Chasing After Windmills: A Response to Charley Dewberry’s “Not All Great Books Colleges Are Alike”

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Note: I wrote the following thoughts a few months ago. At the time, however, my alma mater was in the middle of its #SaveGutenberg campaign, so I set these thoughts aside for a more appropriate time. Now that Gutenberg has reached its fundraising goal, I feel that I can publish these thoughts in good faith.

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When I was an undergrad at Gutenberg College, I heard a lot about “the other” Great Books schools. I put the other in quotation marks because they were always referred to in a sort of cautious, otherizing tone. “The other” Great Books schools were “unlike” Gutenberg. They were either bastions of postmodernism, rejected authorial intent, and were comparable to the sophists of Socrates’ time or centers of ideological dominance.

Particularly targeted was St. John’s.

I remember it being said that the St. John’s campus in Santa Fe had one of the highest college suicide rates in the country.

It was implied that, when you do a Great Books education without God and the Bible, suicide would often result. The connection was, when you experience an upheaval of your worldview, if you don’t have biblical teachers willing to help you put it back together, you can reach that overwhelming moment of despair — “See St. John’s, for example.”

(By the way, just to set the record straight, St. John’s isn’t even on the list of the most stressful colleges, let alone most suicidal colleges.)

As it so happens, after I graduated from Gutenberg, I went to the St. John’s in Santa Fe. After spending four years studying “Western Civ,” I was curious: What does “Eastern Civ” look like? What are the Great Books of the East? As it turns out, St. John’s in Santa Fe was the only Great Books school that offered a M.A. in that very category.

So off I went to Santa Fe. I was honestly nervous.

I had all these images in my head of what this postmodern God-hating school of sophistry would look like.

I was worried that discussions would be all over the place and hold no meaning to real inquiry.

But as I settled into my oversized leather chair around the golden-hued wood table for my very first class, I was shocked. The conversation was not only stimulating, organized, and relevant to the text and the author’s ideas, it was more so than at Gutenberg. And mind you, that was the very first class. We — on our first day, with most of the people in the room not coming from a Great Books undergrad program — were engaging in a dialogue that was more disciplined and textually relevant than my senior class at Gutenberg ever accomplished.

I was not prepared for that.

I came to realize over the 12 months I was at St. John’s that pretty much every preconceived notion I had inherited from Gutenberg about the Santa Fe program was untrue.

In particular, the tutors were the most gifted Socratic conversationalists I have ever encountered. They knew the perfect question to start a dialogue that would last the whole two hours of class. They knew the right questions to throw in at the right times to keep us focused and interested. They knew when to guide the discussion away from personal tangents and back to exploring the author’s ideas — and when it was appropriate to lead the conversation away from the author’s ideas and into abstract thinking about ideas themselves.

I was reminded of this disconnect between the way I thought other Great Books schools were with the way at least one of them actually is when I read the latest News and Views from Gutenberg College. The dean of Gutenberg, Charley Dewberry, wrote an article entitled, “Not All Great Books Colleges Are Alike.” And it starts off exactly how I imagined it would:

“One of the distinctive features of Gutenberg College’s Great Books curriculum is that we are committed to the notion of ‘authorial intent’—that is, a work ‘means’ what its author intended to communicate.”

Dewberry continues this idea in the next paragraph:

“At the other end of the spectrum philosophically from Gutenberg is a view I will call ‘postmodern,’ which explicitly rejects the authorial intent view.”

I am familiar with this sentiment, as I’ve heard it many times in many different ways. There is Gutenberg, and then there are the other schools.

This is the same, tired trope I’ve heard a million times before (though this time dressed up in a bit more nuance), from Gutenberg College to Summit Ministries to my early Christian homeschooling days: you are either for us or against us, us versus them, Biblical Worldview™ or Bust.

Some group somehow has this unique grasp on x — in this case, Gutenberg has a unique grasp on how to approach reading a book.

I don’t understand, first, how it makes sense that Gutenberg believing an author’s work means what the author intended it to mean is unique to Gutenberg in the Great Books world. The Great Books world isn’t vast. It’s not Gutenberg versus the postmoderns. If you look at the list of the “15 colleges keeping the Great Books ideal alive,” that Gutenberg itself references, it’s not an overwhelmingly “postmodern” list. Gutenberg, Hillsdale, and Mercer are conservative Protestant (and so are New Saint Andrews and Torrey Honors Institute at Biola, which aren’t on the list for some reason); College of St. Mary Magdalen, Thomas Aquinas, and Wyoming Catholic are conservative Catholic; Shimer, Columbia, St. John’s, Lawrence, University of Chicago, and University of Dallas are the godparents of the Great Books ideal itself; this leaves Harrison Middleton, an online school, and Yale, which describes itself as having “a little different” approach.

Second, I can only speak from my experience at St. John’s, but I never met a Great Books tutor that would say a work did not mean what its author intended to communicate. That was the whole point of class, figuring out what in the world Lao Tzu meant in the Dao De Jing, or what “Brahma” meant within the context of the Upanishads!

We weren’t allowed to postmodernize or personalize anything — “Well, I feel that Brahma means this to me, because I once had this personal experience…”

In fact, Gutenberg — not St. John’s — was the place where I experienced dismissal of authorial intent in favor of abstraction, personalization, and ideologizing. Time and time again at Gutenberg — not St. John’s — classes would be entirely derailed to pursue subjects completely unrelated to the text, or with the tutor going on a lecture about his or her personal beliefs for an hour, or bringing a certain ideology to bear on a subject to override authorial intent or free inquiry.

Gutenberg, not St. John’s.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I enjoyed many of the “non-authorial intent” conversations at Gutenberg. That’s what made Gutenberg special to me. The whole experience was less a classroom setting and more a “Christian misfits” support group. It was less a college and more, you know, a study center.

While I loved Gutenberg and all its quirks, I have no qualms saying that Gutenberg took “authorial intent” far less seriously in terms of academics than St. John’s. And after hearing about how the other schools were the same, I cannot help but wonder if they might take authorial intent more seriously, too.

Dewberry continues:

“Even among Great Books colleges, approaches to texts cover a wide spectrum. Some aim at understanding the author’s intent; others aim at determining a work’s impact on modern culture; while the approach of still others is somewhere in the middle.”

I cannot help but read that and wonder: What colleges? Which professors? Dewberry goes on and explains why different colleges have these different approaches, but it begs the question — is this an abstract concern, or a concern grounded in actual experiences of classroom pedagogy?

Gutenberg was all about reading “background” books (from a primarily religious bent), interpreting books not according to authorial intent but with a “does this fit our worldview or not?” perspective, letting tutors launch into lectures on their personal opinions, letting students take a discussion on the Illiad and turn it into a debate on predestination versus free will, and determining how a work impacted modern culture.

Again — that’s not necessarily bad. But that’s not how Gutenberg markets itself.

It markets itself as an advocate of authorial intent. But the product does not match the label.

Dewberry then talks about “pre-understanding”:

“If this entrenched postmodern view is true, then we cannot communicate at all with individuals who are outside of our culture and time; and claiming that we can bridge the gap between us and a writer in the past is nonsense—no amount of information about the author and his pre-understanding can help us bridge the gap. This entrenched postmodern perspective dominates our culture, and it is represented in some Great Books colleges.”

At this point I cannot help but feel that, like Don Quixote, Dewberry is imagining windmills within the Great Books world and chasing after them to make Gutenberg appear unique within that world.

My classes in St. John’s, unlike Gutenberg, were 100% dedicated to getting inside the mind of the authors we read. There was zero talk about postmodernism or pre-understanding or any of this meta-izing about knowledge. We read, we talked, we tried to figure it out, and then we did it all over again. The tutors never talked about how “the others” did it, they never tore them down as being “religious,” they never tried to interpret themselves as unique — we all just read the damn books.

My interest in talking about this is that I wished that, at Gutenberg, we also just read the damn books.

