on thoughtful communication that have endured for centuries are fast giving way, examples of how material conditions, once solid, are becoming liquid, as Zygmunt Bauman has been pointing out. We can be quite sure the consequences for pedagogical practice and public communication will be substantial and significant, but no one knows what they will be. That is our opportunity—let’s make Readings a response to that challenge, pursued in an experimental spirit.
One can try shaping an innovation in an indeterminate situation by attempting to do something that is very hard to do under the conditions hitherto prevailing. Within higher education as it currently functions, it is very, very difficult to configure groups for studying daunting works—ones that combine unusual scope, difficulty, and significance—and to do it in a non-hierarchical, generalist spirit while achieving high intellectual standards and expectations. Here is an initial set of guidelines that might serve to initiate and structure a reading, understanding that the group should repeatedly reflect on how well these steps are working and revise them through consensus as seems useful.
- A reading takes place outside of the formal structures of higher education. It is voluntary and free (excepting incidental costs for texts, food & drink, transportation & communication). Participants, henceforth readers, who are faculty members somewhere do not count participating in a reading as part of their academic load and readers who are students do not seek or receive academic credit for their participation.
- The subject of a reading should be a single work (or very closely related group of works, e.g. Kant’s three critiques or Dante’s Divine Comedy). Readers should engage the work, not as specialists, but as generalists, each seeking his own reading of the work, aiming at a full and confident comprehension of it in order to form a personal understanding and appreciation of whether and how the work may affect his conduct of life. Secondary literature on the work should serve as informative tools, not a source of definitive interpretation.
- Each reader is autonomous and responsible for his own valuation and interpretation of the text. Readers as a group should not seek a consensus interpretation and they should pace the reading not by testing whether they had attained agreement about the text, but by a consensus that each separately was ready to move forward in the text.
- A reading should blend online and face-to-face participation as suits the participating readers. A reading might have multiple face-to-face groups in different locations interacting online with each other and with dispersed readers interacting with the whole group exclusively online.
- A reading should closely follow a text, proceeding in three stages. The first is an orientation stage, relatively brief, in which each reader peruses the text and other resources for the reading, forming a clear sense of the scale and structure of the work, a general orientation to useful secondary resources available to help engage the text, and a sense of who’s who in the group and familiarity with the available means for interacting with each other. The first stage should end with a tentative schedule for systematic reading during the next stage. The second involves a thorough, beginning-to-end engagement with the text, paced by a consensus of the readers finding that each is ready to move on to what comes next. Pacing should allow, not only for thoughtful reading and discussion, but also for individual or group commentary or projects, as the group may choose. The third stage comes at the end of the text with readers sharing their over-all views of it in light of the whole and wrapping up whatever projects relative to the text that readers may have been pursuing.
Virtually any text, and possibly other forms as well, could be the subject of a reading. But in its experimental phase, where people would be trying to do things that prove awkward of unsatisfying in traditional academic settings, readings should probably concentrate on “enduring” works of substantial scope and significant difficulty—works that tend to be encountered in general education in compressed, abbreviated form, often with superficial misunderstandings as a result.
We will use the phrase, “enduring work,” to supplant the term, “classic,” which projects narrowing biases and incoherent norms. A work endures because it embodies creative achievement within some cultural context with such fullness and intensity that no other work will supplant it as exemplary of that context. It endures, indicative of humane possibilities achieved in some other time and place. An enduring work stands as an invitation to serious study: if you are interested in some aspect of human experience, here is something to read and appreciate because it has yet to be supplanted as a work that fully embodies, or represents, the aspect of experience that interests you. In reality, a vast array of experience proves of interest to people, and for each aspect there are often several works with qualities that enable them to endure in the interest of later times. Such works are all candidates for a reading.
People can study enduring works in two related, but distinct modes. Specialists study a work to develop, explain, and assess its claims on present attention. Does the work merit status as an enduring work? Generalist study an enduring work taking that status as a given and they engage in an effort to extract what value and meaning the work can yield to them, its current general readers. The specialist asks, Should we bother? The generalist, What happens for and to me when I do bother? Let’s pursue our emerging concept of readings as generalists—we can engage certain works as enduring ones, engaging them to explore the meaning and value we find in them for our own experience.
As an initial test of the idea, let’s tentatively announce a reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit to commence in early October 2012, to continue on a regular weekly schedule into spring 2013 with a work load of about 6 to 8 hours per week. If you would be interested in participating, let us know through the “Leave a Reply” box to this page. If there seems to be sufficient interest, we will ask potential readers to join in setting up the framework later in the summer.