THE TEACHER AS LEARNER: ON DISCUSSION
By George Anastaplo
Charicles, one of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens, said, "The fact is, Socrates, you are in the habit of asking questions to which you know the answers. That is what you are not to do."
- Xenophon, Memorabilia I, ii, 36
Discussion is made much of today: Much is made of discussion techniques, the function of the discussion leader, and that sort of thing.
There are things one can do to make discussion more effective-things to be learned from instruction and things to be picked up from experience. But it is important to keep in mind that discussion is not something to be pursued for its own sake. In fact, an undue concern for discussion can bring out the worst in students. This should be kept in mind as one hears much made today of "participation" and of discussion leaders.
The ultimate leaders of the best seminar discussions are the authors of the best books. It is only in the best books that one is likely to encounter the finest examples of minds at work-and it is vital to the development of the best in students that they become aware of how the very best do think. Is there any reliable way to develop such an awareness except by helping students begin to grasp what the best minds-that is, minds truly thinking-say?
There is a need, then, to figure out what the particular author being discussed on any occasion has argued: What does he stand for? How does he put what he says and why? What position is he speaking against?
Critical to a full understanding of any argument is an informed opinion as to whether it is sound. Still, we should not make too much, in our circumstances, of having students pass judgment on the best minds, especially when it is easy to come to believe in an egalitarian age that one man's opinion is just as good as another's. Rather, students should be helped to appreciate that one is always obliged to reach in order to grasp what the very best minds have thought.
It should be evident, then, that I am talking about how one learns to read. Of course, various technical skills are needed. Often, they follow from, or are enhanced by, mastery of the subject. Of course, also, the opinions of students-opinions grounded in whatever experience they happen to have had-should be drawn upon if discussion is to be vital.
But all this is, I repeat, subordinate to the inquiry: What did this author say here?
This means, among other things, that students should be disciplined to examine and to understand their text, not to talk about it as if they were preparing a new text of their own. Only when they understand properly the guides available to them can they usefully apply what they learn to issues of the day.
On the other hand, a text is treated differently (and all too often inadequately) when it provides little more than an occasion, or the point of departure, for discussing matters of current interest.
This means, in turn, that the discussion leader must have a confident sense of what is relevant, what contributes to an understanding of whatever is being said by the text, and what is (however "interesting") no more than a digression, if not even mere self-indulgence. The better the leader knows the book at hand, the better he knows what questions should be pressed, what lines of discussion should be pursued, and what more remains to be explored.
To know a book means, among other things, that one is aware of its presuppositions, principles, and ends. One is hardly likely to be an "expert" with respect to each text one leads a discussion of; but a tentative grasp of each such text is useful, especially if one is aware of one's limitations.
To say that the leader is limited is not to say that he cannot do good things. In fact, just the opposite may be true. That is, the best discussions often depend upon the fact that the leader himself has a genuine inquiry which he is personally pursuing with his class. Much is to be said for not doing the same things each time one discusses a particular book, for not going over the same parts each time one returns to that book. Indeed, one must be careful not to make too much of the teacher as actor.
The most effective way to proceed may be to settle upon a particular passage, using it as the occasion for studying the whole work. In order to do this, of course, one should have a reliable sense of the overall organization and argument of the work. (I mention in passing the suggestion that students be permitted, as much as possible, to do all the reading aloud that is done in class. This not only helps accustom them to using the best language available to them, but it also helps their teacher resist the temptation to put on a show.)
One advantage of an approach which has the class settle upon a particular passage is that it helps remedy the short attention span evident in students, especially those steeped in television. They need to be encouraged to make sustained intellectual efforts. (Working through poems, as well as through Euclid's demonstrations, should also contribute to this end.) Another advantage of settling upon a particular passage is that it helps compensate for any lack of preparation among the students present.
The discussion "method" I have been sketching is one which is much richer for everyone concerned than what usually goes on in class. This way the teacher is constantly learning and hence is more likely to remain vital himself. Indeed, the alert "teacher" should expect to learn more than anyone else.
Students surely do want the best for themselves, but they need repeated testimonials as to what is truly good. Not the least of the ways in which young students are helped is by their observing and imitating adults who are obviously (and with considerable effort and satisfaction) constantly learning themselves.