We spent all this time theorizing and moralizing and being lectured instead of reading and discussing. I had no idea how beautiful and stimulating a sincere dialogue could be in the Great Books context until I went to St. John’s. I wish that Gutenberg offered the same.

Dewberry ends with this:

“One final note: I cannot help but wonder how much the entrenched version of the postmodern perspective in Great Books…colleges has contributed to the polarization within our current culture…If no one develops the skills of understanding pre-understanding, then the outcome is assured: no communication is possible. This has serious implications for the future.”

This ends on an ominous note, but it seems like it ends on an ominous note of its own making. Talking about how the “postmodern” obsessions “the other” schools have contributes to polarization mainly just makes me think that, if anything, the polarization is coming from Gutenberg, not the other schools.

If my experience of the allegedly most secular, sophistic Great Books school is indicative of any of the other so-called secular, sophistic schools, then communication is indeed possible.

I know this because I communicated in every class with Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, and others. We sat down around a big table, did our best to figure out what an author meant, and were led by tutors who kept us on track and never lectured. After class, we all went out for margaritas and poblanos and dialogued about Ideas with a capitol I.

A concluding anecdote:

About a month into my time at St. John’s, one student — a Buddhist — asked a tutor this question:

“But what about truth? We’re reading all these books but we never talk about whether what the books are saying are true. Is that ok to talk about?”

The tutor smiled and said,

“Of course it’s ok to talk about! We want you to figure out what’s true. This whole education would be worthless without that pursuit. All of us tutors believe different things about life and we believe those things whole heartedly. But our job as Great Books tutors here isn’t to teach you our belief system. Our job is to guide you as a group to figure what these authors are saying and to encourage you to think creatively about those ideas. Your job, after class, is to go home and figure out what you believe.

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28 thoughts on “Chasing After Windmills: A Response to Charley Dewberry’s “Not All Great Books Colleges Are Alike””

      1. …my comment to Lana sounded harsh? I wasn’t meaning anything harsh in what I said to her. Or did you feel the post in general was harsh? If you meant the post: I wasn’t intending to be harsh there, either. Was there a way I could have communicated the same thing in a way that felt less “harsh”?

      2. Hey Riot! I am new to the blog thing, so it looks like I pushed the wrong “reply” button. (Hopefully I’m pushing the right one this time.) Let me briefly respond to my reaction to your post. I have a tremendous amount of respect for you. You are a clear thinker. You are a great writer. And you consistently give me a lot to think about. But you are taking a tactic here that I’m not sure is going to get you the results that you are looking for…this is assuming that what you are looking for is dialog and change, and not simply a way to vent your frustration and anger at the world. In this aritcle you come across so angry, implying that the Gutenberg tutors are a bunch of idiots, poor teachers, just trying to brain-wash their students into believing their brand of Christianity and spouting lies about everyone else. That feels harsh. I’m not going to defend Gutenberg here, that is for you students and tutors to argue about. But I am questioning your tactics. I, personally, don’t want to dialog when I’m being attacked. I get defensive and react emotionally, saying things that are thoughtless, promoting more anger and frustration. That shuts down relationship and any hope of trust and further conversation. Do you see my point? These tactics will get you a following. Mostly young revolutionaries who believe in your causes, but you are unlikely to get meaningful dialog with the other side. The comments in your paper feel to me one-sided, reactionary, unfair, and harsh.

      3. No worries about the wrong reply button! I just couldn’t figure out what you meant exactly.

        I have a tremendous amount of respect for you. You are a clear thinker. You are a great writer. And you consistently give me a lot to think about.

        Thank you, I appreciate that. Apparently in this case I failed to either be a clear thinker or a great writer, though, as I communicated the wrong message to you. 😉

        You are taking a tactic here that I’m not sure is going to get you the results that you are looking for…

        I very much value communication, both as a skill and an art, so I am 100% open to hearing how I took a tactic that misfired. This is why I asked (and I really asked it sincerely), “Was there a way I could have communicated the same thing in a way that felt less ‘harsh’?” I didn’t see a response to this, but I would love it if you had some ideas. I’m open to hearing an alternative tactic.

        …this is assuming that what you are looking for is dialog and change, and not simply a way to vent your frustration and anger at the world.

        I can’t help but feel, in light of what follows, that statement is loaded. As if you actually think I’m simply venting rage at the universe. I wouldn’t automatically assume that, but the rest of your response seems to indicate that you do, in fact, feel I am simply venting rage at the universe. But I am more invested in provoking conversations, if you were just asking for clarification on my purposes.

        In this aritcle you come across so angry, implying that the Gutenberg tutors are a bunch of idiots, poor teachers, just trying to brain-wash their students into believing their brand of Christianity and spouting lies about everyone else.

        I’m really at a loss for understanding how I came across “so angry,” or implying anything of the sort.

        Here is how I breakdown my article:

        1. I inherited a myth about St. John’s from Gutenberg.
        2. After attending St. John’s, I realized that myth was untrue.
        3. I remember about this myth when Charley wrote an article in News and Views.
        4. Charley argues that Gutenberg is unique in that it is the only Great Books that emphasizes authorial intent.
        5. This isn’t true because (a) Gutenberg does not emphasize authorial intent in the way that Charley says it does.
        6. This isn’t true because (b) St. John’s emphasizes authorial intent more than Gutenberg.
        7. Gutenberg not emphasizing authorial intent isn’t necessarily bad.
        8. Gutenberg not emphasizing authorial intent is bad when it markets itself otherwise.
        9. I personally wish Gutenberg had emphasized authorial intent more, like St. John’s did.

        As far as the argument itself goes (and feel free to say you read the argument differently), I see nowhere where my argument is that Gutenberg teachers are idiots, poor teachers, brainwashers, or lie-spouters.

        Now, assuming this is the argument I communicated, a separate question is: how did I communicate that argument? It’s possible that I communicated this argument accurately, but in a way that communicated something else, too: that Gutenberg teachers are idiots, poor teachers, brainwashers, or lie-spouters. If this is what you are getting at, I’m guessing you aren’t objecting to my argument but my tone. Is this the case?

        If this is the case, then the tone I am using somehow communicated to you that I am “so angry,” and feel that Gutenberg teachers are idiots, poor teachers, brainwashers, and lie-spouters. Tone is a bit more of a complex aspect of communication. I can tell you, personally, I am not angry about what I wrote about and I do not feel Gutenberg teachers are any of those things. As I said in my other post about Jack’s Summer Institute piece,

        These are the people that have represented non-crazy Christianity to me — not just that, but non-crazy conservative Christianity. I know they’ve had a similarly wonderful and healing impact on other friends of mine (who come from similar backgrounds) in this same way. I honestly owe so much to these people.

        But it’s possible, despite not feeling Gutenberg teachers are evil, that I communicated that. I certainly did launch some big criticisms, and I know it’s often difficult to not perceive criticisms as personal attacks. But I don’t see anywhere that I blurred the line between a criticism and a personal attack. The closest I can think of is this:

        At this point I cannot help but feel that, like Don Quixote, Dewberry is imagining windmills within the Great Books world and chasing after them to make Gutenberg appear unique within that world.

        I can certainly see how, out of context, that could be taken as a personal attack. But in context, my point is that he’s imagining a problem where there is none, which is the essence of that metaphor — and it’s a Great Books-based metaphor, so I figured it was appropriate. If you feel that went too far, feel free to suggest that. But it’s a great big stretch from saying I used a metaphor that went too far and deducing that I am “implying that the Gutenberg tutors are a bunch of idiots, poor teachers, just trying to brain-wash their students into believing their brand of Christianity and spouting lies about everyone else.”

        The other potentially inflammatory thing I said, as far as I can just guess, is this paragraph:

        This is the same, tired trope I’ve heard a million times before (though this time dressed up in a bit more nuance), from Gutenberg College to Summit Ministries to my early Christian homeschooling days: you are either for us or against us, us versus them, Biblical Worldview™ or Bust.

