As part of an internship for her master’s program, Kathy attended Gutenberg College’s Western Civilization Class for one quarter.
What a blast it was to sit in on the Western Civilization class at Gutenberg College on Wednesdays and Fridays last fall. Gutenberg was so kind in helping me complete an internship required by George Fox Seminary in Portland, where I am currently working on a master’s degree in theology. One of my assigned projects was to read the required readings and the optional background readings for the Western Civilization class and then observe how Gutenberg teaches the material in class. I observed a radically different learning environment from what I have experienced in traditional education.
The characteristic of Gutenberg’s teaching technique that surprised me most is its emphasis on a classroom atmosphere in which students are encouraged to think and ask questions freely. This environment of freedom is significant to me because I have experienced its antithesis, absorbing my undergraduate and graduate educations largely through the firm hand of lecture. Most of the information given to me has come through the biases and value systems of other people. Professors judge what is important for me to know and to think. The cradle of my traditional schooling, the classroom itself, also restricts my freedom in that I must interact with the professor and others through political correctness and the mores of popular culture. In times past, I have also experienced having my ideas discredited by professors in front of the class. To observe the kind of intellectual nurturing that Gutenberg provides is greatly satisfying, and I must confess that I suffer a hint of sadness that my own education has not been so rich.
I saw an aspect of Gutenberg’s intellectual nurture demonstrated in its inviting students to contemplate in the classroom. The professors (called “tutors” at Gutenberg) do not fear or resist silence, thus indicating to the students that more than superficial thinking is welcome. There is plenty of room for questions that don’t seem important enough to ask at the beginning of class. More than once I observed a period of silence finally broken by a timid question that vigorously renewed the discussion. Before Gutenberg, I had never encountered contemplation within the classroom, unless I was stealing it from a lecture to which I was supposed to be paying attention. In my own experience with traditional education, contemplating is done on one’s own time so as not to interrupt the stream of valuable information flowing from the mouths of experts into the ears of non-experts.
In the course of reading for the Western Civilization class, I also discovered how complimentary the optional background readings are to the required primary sources. Reading a primary source such as Plato’s Apology along with the background materials that describe the complexities of the Greek sophists, Socrates, and Plato creates a full picture of why Greek society thought what it thought, why Plato wrote what he wrote, and why Socrates did what he did. It is, then, not a giant step for students to reflect on why our society does what it does and why students themselves do what they do. The readings, both required and optional, are a prime starting point for much learning. I am awed by the amount of time and consideration it took to collect such a nice variety of thought provoking readings as those in Gutenberg’s background collection.
I ended the term with a sense that Gutenberg, more than traditional learning institutions, makes students active participants in their own education. The group discussion technique of the Great Books program, one driven by the students’ own questions, generates a different kind of learning than what transpires through listening and note-taking. In effect, Gutenberg’s classroom learning becomes tailored to match the unique curiosities of the students. Their natural interests guide their questions, and the questions guide the discussions. The students experience themselves not only as consumers of knowledge but also as knowledge-seekers who bear responsibility for their own knowing. The question/discussion technique extends a lesson beyond academics—namely, that students are capable thinkers, capable of posing intelligible and valuable questions, capable of gathering knowledge and interpreting it. Where traditional education hopes that students learn to think, Gutenberg students do learn to think, becoming, in some respects, their own teachers. To watch Gutenberg in action was a true pleasure. I came away from the term with a fresh understanding of what education can be.