It is important, then, when considering books of the highest stature, to suggest by precept and example that there is an argument to work out, that such an argument depends on certain presuppositions and objectives, that there are better and worse points to be made in such arguments, that we do have the ability to understand such things, that we also have the ability (as well as the duty) to judge what is often said about such things, that some people who talk a lot (even quite intelligent people) simply do not know what they are talking about much of the time, and that others (also quite intelligent people) can actually believe that such talkers know what they are talking about. It is important, I say, that students come to appreciate these things.
Thus, in this way, students should get a better idea than they would otherwise have of a first-rate text, of how to talk about it, and of how to assess others who talk about it.
They should develop, over time, an awareness of the fundamental and enduring questions that the best books define and try to answer. And when they do have this awareness, they can better notice, and do something with, the facts all around them.
Until the enduring questions are grasped, one cannot truly notice (that is, even see) what is immediately around one. Nor does one know what to ask about or what to do with the facts that one does happen to notice.
Perhaps the most important thing for many students, and especially for the more intelligent and articulate among them, is that they develop a proper sense of their own limitations.
Of course, they should also have developed in themselves both a confidence in their abilities and an assurance that there are standards to be applied to what they do. But first and foremost, they should be led to sense what one needs to know in order to know enough for the matter at hand.
All this, it should be impressed upon contemporary students, is not just for the sake of utility. Too much around us stresses utility already-and this can mean mere hedonism, which tends to be shortsighted and fragmented, and ultimately frustrating and destructive. Rather, students today should be encouraged to recognize that much is to be said for "understanding for its own sake," including that understanding provided us by things of beauty.
Among the many consequences of an emphasis upon utility can be the notion that discussion should be made much of. But however useful discussion may be for providing students practice in thinking things through, it bears repeating that students should be taught that they should not want merely to talk. Rather, they should be thoughtful-and this depends upon, among other things, an awareness of what one needs to know in order to become thoughtful. This can also mean that students should come to respect, perhaps even to defer to, genuine thoughtfulness in others.
Or, put another way, students should be so trained that they come to discourage facile talk wherever they are likely to encounter it, thereby promoting serious public discourse all around them.
In short, then, a proper respect should be developed in our students for the art of reading and for the ability to think-that ability to think which serious reading, as well as fruitful discussion, promotes, depends upon, and cherishes.
WIN A FEW, LOSE A FEW: WWII REMEMBERED
By Harold W. Rood
Special Order No. 61, Headquarters, Ninth Service Command, Fort Douglas, Utah, date: March 2, 1943
Following named Enlisted Reservists are ordered to active duty. Will proceed from University of California, Berkeley, California, so as to report to Commanding Officer, Reception Center, Presidio of Monterey California:
And there is my name followed by a serial number, 19133185. Thus began my first advanced course in the study of international relations, that great game of politics, so entrancing, frustrating, and dangerous.
It was not, however, the introductory course; that had come from my father. He had served on the U.S.S. Smith (PG-17), a gunboat of the U.S. Naval Militia of the State of Louisiana, in the landing at Vera Cruz, Mexico, in 1914. When the United States entered World War I, he was on the U.S.S. Oklahoma which, together with Utah and Nevada, formed a Special Detachment to the British Grand Fleet, escorting troop convoys to Brest, France, from the United States. In 1919, Oklahoma escorted President Wilson, who was on the liner George Washington, to France for the Peace Conference. My father drove the President to Paris to stay at the Crillon and on tours of the battlefields of France, and, when the Peace Conference was over, back to Brest where the Oklahoma escorted the President back to the United States.
Where I grew up on the navy yard at Mare Island, the armor plate and sixteen-inch guns of what was to have been the battleship Montana lay but a few blocks away from our house. Those great chunks of steel were the relics of the naval disarmament conference held in Washington in 1921 and 1922. That was the conference that promised to bring peace in the Pacific. Montana, along with its sisters, was scrapped to meet the requirements of the treaty concluded at Washington. Nearly completed, it was said that Montana cost more to break up than it would have cost to finish. Thus a first experience in what we would later come to call "Arms Control and Disarmament."