        I can see how that might come across as a bit of a zinger. But to say that someone is using a tired trope doesn’t mean anything other than that one using cliche or sloppy thinking on a particular instance. This is a critique of an idea employed in an article, not a personal attack. Again, critiquing one’s use a tired trope is a far cry from “implying that the Gutenberg tutors are a bunch of idiots, poor teachers, just trying to brain-wash their students into believing their brand of Christianity and spouting lies about everyone else.”

        So I’m honestly at a loss at how you got from a (my argument) to z (“implying that the Gutenberg tutors are a bunch of idiots, poor teachers, just trying to brain-wash their students into believing their brand of Christianity and spouting lies about everyone else.”) In all due respect, I feel that you must be importing some other perception about me — or my writing — or my personal orientation towards Gutenberg — or at least something else — to get to the conclusion you did. If I am wrong, and you can help me identify how either my argument (which is a simple one in my mind) or my communication of that argument (which I see as “zingy” at points but not full of rage) was actually such a horrible attack on people I would never want to horribly attack, I would very much appreciate that.

        I’m not going to defend Gutenberg here, that is for you students and tutors to argue about.

        You are welcome to defend Gutenberg, and I would probably join you in doing so, when someone straight up attacks Gutenberg. But I was not attacking Gutenberg. I was critiquing a public paper published in my alma mater’s official newsletter that I believe was perpetuating a myth that I believe is harmful to my alma mater to perpetuate.

        I am questioning your tactics. I, personally, don’t want to dialog when I’m being attacked. I get defensive and react emotionally, saying things that are thoughtless, promoting more anger and frustration. That shuts down relationship and any hope of trust and further conversation. Do you see my point?

        I get your point in general. But I am still not sure what exactly the “tactic” I am using is, that you feel is counter-productive. Again, it seems you feel this is an attack versus a critique, or perhaps you feel critiques are inherently an attack. But I see them as fundamentally different. For example, you are critiquing me right now. I don’t mind that. I welcome that. I don’t feel that you critiquing my post is an attack on me. So I am not getting defensive or reacting emotionally. I am advancing an argument in public, so you have a right to publicly criticize either or both of my argument or my communication if you believe I am in the wrong. I similarly have a right to publicly criticize either an argument or a communication that is advanced in public in the official newsletter of my alma mater. And to do so does not mean I hate either my alma mater or the person who specifically penned the argument. I know that Gutenberg is small, and there’s a very real sense that we’re a family and a community. So I understand that criticism can naturally feel personal in nature because of this smallness. But at the same time, Gutenberg is an official academic institution. I am an alumnus of that institution. I have a vested interest in how that institution presents itself — especially how it presents itself publicly. I very much care about this academic institution; if I didn’t care, I wouldn’t speak up.

        These tactics will get you a following. Mostly young revolutionaries who believe in your causes, but you are unlikely to get meaningful dialog with the other side. The comments in your paper feel to me one-sided, reactionary, unfair, and harsh.

        I am super-confused by this ending. A following? Young revolutionaries? …Is this still about Gutenberg? If there is a youthful, revolutionary coup going on around Gutenberg, I know absolutely nothing about it and I am not trying to appeal to those people because I do not know they exist. If this is some subtle reference to something entirely unrelated (Homeschoolers Anonymous maybe? or things I post about on Facebook in general? or some conversations people are having at Gutenberg that I am not a party to?), then, as I said before, that would be importing some other perception about me to get to the conclusion you did.

        I hope this all makes sense. Again, I appreciate you responding. If you can help clarify more what you meant, I would welcome that so I can hopefully understand your critique better.

  1. A few comments, contentions, questions:
    * I agree that there were times at Gutenberg where I would have appreciated sticking closer to the book being discussed.
    * I too expected the school at which I did graduate studies to be more postmoderny than it is, based on what Gutenberg tutors said. My understanding from one of my grad-school philosophy professors is that several years ago (late 80s? 90s?) Derrida was all the rage, at least in the philosophy world. He describes everyone being enamored with Derrida, and then suddenly Derrida fell out of fashion. I think this corresponds to the time when several of the Gutenberg tutors were doing their doctorates, so it is possible that their formative experiences regarding the educational world happened at a time when postmodernism was all the rage and authorial intent was frowned upon.
    * Given that News & Views is in part advertising, there is a certain amount of justification in trying to sell Gutenberg as unique in its pages. (I still remember UofO brochures telling me their distinctive was that they were only an hour to the coast and an hour to the mountains.) Although, if the “uniqueness” being pointed to is truly not distinctive at all, I agree that is problematic.
    * You move from Charley’s claim that Gutenberg is unique in offering a Great Books education based on the notion of authorial intent, to the claim that this is an “us vs. them” statement, to the claim that this is characteristic of the “Biblical worldview.” I find both these moves unfair. First, plenty of non-Christians hold an “us vs. them” attitude (Don’t go to that philosophy department, they are too Analytic!). Second, it seems like there are appropriate times to distinguish one’s approach from others’ and the phrase “us vs. them” seems to particularly pick out the inappropriate ones; I would like more justification before this term is used.
    * I would dispute the claim that Gutenberg background readings were primarily from a religious bent. (Spielvogel, Gardiner, Scruton are prominent counterexamples that come to mind.) Although, perhaps the readings changed between my class and yours.
    * I find the statement that Gutenberg’s set up allowed the tutor to “launch into lectures on their personal opinions” to mischaracterize (in a negative light) the nature of the discussions. Yes, the tutors would talk about what they thought, but it was, as I recall, because the students wanted them to. The students knew the tutors held interesting/provocative positions and wanted to interact with them. The way you put it makes it sound like the tutors were just sitting around waiting to foist their ideas onto a captive audience.
    * I strenuously dispute the claim that Gutenberg was all about “interpreting books not according to authorial intent but with a “does this fit our worldview or not?” perspective.” Yes, they talked about whether the view in the book fit the Christian worldview, but this was A) after trying to figure out what the book meant on its own, and B) in a context where the students were (at least to a very high degree) professing Christians. Thus, the question of whether a view fits the Christian one was essentially the question of application, not an obliterating of the authorial intent.
    * From my time as a student, I remember different aspects of Gutenberg being contrasted with other Great Books schools. Specifically, the two that stick out are that Gutenberg emphasizes the historical setting and circumstances of a work whereas St. John’s deemphasizes this, and that Gutenberg handles science differently from St. John’s. (The only time I remember the topic coming up of Gutenberg searching for the truth and St. John’s not so searching was when a tutor from St. John’s visited Gutenberg, and my understanding was that this person was the one who made this observation.) Do you think the differences in our recollection on the differences Gutenberg emphasized stem from the 2-year difference in when we attended? From what was talked about given the make-ups of our respective classes? Our different personalities and what stuck out to us?
    * To my knowledge the above claim about St. John’s deemphasizing context is true. In his article, Charley specifically ties this position to postmodernism (though he does not name St. John’s). I don’t know if it is true of St. John’s that their reasoning for excluding context stems from postmodernism, but I at least know that it is true that postmodern thinkers like Foucault want to divorce writings from their authors, so linking postmodernism to this position is plausible. In your experience, did St. John’s deemphasize context? Do you know if the undergrad courses do this? If so, do you know what the reasoning behind doing so is?
    * Having now been a TA for several undergrad ethics classes, I am pretty sure that the average undergrad does not try to assimilate anything they are learning into their life. (Clearly there are exceptions.) While the quote you give at the end of your post is a quite reasonable approach to take—do the academic work in the classroom, do the applying/figuring out for yourself outside—I think Gutenberg is structured the way it is because the tutors want to emphasize the application part. Again, I think this is also a reasonable approach to take, given that it is work and lots of students will not take on this project if left to their own devices. It is great that your St. John’s classmates did this outside of the classroom, but I also wonder if this comes from it being a Masters course—with students who are already pretty committed—rather than an undergrad course.
    * Finally, I sense a great deal of hostility behind this post. Is that true, or am I misreading it? (Sometimes everything on the internet sounds hostile!) If so, I was curious as to where this was coming from. I also do not agree with everything I was told at Gutenberg any longer, but I feel no hostility towards them. (Although, I think I agree with them a lot more at this point than you do now, so maybe that makes the difference.)