From time to time my father's shipmates from the war would come through the navy yard from the China Station or the Asiatic Fleet. Then there would be tales told of the days at war and accounts given of the troubled times in the Far East. When U.S.S. Fanny was sunk above Woosung in December 1937, the theater at the navy yard showed Norman Alley's film of the sinking. Alley was on the Panay when it was attacked and sunk by aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Thoughtful people seemed to understand, at the time, that the United States might become involved in the war that was going on in the Far East.
There was a copy of the first American edition of Mein Kampf in the house, and we listened to broadcasts from Berlin when correspondents like William L. Shirer gave accounts of the progress of the Nazis in Europe. My father would say, "Well, we shall have to go over there again and finish the job we should have finished in 1918."
The names of the ships of the Pacific Fleet were like household words to us: California, Nevada, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee-all part of the Battle Force. They used to come into San Francisco, where we would visit them while my father looked up old shipmates. San Francisco and Chicago were cruisers built at Mare Island, and we saw them launched. Northhampton carried one of my father's best friends from the war, so there were always larks in the household when that ship came into port. Those ships were all part of the Scouting Force of the Pacific Fleet.
My schoolmates, who rode the bus with me to Vallejo, were sons and daughters of naval or marine officers. They had all lived at one time or another in places like Guantanamo, Colon, Cavite, Shanghai, or Peking. It was hardly possible, in the ordinary course of things, to escape having some impression about the nature of the world beyond the shores of California.
When it came time to take a job to earn money to go to college, I delivered mail to ships of the Pacific Fleet when they stopped at Mare Island for overhaul. Nearly every ship, in due course, would become notable for some action in the war. Ships that were built at Mare Island warranted special attention in their careers. Of the 52 submarines lost in World War II, five of them were built at Mare Island, so that one saw them launched and commissioned, and then watched them depart on war patrol. All five were lost in the Pacific.
The first serious book on European politics I ever had was Failure of a Mission: Berlin, 1937-1939, by Sir Neville Henderson, British Ambassador to Germany. It was given to me by a friend who served on the U.S.S. Houston when that ship was last in the United States. That was in 1940, when Houston was at Mare Island for overhaul before going out to become flagship of the Asiatic Fleet. Its sinking off Java during an attack on Japanese troop transports meant the end of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet. The Japanese picked up nearly 400 survivors of the 1,000-man crew of the Houston. Some of them survived the Japanese prison camp.
The mail clerk from the U.S.S. Kilty gave us the first news of the attack on Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning. Some of the damaged ships came to Mare Island for repairs. Though we knew that my father's old ship, Oklahoma, had been lost in the attack, the extent of the damage to the Pacific Fleet was not public knowledge, but the flow of wounded into the naval hospital at Mare Island and those who came into the yard on damaged ships told a story of devastation.
If the war in the Far East was close to home, the war in Europe was hardly less so, especially after the fall of France in 1940. Classmates from high school went to Canada to volunteer for the Royal Air Force. To those who were yet too unworldly to understand that the war in Europe was our war too, the travelers to Canada were a curiosity.
The war in Europe would not become a personal matter until 1944 at Fort Benning, Georgia. In November, the 71st Division was alerted for overseas movement. The time of movement was a closely held secret, but you could tell when the movement to a Port of Embarkation was close. The Post dry cleaners stopped taking uniforms for cleaning from the members of the division. As it turned out, that meant we should be moving out in less than a week.
So we proceeded from Fort Benning to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, and then on to the troopships at Brooklyn. The troopships joined a convoy off Sandy Hook and, under escort, crossed the Atlantic in about nine days. There were many calls to General Quarters aboard ship, much standing on deck in life jackets as the escorting destroyers laid depth charges at every suspicious ping on their ASDICS. On February 5 we laid up off Southhampton. The town was blacked out because England was still under air attack and attack from V-ls and V-2s. At dawn on February 6, we were escorted through the minefields off Le Havre to enter that harbor, full of sunken ships and the wreckage of war.
It was difficult to get off the ships which, having passed through the German submarine menace, now seemed safe havens compared with unfamiliar France. It did make one wonder whether the act of volunteering to enter upon what had by this time come to be seen as a dangerous enterprise, was really the thing to have done. All of those people working overtime in defense plants at home, able to sleep with their careful wives, earning good salaries, seemed to represent the essence of probity and discretion. But then, one reflected, there were folks with the mule-pack artillery in Burma or getting their feet wet in landings on Japanese-held islands in the Pacific who might conceivably be worse off than we who were about to enter combat in France.