    1. Foremost, Brian, I appreciate your interest in interacting with my thoughts. I’ll try to do my best to respond to everything here.

      I agree that there were times at Gutenberg where I would have appreciated sticking closer to the book being discussed.

      I would have appreciated that, too. But just to be clear: I don’t think not sticking closer to the book being discussed is inherently a bad thing. I tried to make this distinction in the post. I would have appreciated a closer read from an academic perspective, but at the same time — I did enjoy (and see a place for) the tangential conversations, the lectures, the background readings, etc.

      I too expected the school at which I did graduate studies to be more postmoderny than it is, based on what Gutenberg tutors said…it is possible that their formative experiences regarding the educational world happened at a time when postmodernism was all the rage and authorial intent was frowned upon.

      I find that fascinating, actually! I didn’t find St. John’s to be anything close to a postmodern cliche, but at the same time I’ve never been to a more “traditional” school where most people say “postmodernism” is rampant. So I can’t really speak to other schools. But you’ve done philosophy, so you have seen probably more what they would have been referring to. But that makes sense that Derrida has gone out of fashion. I’d be curious: what has taken its place, do you think? Might be the topic for a separate discussion, I know. But now my curiosity is raised.

      Given that News & Views is in part advertising, there is a certain amount of justification in trying to sell Gutenberg as unique in its pages. (I still remember UofO brochures telling me their distinctive was that they were only an hour to the coast and an hour to the mountains.) Although, if the “uniqueness” being pointed to is truly not distinctive at all, I agree that is problematic.

      I have no problem with advertising or marketing. So I don’t have any problem with Gutenberg selling itself as unique — or awesome, or better than other colleges, etc. That’s how one does successful marketing. Even if one says that one is “unique” (when there are other colleges that do the same thing), I still don’t really have a problem with that. It’s not the claim to uniqueness. It’s that I feel the claim itself is false. I’d rather Gutenberg market itself as it really is.

      Furthermore, News and Views isn’t just marketing. It’s a place for the tutors (and other community members) to make public statements that are publicly accessible. It reaches more than just an audience to market to; it reaches people who read it just to learn about life, about education, about Great Books, about the tutors’ ideas, about what Gutenberg stands for; and it is available online for literally anyone to read. In other words, the ideas set forth there are a public representation of my alma mater to the world. So I am a bit more invested in what is said therein than I would be, say, one of their promotional videos or brochures.

      You move from Charley’s claim that Gutenberg is unique in offering a Great Books education based on the notion of authorial intent, to the claim that this is an “us vs. them” statement, to the claim that this is characteristic of the “Biblical worldview.” I find both these moves unfair. First, plenty of non-Christians hold an “us vs. them” attitude (Don’t go to that philosophy department, they are too Analytic!). Second, it seems like there are appropriate times to distinguish one’s approach from others’ and the phrase “us vs. them” seems to particularly pick out the inappropriate ones; I would like more justification before this term is used.

      First, to clarify, I don’t think an “us vs. them” sentiment is characteristic of, say, what Jesus said. I absolutely do not think that. Sorry for the confusion. I said “Biblical Worldview™” to identify a particular version of viewing the biblical worldview (i.e., the “American/Evangelical Christian” worldview) wherein an us vs. them sentiment is prevalent — I’ve published a few other pieces this week, and I used that phrase, so this is sort of a continuation of that idea.

      Second, I absolutely agree that non-Christians can and do hold this same sentiment. It’s not unique to any one group.

      Third, I also agree there are appropriate times to distinguish one’s approach from others.

      What I am getting at is that the sentiment, “We are different from everyone else because we understand ____,” is a sentiment I’ve heard many times before from other American/Evangelical Christian subcultures, and I see that same sentiment in Charley’s article. I’ve also seen Charley — and other Gutenberg tutors — be much more nuanced in their descriptions of other people and ideas. But Charley’s article does not have that nuance. I see it as perpetuating caricatures that are not true.

      I would dispute the claim that Gutenberg background readings were primarily from a religious bent. (Spielvogel, Gardiner, Scruton are prominent counterexamples that come to mind.) Although, perhaps the readings changed between my class and yours.

      That makes sense. And to be clear: I wasn’t saying the background readings were bad. Rather, they cast a “shadow” (again, not necessarily bad) over interpretation that wouldn’t be present if we were focusing just on authorial intent.

      I find the statement that Gutenberg’s set up allowed the tutor to “launch into lectures on their personal opinions” to mischaracterize (in a negative light) the nature of the discussions. Yes, the tutors would talk about what they thought, but it was, as I recall, because the students wanted them to.

      Based on the structure, a tutor could do that and it would be ok. In fact, it happened a lot. But yeah, you’re definitely right, that often the students wanted that. I’m not trying to say that the tutor would be in the wrong, or even the students. Speaking in generalizations — that phenomenon was like half the education! That’s what made Gutenberg, Gutenberg. It wasn’t just about reading and discussing the books. It was about so much more — in fact, that “so much more” (I would argue) is closer to the essence of Gutenberg than the books themselves. The books were kind of like springboards into the Big Questions. But if the books are treated as springboards into the Big Questions, we are no longer in “authorial intent” land. According to Charley, we’ve moved at least into Shared View.

      Again, not bad. But not what Charley argued in his paper.

      I strenuously dispute the claim that Gutenberg was all about “interpreting books not according to authorial intent but with a “does this fit our worldview or not?” perspective.” Yes, they talked about whether the view in the book fit the Christian worldview, but this was A) after trying to figure out what the book meant on its own, and B) in a context where the students were (at least to a very high degree) professing Christians. Thus, the question of whether a view fits the Christian one was essentially the question of application, not an obliterating of the authorial intent.

      Maybe this is a just a class difference. But based on my experience — and I know plenty of people from other classes after mine would say the same thing — it was rare that we talked about what “the book meant on its own.” Like, extremely rare. And I don’t think that not talking about what a book means “obliterates” authorial intent. It would just mean that authorial intent wasn’t the main focus, or what made Gutenberg “unique” in the Great Books world.

      From my time as a student, I remember different aspects of Gutenberg being contrasted with other Great Books schools. Specifically, the two that stick out are that Gutenberg emphasizes the historical setting and circumstances of a work whereas St. John’s deemphasizes this, and that Gutenberg handles science differently from St. John’s. (The only time I remember the topic coming up of Gutenberg searching for the truth and St. John’s not so searching was when a tutor from St. John’s visited Gutenberg, and my understanding was that this person was the one who made this observation.) Do you think the differences in our recollection on the differences Gutenberg emphasized stem from the 2-year difference in when we attended? From what was talked about given the make-ups of our respective classes? Our different personalities and what stuck out to us?

      I really couldn’t say for sure. I would just be guessing. But I do remember the point about Gutenberg emphasizing historical context and St. John’s deemphasizing that. But, like the whole “postmodernism” thing, I found that claim to not really mean anything. We did not read background books at St. John’s. But I feel that I understood authorial intent better at St. John’s because we really focused on it. Not reading background books did not detract from that task. In fact, I felt that I had a better understanding of the historical context by actually focusing entirely on what the authors were saying.

      To my knowledge the above claim about St. John’s deemphasizing context is true. In his article, Charley specifically ties this position to postmodernism (though he does not name St. John’s). I don’t know if it is true of St. John’s that their reasoning for excluding context stems from postmodernism, but I at least know that it is true that postmodern thinkers like Foucault want to divorce writings from their authors, so linking postmodernism to this position is plausible. In your experience, did St. John’s deemphasize context? Do you know if the undergrad courses do this? If so, do you know what the reasoning behind doing so is?

      It’s true in the sense that we didn’t read background books. It’s not true, from my experience, in the sense of our conversations about the author’s intent lacking context. But from my experience at both schools, background books =/= understanding context. I did not find St. John’s to deemphasize context. But I don’t know if the undergrad courses would have been different. I can’t speak for them for their reasoning — but I can conjecture. There were a lot of things that weren’t “allowed” during discussion, primarily because they distracted from the task at hand: understanding the book. So I’d venture to guess that they’d see debating about history to be a distraction from the task at hand — if they would. I don’t remember that happening. I remember a lot of history being talked about, especially since we were reading classical works of history (like we did at Gutenberg, too) alongside philosophy and religion.

      Having now been a TA for several undergrad ethics classes, I am pretty sure that the average undergrad does not try to assimilate anything they are learning into their life…While the quote you give at the end of your post is a quite reasonable approach to take—do the academic work in the classroom, do the applying/figuring out for yourself outside—I think Gutenberg is structured the way it is because the tutors want to emphasize the application part.

      I feel that Gutenberg feels that their students (and often the students seem to feel this, too) are somehow more invested in “assimilating what they are learning into their life.” Which I feel is unfair and untrue. I know plenty of people who ask the Big Questions at other private schools, at public universities, at religious places and secular places. I think that’s more a matter of the person rather than the school. If the person wants to ask questions, they will. I don’t think you have to go to any particular school just to ask questions. You just need to have a heart for figuring out life. (And obviously, not everyone does.)

      I do agree, though, that Gutenberg wants to emphasize the application part. And the people that attend Gutenberg often find that emphasis the primarily attractive aspect of Gutenberg’s process. That’s what I find especially wonderful, and what I appreciate. But see, there again — this application part =/= authorial intent. It has nothing to do with it. So, again, I fundamentally disagree with Gutenberg marketing itself according to authorial intent rather than (however you can to phrase it in good marketing terms) the “application part.”

      Finally, I sense a great deal of hostility behind this post. Is that true, or am I misreading it? (Sometimes everything on the internet sounds hostile!) If so, I was curious as to where this was coming from. I also do not agree with everything I was told at Gutenberg any longer, but I feel no hostility towards them. (Although, I think I agree with them a lot more at this point than you do now, so maybe that makes the difference.)

      I am extraordinarily frustrated by this article that Charley published, but I have no hostility towards him. He is hands down one of my favorite teachers of all time. I also have no hostility towards Gutenberg. I am very grateful for what I learned during my four years there. I’m not sure why this post came across to you as “hostile,” or to zuscrab as “harsh.” I set forth a critique of one particular article in News and Views. I intended to be critical, but not mean. (If I wanted to be mean, I would have published this when #SaveGutenberg was going on. I specifically set this aside so it wouldn’t appear like this had anything to do with hating Gutenberg.) And I wasn’t even critiquing Gutenberg — I was critiquing an article that I believe perpetuates a fundamentally mythic version of Gutenberg.

      I believe perpetuating that myth is harmful to my alma mater.

      If a product does not match its label, then one should either (1) change the label so it is accurate, or (2) change the product so that it lives up to the label. This is absolutely fundamental to successful marketing. Especially after the whole #SaveGutenberg campaign, it is very important that Gutenberg makes intelligent moves to become financially healthy. Marketing one’s self correctly is key to becoming financially healthy.

      1. Thanks for your replies. Here are a few follow up thoughts. (And, sorry, I don’t know how to do the fancy formatting when quoting you):
        * First, I don’t particularly care to defend Charley’s article further. When I read it I did not find as much fault with it as you did, but I also thought it was one of the weaker News & Views articles Charley had done. (For some of the similar reasons you point out—it speaks overly generally.) I would not have a problem if your post had been: “Here is an argument about Gutenberg, but I don’t find this argument to be well supported, and here are the issues.” Your post definitely sounded like it was treating the article as the tip of the iceberg that showed the vast problems beneath the water. (I will not respond point by point to everything you said, as I take several of your points to be restricting the discussion to Charley’s article. I hope this is OK. If you feel I missed something important, please bring it to my attention.)
        * You say: “I wasn’t saying the background readings were bad. Rather, they cast a “shadow” (again, not necessarily bad) over interpretation that wouldn’t be present if we were focusing just on authorial intent.” I have to admit, I don’t know how to get this out of your original statement that “Gutenberg was all about reading “background” books (from a primarily religious bent)”, which is what I was responding to. To repeat, the background readings were not primarily (or even often) from a religious bent. If you would like to argue that reading background readings detracts from looking at authorial intent, that is definitely an interesting argument you could make. (I tend to think that doing these readings helps one to understand what the author intends, since it helps to show what sort of culture the author was writing into. [For example, I am now convinced that it is absolutely crucial that one look into who all the characters in a Platonic dialogue were in real life, and you must know when in Athenian history the dialogue is set, and these are lengths to which even Gutenberg did not go.] But, I am open to being convinced otherwise.)
        * You say: “Maybe this is a just a class difference. But based on my experience — and I know plenty of people from other classes after mine would say the same thing — it was rare that we talked about what “the book meant on its own.” Like, extremely rare. And I don’t think that not talking about what a book means “obliterates” authorial intent. It would just mean that authorial intent wasn’t the main focus, or what made Gutenberg “unique” in the Great Books world.” I think we would have to have a longer discussion, including others from other classes, to pin down what exactly each of us is talking about and whether our experiences were similar or different. Also, I think that is an interesting observation on what makes Gutenberg unique. Perhaps you should talk to Tim MacIntosh, as I believe he does a lot of the advertising now. Your observations might be helpful.
        * I know several people who were undergrads at St. John’s. If I get the opportunity I will ask them their views on authorial intent and background, and what they did at St. John’s. If I learn anything interesting, I will pass it on.
        * You say: “I’m not sure why this post came across to you as “hostile,” or to zuscrab as “harsh.”.” OK, what I am about to say may come across as mean, but please take it in a spirit of bluntly honest constructive criticism. I agree 100% with zuscrab. In addition, I have spoken to other Gutenberg grads about your post, and they also took it to be an attack. Given what you say in response to me here, I can only conclude that you are not aware of how you come across. Let me expand, again in the spirit of constructive criticism: I think this is one of the fundamental flaws of your HA project. I have spoken to several people about the HA site, and many of them find a good deal of the content to be thought-provoking, but the tone to be attacking. If you want your criticisms of homeschooling (or aspects of Gutenberg) to yield fruit, I strongly suggest that you spend more time thinking about how to present those criticisms in a way that those criticized can receive them and not feel attacked. (I have noticed the same insensitivity to how HA comes across in responses Scarlettah has made to people on Facebook—again, I hope she takes this as helpful criticism to enable her to more effectively pursue her goals.) To be clear, let me summarize how your initial post about Charley’s article came across: “I thought Gutenberg was great. It turns out they were lying to me and they are just one more stupid evangelical organization.” I totally picture the non-Christian reader of your post saying to themselves after reading it, “Heh heh, stupid evangelicals.”
        * Finally, on a much lighter note, here are a few observations I have made about the state of postmodernism. 1) Philosophy departments, from what I can tell, are not aware that the Enlightenment is over. They still want to reason their way into a beautiful society. All we need to do is get people to start THINKING! 2) From what I can tell, authorial intent is still passé in English departments. They are more interested in projects like “Let’s give a Marxist reading of X,” etc. 3) The arts, including architecture, are still in full-blown postmodernist mode, doubting there is truth, or if there is truth doubting that looking for it is a worthwhile project. (These are random observations based on incomplete sampling, so please take them with a grain—or spoonful—of salt.)