Somewhere between Grmonville and Yvetot, not far from Rouen in Normandy, the division unpacked its equipment, picked up more from as far away as Antwerp, and prepared to move out to the fighting. It was all pretty routine, living in tents in the cold French countryside. One knew it was to become more serious, however, when, one day, a month after landing in France, they began to issue real, live ammunition. One had had live ammunition before, to fire on the range, to go on guard duty, and to shoot at towed targets. Those times, every round had to be accounted for and unexpended rounds carefully returned. This time, we were issued boxes of .50 caliber ammunition for the heavy machine guns. Every fifth round was a tracer, with two incendiary rounds and two armor-piercing rounds in between. Then there were rounds for the bazookas to be used in defense against tanks, grenades (high-explosive, smoke, and white-phosphorous), ammunition for the carbines, and a full, basic load for each of the 105mm howitzers. Nobody had to sign for anything. Then you knew it was serious. When the multiplex forms and the paperwork ceased to make their appearance, it was evident that a new dimension of the real world was about to be entered.
Even the first sergeant, whom we affectionately called "Wrinklehead" and other names more anatomically descriptive, when his back was turned, became quite friendly. He had the sense of humor of a copperhead with heat rash but had now become quite somber. No doubt it was the rumor that drifted down from the 14th Infantry. Some rifleman up there, upon being issued bandoleers of ammunition for his M-l rifle, had expressed his evident distaste for a particularly odious first lieutenant by firing eight quick rounds through the officer's tent. It was said that the officer was then sent home on a slow freighter without escort. Only just, as it seemed at the time. Riflemen were worth their weight in rubies. First lieutenants were a dime a dozen-particularly odious ones.
Then there was the long night-time drive across France, passing through the outskirts of a darkened Paris, to an obscure village called Montbronn, to support the 100th Division in its attack on Bitche.
Most of us found it all quite interesting and, at times, more exciting than absolutely necessary to those who by then had become inclined toward a more sedentary life. Fighting through the fortifications of the German Westwall, driving to the Rhine at Speyer, then crossing the Rhine at Oppenheim with the Third Army seemed a piece of cake. We were held up for a day at Offenbach, outside Frankfurt, while the 1,100 bomber aircraft hit Frankfurt to soften the defenses for the assault. Then it was on to Fulda and south to Regensburg where there was a battle, to Bayreuth, and finally into Austria. The war ended there when the division met the Red Army outside of Linz.
Every day there was something to catch the attention of serious students of history: great cities in ruins and villages held by the SS, and by children and old men enlisted in local defense units. Allied bombers and fighters lay crashed in the fields along the route of advance, before us was scattered the wreckage of a retreating German Army that had but a short time before been master of Europe. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of prisoners of war were marched to the rear together with equal numbers of displaced persons, some liberated from the Germans and others fleeing westward to escape the Red Army.
Going through the woods, outside Fulda, I met a young woman with a small child. She asked about her husband, whom she said was a prisoner of war in the United States. What could one say, in one's halting German? He would be home soon, because "Der Krieg was aus. Alles ist kaputt."
The division overran three or four concentration camps. Here was evidence of a horror dissolving all sympathy for a beaten people: pitiful, starved figures so emaciated that their gender could hardly be distinguished, dead and dying by the hundreds. Those yet on their feet begged cigarettes and food. We gave them all we had and blankets and overcoats to protect their chilled frames from the raw winds of April. So some were saved, and some died from eating the food we had given them, which was too rich and too much of a shock to their starved systems. The least reflective of us could wonder at the terrible barbarism that had for six years ravaged Europe. The unforgettable signs were those dreadful concentration camp uniforms hanging like shrouds on the bodies of the dead and near dead. If the war had not made much sense before, it did now.
Somewhere near Steyr in Austria, the war ended in Europe. But that did not finish the curriculum in international politics. The division began its role in the Army of Occupation.