      2. I’ll respond to all this, but can I get clarification on a few things first?

        (1) What sort of assumptions about me are you bringing to the table? You bring up Homeschoolers Anonymous, which is entirely unrelated to the issue at hand. So I can’t help but feel that part of your interpretation of my critique of Charley’s article is based on perceptions about me via Homeschoolers Anonymous. For example, something is causing you to think my message involves Gutenberg being “just one more stupid evangelical organization.” But that’s assuming I think evangelicals are stupid. I’ve never said that — anywhere, ever.

        So it would be helpful, before I say much more, if you could perhaps bring to the table other perceptions you have of me. Because the distance between (1) what I actually said in this article, and (2) “Gutenberg is just one more stupid evangelical organization,” is frankly gigantic. The closest I got to something along those lines was the “tired trope” point, but that point was about something very, very specific.

        (2) Is Homeschoolers Anonymous brought up here simply as an example, or…? That’s kind of an entirely different and gigantic topic in itself. So I don’t want to get derailed. Like, do you want me to respond to something about that in relation to this? Or were you simply trying to make a point about communication? I will respond to a question, if you have one, if that would help clarify something about this specific post.

        (3) You said, “I have noticed the same insensitivity to how HA comes across in responses Scarlettah has made to people on Facebook—again, I hope she takes this as helpful criticism to enable her to more effectively pursue her goals.” What I need to know here is specifically about communication and what point you are trying to make regarding either me or my article about Charley. Because Scarlettah is not HA, Scarlettah does not speak for HA, and Scarlettah is neither a leader, a blog partner, or any other sort of representative of HA. So I’m not sure in what way Scarlettah’s Facebook posts (whatever your opinion may be) are relevant to me or my response to Charley. Also, I’ve personally written only about 10 posts out of HA’s 300ish released posts, so — whatever “message” you are hearing from HA — you can’t conflate HA with me. (Well, I mean, you can. I can’t stop you or anything. But that wouldn’t give you an accurate picture.) HA is a platform. I mean, feel free to critique that platform, or the presentation. But what I have personally said about homeschooling is very limited. If you assume that HA = me, then you’re going to have a radically inaccurate picture of who I am.

        I don’t mean to push this back on you, but I feel like we might waste a lot of time going around in circles until it’s clear where exactly you think I’m coming from, because I have a sense that what you think about me might be a big factor in how you are interpreting this. But maybe that’s not the case? I just feel there’s a great big gigantic disconnect from what I actually wrote to “stupid evangelical organization,” as you interpreted it, or to “Gutenberg tutors are a bunch of idiots, poor teachers, just trying to brain-wash their students into believing their brand of Christianity and spouting lies about everyone else” (as zuscrab interpreted it).

  2. Ryan & Brian,

    I just wanted to say I really appreciate the discussion y’all are having here. I, too, Ryan, originally thought your article had an anti-Gutenberg tone, but after reading Brian’s thoughts and your response I no longer think that. Thanks, both of you, for taking the time to lay out your thoughts. And Ryan, I agree with you that good and truthful marketing is important for Gutenberg. It is extremely important that they present transparently what they have to offer; because, in my opinion, it is something very worth having. Best wishes to both of you.

  3. (I had to start a new thread, because there was no “reply” at the end of your last comments, but this is intended as a continuation.)
    OK, I am responding to your questions via email or Facebook mail shortly, as I realize that this is a public setting and that might not be the best place to answer those questions. What I am putting here is an outline of how the article read to me, and how I am assuming it reads to zuscrab and to others who thought it attacked Gutenberg. I understand now that you mean to say something different from this, but I hope this helps you to understand what went wrong in the initial communication:
    1) The post begins, not with Charley, but with reflections on your experience at Gutenberg. It sounds like something fishy was going on there, for they used a “cautious, otherizing tone.”
    2) What specifically were they doing: they were “targeting” St. John’s and telling an extreme cautionary tale about it, a tale which two paragraphs later is revealed to be false.
    3) What was their motivation for telling this cautionary tale? It is because they were Christians and they wanted to make sure you knew how necessary God was.
    4) You go off to St. John’s, nervous because of what Gutenberg told you.
    5) As it turned out, St. John’s was even better than Gutenberg. [St. John’s is always painted in glowing terms in this post.]
    6) This showed that everything Gutenberg had told you about St. John’s was false. [Bold for emphasis.]
    7) (Implication from the above that is not drawn out but seems readily available: Thus, contra 3, God is not necessary.)
    8) (Another possible implication from the above, which seems to be confirmed by latter remarks: Gutenberg, per 3, was perpetuating these falsehoods for religiously motivated reasons.)
    9) More gushing about St. John’s.
    10) OK, now we get to Charley’s article, which is presented as confirming evidence of what you already knew, i.e. starting “exactly how [you] imagined it would.”
    11) “Same tired trope” paragraph, which is in bold: Gutenberg shows itself to be just like all the other Christians, thus confirming (8). [Not to mention “same tired trope” is an incredibly negative way to describe someone’s position.]
    12) Gutenberg is not unique for authorial intent amongst GB colleges, including St. John’s.
    13) What did Gutenberg do instead? It dismissed authorial intent in favor of “abstraction, personalization, ideologizing” [the first 2 terms would not have to carry negative connotations, but coupled with the third, which definitely does, they do as well], classes would be “entirely derailed” to pursue subjects “completely unrelated” to the text [these terms would not have to be viewed as pejorative in the right context, but given the flow of the paragraph, they come off as criticisms], and tutors would go on a “lecture about his or her personal beliefs for an hour” [which sounds horrendous, like they are trying to indoctrinate—and taking it this way is reinforced by (3) and (8) above], bringing in “a certain ideology” to bear [again, “ideology” sounds like indoctrination].
    14) Now you say that this was not necessarily a bad thing, which at this point is very hard to fit with what all has come previously. [Since these paragraphs appear to be some sort of concession and not related to the main thrust of the argument, I think they feel disposable, given how everything else has sounded. If everything about Gutenberg up to now had not sounded so awful their real intent would be easier to see. As it is, one wonders how there was anything to like.]
    15) More evidence that Gutenberg doesn’t know what it is talking about.
    16) Now it is revealed that Gutenberg read background books “from a primarily religious bent” and interpreted things by only asking “does this fit our worldview or not?” [confirmation of (8) and (11)—Gutenberg is just another classic case of Christianity]
    17) Again there is this concession that is hard to explain and easy to pass over
    18) Now Charley is Don Quixote and attempting to “make Gutenberg appear unique in the world” [it sounds like their self-deception deep].
    19) St. John’s by contrast, boy they did it right
    20) Why couldn’t Gutenberg be just like St. John’s? Gutenberg just “theorized” and “moralized” and “lectured”, whereas St. John’s “read” and “discussed” and showed you “beautiful” and “stimulating” “sincere dialogue.” [Again, Gutenberg sounds awful, while St. John’s sounds like academic paradise.]
    21) In fact, Gutenberg is polarizing. [confirming (11)]
    22) More glowing talk of St. John’s, with a nice little heartwarming send-off.
    * Overall reasons this sounds like an attack on Gutenberg:
    A) You use very strong negative language in your descriptions of Gutenberg. It sounds stronger than mere critique and more like criticism/attack.
    B) The extreme contrast of the language used to describe St. John’s and Gutenberg creates a distinct “us vs. them” mentality (and I do mean that term in a negative way). [I don’t think she will mind me bringing her in, but this was one of Melanie’s comments as well.] Pointing out earlier in the post what was good about Gutenberg and maybe dimming the aura around St. John’s a little would help this.
    C) Despite your saying otherwise, there really seems to be a distinct thread running through the post linking Gutenberg to the “bad” sort of Christians. I’m not quite sure why it does not appear this way to you.

  4. Hey Ryan,
    I have really enjoyed reading your posts. I look forward to your response to Jack’s paper. With regard to your back and forth with Brian, I don’t have a lot to say. Basically, I think you really love Gutenberg, and you are invested in Gutenberg. And, you are engaging in one of the more exhilarating things we get to do here, namely, critique from within. [I keep on thinking of this friend I have who wears WAY too much make up; the ironic thing is that she is naturally very beautiful, and I think the makeup detracts from her beauty. I have tried to get her to go without makeup but no luck so far; She disagrees with me. By the way, I am actually right in this instance. Maybe if she picked a different kind of foundation, or if she stopped tanning…anyway, I digress.]

    “If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” -P. G. Wodehouse

    Back to the joy of critique from within, basically, keep at it. You have your place here. We all get to throw down and still be friends. That’s Gutenberg. This is what makes Gutenberg great (and maybe unique among evangelical type schools, but I actually have no idea if this statement is true or if we are an evangelical type school). For goodness sake, the people at Gutenberg have people like Clayton and me as house managers. They invited Toby to give a response to Jack’s paper (Toby delivered the bombs today–unfortunately I missed it). On a side note, If I could have Toby come to everything I would! [*I am of the old school that believes Toby is Gutenberg’s spirit animal].

    “I don’t give a fuck cuz V-Nasty never fakin’ Got that chopper on me and my chopper never breakin’.” –Vanessa Renee Reece

    “after reading several old volumes on the Lives of the Saints, I tried to become an ascetic-hermit and many times retired for fasting and praying into the solitude of the nearby forest.” –Pitirim Sorokin

    I am thankful that you are not apathetic and that you don’t think we (you are included in this “we”) are too fragile to take critique–thank God you are not whispering about Gutenberg (*that is the temptation we all face and fail from time to time). Under different circumstances there might be a part of me that would think a blog is not the best place to do this, but with you I think it is ideal. You were always too genteel in discussions. I remember thinking to myself how weird it was that you were some kind of homeschool debate god, but you almost never argued or criticized in discussions. I always wanted to see you disembowel someone with your dialectical chopper. Nope– you were a lamb. 🙂 Personally, I like seeing your teeth. They look good on you.
    Anyway, one more thing! I really, really, really think you should reach out to the tutors and ask them respond to some blog posts (maybe even do their response as a post). That would pay them the highest honor as mentors and friends (particularly with your forth coming response to Jack’s paper). I think that would be one way to show the world Gutenberg’s best leg–show them what there is to love about this place: methodological unity not doctrinal unity (*on good days*). Also, to be honest, I kinda want to live vicariously through you a wee bit. I don’t know about you, but it is really easy for me to discount Jack about political type stuff just because of the air I breath, but, I know I miss out when I don’t take the opportunity to take up his arguments and spare against them. He is super smart and probably totally disagrees with me. I need to challenge my predisposition and opinions, and bumping up against Jack is a great way for me to do that. That sort of exercise might clarify the heart of the issue in unexpected ways. That is my hope anyway. Truth be told, I am pretty disappointed with myself about this S.I.. I was way to volatile to listen to Jack’s thoughts. I actually did not listen to most of the presentations because I thought I would get too worked up. So, I guess I want to see you have the sort of fruitful exchange with Jack that I did not get to have because my head was too far up my ass. Anyway, I hope you are doing well.

    -Jonathan C.

    1. Jonathan, I enjoyed your comment more than I can express electronically. I mean, anytime someone drops a comment that invokes both Wodehouse and V-Nasty at the same time, that’s gonna make my day. And when it’s Jonathan that’s dropping both Wodehouse and V-Nasty in the middle of a discussion about Gutenberg — well, sir, you warmed my heart and soul.

      (In other words, I miss talking to you!)

      I look forward to your response to Jack’s paper.

      Probably will be a bit, but I’ll make sure you know when it’s done.

      They invited Toby to give a response to Jack’s paper

      I heard it was quite the event. I wish I could’ve been there. Honestly, I wish I could’ve been at the whole Summer Institute. Even just as a fly on the wall.

      We all get to throw down and still be friends. That’s Gutenberg. This is what makes Gutenberg great.

      Amen to that. I couldn’t agree more.

      Thank God you are not whispering about Gutenberg (*that is the temptation we all face and fail from time to time).

      I agree it’s a temptation. I’ve certainly done it, and many others have as well, when there’s a disagreement. I tend to just call people out in writing when I disagree with them. It’s both a personal strength and a personal weakness. But it’s kinda just me. I remember Toby once wrote something and taped it to a book case at Gutenberg, and then I went and wrote something disagreeing with him and taped it right under his note. And what I wrote, in retrospect, was probably stupid compared to what Toby wrote.

      Also, you probably know I’m not really expressing anything new here, or anything a bunch of people haven’t talked about already. But maybe part of the issue here is that this is the first time a critique is public and in writing. That’s kinda a tonal and communal “game-changer,” if you will.

      I always wanted to see you disembowel someone with your dialectical chopper. Nope– you were a lamb. Personally, I like seeing your teeth. They look good on you.

      That definitely made me laugh out loud — and thanks, too. I’ll try to show them more often, I guess? You know, one of the things that I uniquely appreciated about Gutenberg was how it taught me how to dialogue and not just debate. That’s a really important lesson I needed to learn. Part of my silence was just observing people and rethinking communication — realizing that not everything was an argument to be won, but people to just interact with. St. John’s certainly showed me how to have a good Great Books discussion (in contrast to Gutenberg), but Gutenberg showed me how to dialogue.

      I really, really, really think you should reach out to the tutors and ask them respond to some blog posts (maybe even do their response as a post). That would pay them the highest honor as mentors and friends (particularly with your forth coming response to Jack’s paper). I think that would be one way to show the world Gutenberg’s best leg–show them what there is to love about this place: methodological unity not doctrinal unity (*on good days*).

      That’s an awesome idea. Thank you for suggesting that. I shall do that.

      I guess I want to see you have the sort of fruitful exchange with Jack that I did not get to have because my head was too far up my ass.

      Well, I will try not to let you down. 😉

      Thanks for your thoughts, Jonathan. Hope you are doing well, too.

  5. You all roped me in, I have to say. But I am struck this morning by how cheerful I feel about it all. Because honestly, we all just still give a damn. Riot – you may be causing a ruckus amongst us all, but the ruckus happens because we care – about Gutenberg, about the tutors, about what we believe to be true, about discussion, about each other. It amuses me the way we pop out of the woodwork once in awhile to plunge into the conversation and thus reveal that many of us are lurking.

    I almost always disagree with you, Riot, but I find your passion commendable and relatable. I am still sorting through my thoughts (and feelings) about Gutenberg and have been for nearly eight years. I liken it very much to growing up and realizing your family has flaws – big ones. For a long time I was angry. Now I am back to grateful, not because Gutenberg was the BEST PLACE EVER, as I personally thought it for so long, but because despite its flaws it gave me more gifts than I can list. When I am frustrated and sad and angry about certain aspects, it is because I do care and I want Gutenberg to be “its best self”. And mostly, like Jonathan said, I wish I had the time and opportunity to sit down with the tutors (and some of you?) and hash it out.

    In the meantime, thanks for the conversations, All (Hi Erin! Hi Brian! Hi Jonathan!). Riot – I do agree that you come across as harsh. You have made it clear that that is not your intent and I believe you. And I know you want to separate HA from all of this, but you can’t. You are dealing with deeply personal things here, as you well know, that cannot be neatly put into categories. You have put yourself out there on the internet as one person with a complex stew of beliefs and beefs, and we are responding to that person and that entire stew.

    I believe that one of Gutenberg’s primary problems is the fact that it is a fairly small, insular world but one that is often critiquing the ‘other’ (in my experience it was often other Christian beliefs). The problem is that they are often quite unfamiliar with the ‘other’, and it is dangerous to base your identity upon attacking and critiquing something, particularly if you are not very well acquainted (if not immersed) in it. I think it is a caution to us all (I think about it a lot) and one that particularly applies to you as you go about your projects. Make sure that you are not just attacking something that you knew and others knew in the past. Make sure you are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Make sure you understand the nuances. Make sure that you are measured and gentle in your approach. Make sure that you see the reforms that are happening already, and even if you don’t entirely agree with them, rejoice anyway. These are things I am saying to you, to Gutenberg, to myself, to anyone who thrives on trying to figure it all out.