Those who cared to volunteer to go to the Pacific could do so. It was easy to volunteer. Having been through one war and surviving, a second war seemed less fearful to enter than the first had been. Volunteers might expect a promotion and therefore a raise from 54 dollars a month plus the extra 10 dollars for being overseas in a combat zone (if one were a private first class). The real reason was that those who volunteered might expect to get ten days leave at home before they went to the Far East for the invasion. That was not to be sneered at. But it was not an unhappy day when news came of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war against Japan. It did not require a high school education to understand that if one made it through one war alive and whole, the statistical chances of surviving an invasion of Japan were probably about zip.
The Army of Occupation did constabulary work. It manned roadblocks looking for war criminals and members of the SS who had evaded Allied authorities; conducted early-morning and late-night searches of hamlets, villages and towns, looking for caches of arms laid up for some future resistance; helped restore public services and civil government; processed prisoners of war; and cared for thousands upon thousands of displaced persons.
The displaced persons included people who had been slave-laborers from all over Europe, impressed for work in German factories and on German farms. There were thousands of Germans who had fled their homes under Allied bombing or who had fled from the advancing Red Army: parents looking for children, families seeking relatives, wives looking for husbands. Few had anything but the clothes on their backs and maybe a battered briefcase or handbag with a meager handful of precious possessions. Those precious possessions were seldom heirlooms-such things had had to be sold to buy food-but rather were keepsakes, pictures of loved ones, and letters from family members long gone.
It was a simple problem to repatriate the French, the Dutch, the Belgians, Norwegians, and Danes. They would be welcomed home, and home they could go. Those who belonged in the Russian zone of occupation-Poland, Hungary, and such places to the East-were less fortunate. Through an agreement among the Allies, those who came from the Russian zone and Eastern Europe had to be returned to Russian control. It was the only way that Allied prisoners of war and others from the West who had been overrun by the Red Army would be returned to Western control. The exchange was appropriately called "Operation Keelhaul."
Truckload after truckload of displaced persons from the East were taken to the border between East and West. They were not welcomed home. Some were marched eastward in long columns under the machine guns of Red Army soldiers. Many were taken behind some building or over some hill and executed out of hand. You could hear the machine-gun fire.
There was a young girl, maybe 18 or 19 years old, who sat huddled with her companions in the back of one of our six-by-six artillery trucks. Pitifully, she tried to catch the eye of her soldier-escorts, displaying her charms as though flirtatiously. It was not flirting, it was an appeal for help, for she knew, as did her companions, what return to Russian control meant. The young American soldiers did not know. How could one believe that the gallant Red Army, our brothers-in-arms, who had helped to rid Europe of the Nazi barbarians, could be no less barbaric, treating helpless refugees like enemies. That poor girl, trying so hopelessly to barter her body for survival to young men too innocent to grasp the significance of her gesture and ignorant of what lay ahead for those they had been given to safeguard on the journey east.
Forty years on: We have kept the peace in Europe at whatever cost. The barbarian Empire to the East has prospered and grown. France is revived and restored. Poland, where the war started, is still a prisoner. Czechoslovakia, sold out in 1938, left to the Russians in 1948, dances to an Eastern tune. Germany is divided, the East as much a captive of totalitarianism as it ever was under the Nazis, and West Germany a hostage to Western good behavior. And the British-they who fought on alone while the United States got half ready-their country is sad, dispirited, impotent, and dejected. Forty years on. They said in that other war that the world could not exist half slave and half free. Yet here it is-still half slave and half free. All those reasons for the destruction of the Nazis-slave labor, concentration camps, anti-Semitism, totalitarianism, unprovoked war against a helpless people-are no longer reason enough for cold anger. That which was spawned under the broken cross of Nazism passes unnoticed when sprouting beneath the Hammer and Sickle. So here is the world, forty years on, more slave than free. And those who are free feign sleep to avoid that which must be faced. But there is no sleep for those who would stay free when the forces of barbarism are on the move.
If international politics teaches anything, it is that the strong do what they will, and the weak can but submit. But it is only the strong who can afford to be kind and only the strong who can protect the weak.
It is forty years since the ending of that great war when we all knew the justice of our cause. Should one now say that the cause is lost, or do those who cherish freedom dare defend it wherever it is threatened, to restore it where it has been lost?
Has the price of freedom now become too high, so that we shall, piece by piece, bit by bit, surrender that which forty years ago seemed precious beyond life itself?