    Best,
    Axon

    1. Well, as we are mostly graduates of Gutenberg here, I’m sure it’s hard to resist a discussion of this nature. We probably all pine for this sort of give-and-take with each other — like every other day. I do at least. It’s like discussion withdrawal or something. 🙂

      Anyways. Thanks for your thoughts, Axon. I’ll respond soon.

  6. Shimer College alum here, dropping in somewhat late. I enjoy following Gutenberg-related events and discussions, as it gives me the chance to observe familiar themes playing out in very different contexts (the “Save Gutenberg” campaign, for instance, resonates somewhat painfully with several episodes in Shimer’s own history, and I’m glad y’all were able to weather that storm).

    Tensions over the role of historical context in Great Books pedagogy go back to the Hutchins-Adler days (at least), and each school has to find its own way through those sharp rocks. Shimer does certain tend toward a somewhat decontextualized view of the text than would be the case for a school such as Gutenberg. I believe this is in part because doing otherwise would tend to empower the instructor (or some other received authority outside of the text) in a way that wouldn’t be very constructive, or at least would be at odds with Shimer’s particularly intense democratic ethos.

    So even at Shimer, although authorial intent may not be the sole guide to interpretation, it remains a pretty important part of the interpretive toolset. (And while I don’t have personal experience of any of the others, I’m pretty confident Shimer would stand out as the most postmodern of the GBCs. )

    For those with an interest in such things, one representative concrete example of the Shimer method is the excerpt from a discussion of Darwin’s Origin of Species contained in the 2012 Shimer viewbook. Depending on your definition of “authorial intent”, you might argue that the discussion there isn’t entirely about Darwin’s intent — however, it’s definitely about understanding his ideas and their implications, based on the plain meaning of his own words. In my experience, that is fairly typical of a Shimer class (or at least a good Shimer class).

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Samuel! I find that all very interesting.

      You said,

      Shimer does certain tend toward a somewhat decontextualized view of the text than would be the case for a school such as Gutenberg. I believe this is in part because doing otherwise would tend to empower the instructor (or some other received authority outside of the text) in a way that wouldn’t be very constructive, or at least would be at odds with Shimer’s particularly intense democratic ethos.

      From your experience at Shimer, did you personally find that “decontextualized view” to be helpful or unhelpful?

      Have you written any observations along these lines about your experience at Shimer? If so, I’d love to read them. If not, you should totally write some up. I’d even post them on my blog if you want and maybe we can inspire a great big Great Books conversation.

  7. Hello Ryan, Brian, Erin, Jonathan, and Axon (among others), and thanks so much for your words here and attempts to communicate. As you know, I’m not a Gutenberg grad, but I did audit one term (possibly your first one, Ryan), and I spent eleven years immersed in and loving the Gutenbergean world/methodology. I can relate to and really appreciate Axon’s words: “For a long time I was angry. Now I am back to grateful, not because Gutenberg was the BEST PLACE EVER, as I personally thought it for so long, but because despite its flaws it gave me more gifts than I can list. When I am frustrated and sad and angry about certain aspects, it is because I do care and I want Gutenberg to be ‘its best self’. And mostly, like Jonathan said, I wish I had the time and opportunity to sit down with the tutors (and some of you?) and hash it out.” This is so well said. How can one come from a place of having loved and still loving this group so dearly and not wish to hash some things out? Love Gutenberg = Thinks Deeply About Stuff.

    Frustration has been my main issue the past couple years, but it’s a frustration set in the context of knowing the Gutenberg tutors have extremely little free time to engage someone, even “one of their own” in a discussion on views that at least appear on the surface to disagree with their teachings (their doctrines, if you will; and this is from my individual bent, in that I take on what’s said around a place many times as the prevailing understandings that are considered to be best for all).

    I appreciate Ryan’s involvement with the HA project. While still looking in on and evaluating what I think of it, I come from the perspective of a homeschool mom still debriefing herself regarding what happened during my and my children’s experience — I think it was positive overall (and my kids tell me they agree), but it’s fascinating and necessary to look back and see why I did this, what it meant and means (not just for myself or my generation). There are connections for me with causes and revolutions and history and the just plain poor state of public schooling as I saw it…Anyway, I hope to blog about my view of HA at some point.

    I’ve already blogged quite a bit about my shift away from Gutenberg’s theology, but I also haven’t really begun to do that and am still trying to sort out how to do that. And (here’s what I should have said first, I guess) I wish to remind each commenter here that whether something comes across as harsh or not depends at least to a degree on one’s operating assumptions and loyalties. Someone mentioned the air they breathe. It’s impossible to see air, even when I know a lot about it.

    If you’ve read this, thanks for letting in an old gal. Everyone take care.

    1. Hey Deanna! Thanks for joining in!

      First:

      If you’ve read this, thanks for letting in an old gal. Everyone take care.

      I’m so glad you did join in. Thanks for adding your thoughts. Feel free to do so again whenever you want!

      How can one come from a place of having loved and still loving this group so dearly and not wish to hash some things out? Love Gutenberg = Thinks Deeply About Stuff.

      Absolutely. Well put. Willingness to dialogue about even our most foundational assumptions and our emotional loyalties always seemed to me to be the Gutenberg spirit during my 4 years there.

      Frustration has been my main issue the past couple years, but it’s a frustration set in the context of knowing the Gutenberg tutors have extremely little free time to engage someone, even “one of their own” in a discussion on views that at least appear on the surface to disagree with their teachings (their doctrines, if you will; and this is from my individual bent, in that I take on what’s said around a place many times as the prevailing understandings that are considered to be best for all).

      I haven’t been a part of the community for quite some time. But if that is the case, that is unfortunate. One of the things I most appreciated was when the tutors would take time to engage us students individually about our disagreements. That seemed a really important part of my educational process there. So I hope it is still alive!

      I appreciate Ryan’s involvement with the HA project. While still looking in on and evaluating what I think of it, I come from the perspective of a homeschool mom still debriefing herself regarding what happened during my and my children’s experience.

      Thank you, Deanna. I would appreciate that regardless, but I appreciate it even more as you are a homeschool mom. That means a lot to me.

      I hope to blog about my view of HA at some point.

      I hope you do! Let me know when you get something up. I’d love to read it.

      I wish to remind each commenter here that whether something comes across as harsh or not depends at least to a degree on one’s operating assumptions and loyalties. Someone mentioned the air they breathe. It’s impossible to see air, even when I know a lot about it.

      Very true. This is what makes Communication such a fascinating, aggravating, and mysterious phenomenon.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

  8. R.L., I’m just a homeschool mom of many coming out of the patriarchal wind tunnel…. not an alum of any Great Books program, although my oldest daughters did GB highschool. IMO it’s not the tone of your article that is the main problem, but the assumptions or insecurities, of the reader that casts that light on it. The intensity of feeling it apparently stirred up I think is more telling of how much the reader treasures his/her experience and this generally increases the defensiveness when such an experience/value is under criticism. It will feel more like a personal attack, in direct proportion to how much the individual identifies w/ the entity or system being criticized. Like for me, I came out of an IFB missionary kid, 2nd generation BJU background and converted to Catholicism. I freaking LOVE the Church. Everything about it. It was like coming home, like I realized at the age of 43 what I’d always been and believed. I’ve found that it’s really hard to FEEL, even though I intellectually accept it, that my new home is not perfect, since it has done so much good in my life. But I DO recognize it, and I also recognize that many criticisms of the church as a whole and individuals and movements within it, are well deserved and at least merit a respectful and non-defensive hearing. Which, I hope, leads to true dialogue, and which I so admire about what you do here. Peace.

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