Confluence Courseware is an effort to reverse current cultural and social trends and use digital technology not as an ends but a means—as a tool to promote genuine and significant human conversation about great ideas.
We live in a hyper-connected age; ours is a technology saturated society of instantaneous messaging, vast networks of streaming information and a deluge of images that give a dizzying tinge to life and leave an overwhelming sense of relentless acceleration. Yet, for all of the allure of our digital devices and the promise of continual connectivity, something is missing. Since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, when the hope of a machine-aided utopia first took root, idealists and inventors alike have promised that technological advances would bring productivity and efficiency to the workplace, automation of distasteful, burdensome tasks and an exponential increase of our leisure time. While the benefits of our digital age are widespread and undeniable, it does seem that we have forgotten something fundamentally important—we no longer know how to speak with one another.
In the age of the machine, conversation has become a lost art.
As we rely more on technology and less upon one another in our frenetic day-to-day, we have created a cultural moment that offers little time for profound exchange and few opportunities in our overwhelmed lives for genuine conversations concerning perennial matters of the head, heart and soul.
Therefore, it is ironic that despite our delirious pace and digital connections we operate under the sense that we have less free time as we also seem to grow more isolated in our personal lives. As we have come to idolize the machines which proliferate with implacable speed, we suffer.
Our professional lives have suffered as it has become more difficult to solve problems in a collaborative fashion because, in great part, we no longer know how to talk about difficult problems in a productive manner. Our personal lives also suffer because we spend them connecting to machines in order to exchange vapid quips and viral images that entertain but rarely instruct and almost never guide us towards wisdom.
Seeing the current difficulties of genuine civic engagement and transformative conversation in our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces and communities, we must then somehow recover the functionality of our humanity. We must relearn how to talk with one another about essential and often contentious ideas, we must not fear emotional and difficult subjects, all while still inhabiting a mechanized world full of as many electronic devices as people. We must, in short, practice the act of recovery as we practice engaging in meaningful and fruitful conversation, and yes, we certainly can use technological advancements in our globalized world as tools to ameliorate these discussions. But these “virtual” conversations are important for their content, not their method of delivery; what “counts” is the human effort to struggle with the meaning of our lives, the historical context of our situation, the moral quandaries we face, and our future challenges.
Therefore, Confluence Courseware is an effort to reverse current cultural and social trends and use digital technology not as an ends but a means—as a tool to promote genuine and significant human conversation.
Using great works—including influential and important texts from all of human history in the creative arts and literature, religion, philosophy, the natural, applied and social sciences—Confluence Courseware is an attempt to utilize the more beneficial aspects of our technological society, while mitigating the more deleterious cultural consequences, so that we may remember our cultural heritage and re-engage in timeless conversations which center around what it means to be human. In other words, Confluence Courseware is an attempt to find the center between technological advance and the distinctly human aspirations and anxieties which can only be expressed through sincere dialogue.
Harnessing, then, the possibilities of digital delivery while still retaining a commitment to the very human skill of conversation, Confluence Courseware insists that authentic engagement, through close examination and thoughtful dialogue of great works via digital delivery, is the best way, given our contemporary moment, to not talk about what is the latest viral phenomena on the machine but what is inscribed in the human heart.
Part Socrates and part Thomas Edison, the credo of Confluence Courseware conversation is the timely use of contemporary technologies to facilitate explorations of timeless great works in intellectual and spiritual conversation that span thousands of years. As a premier digital resource for educators, conversationalists and life-long learners to foster meaningful and productive exchange through digital delivery, Confluence Courseware promotes the widespread publication of curricular guides, open educational resources and scholarly and creative works for the express purpose of safeguarding our cultural heritage and engaging the ideas, expressions and inspirations which best capture our humanity.
Syntopical thinking, also known as synthesis, is the touchstone of a liberal arts education and syntopical reading is the most important type of reading in the Humanities so that we may form the most informed evaluative positions about the works that we explore.
In fact, according to Bloom’s taxonomy, synthesis and evaluation are the highest level critical thinking skills that we aspire to in education.
A great tool to assure a syntopical approach in this class is Mortimer Adler’s work The Great Ideas, and his collection of essays which divide Humanities education into the pursuit of understanding 102 Great Ideas. The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas is an excellent resource on how to organize your thinking as a humanist in this course. In his academic career, Mortimer Adler insisted that as humanists we must engage in great conversations about great ideas expressed in great works, and he defined the “great conversation” as a “discussion of the great ideas during the last twenty-five centuries.”
Confluence Courses are oriented by this principle that the best liberal arts education is one that has “great conversations” about “great ideas” expressed in great works.
Therefore, at lease a cursory understanding of the notion of syntopical reading, organized around the delineation of “great ideas,” is helpful for any student using the courseware. Obviously, the task of syntopical, great books learning is a life-long project, but this course allows for the training of life-long habits so that the student can continue his or her liberal arts education long after formal schooling.
Confluence Courseware guides suggest appropriate interpretive and analytic questions in order to facilitate great classroom conversations as well as prompts for academic essays and project-based learning experiences in an effort to provide a truly interdisciplinary, liberal arts education. As such, this course is organized around the principles of the Paideia method (from the Greek paidos meaning “upbringing”) which incorporates three aspects of learning: the Socratic conversation, lecturing or didactic teaching, and experiential learning. This pedagogic method focuses on building a strong foundation of basic skills, thinking skills, and personal qualities that can be used for the learner’s entire life.
Socratic conversation, used approximately 25% of the time in classes supported by CC, is a formal discussion based on a great work in which the teacher asks primarily open-ended, interpretive and analytic questions with only occasional factual questions for purposes of clarification and evaluative questions for summation purposes and in order to “personalize” the learning experience. The purpose Socratic conversation is to practice communication skills of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking as well as to engage in higher-order thinking through summarizing, analyzing, synthesizing, comparing, contrasting, and defending and challenging their own ideas and the ideas of others.
Lecturing or Didactic Teaching, ideally used approximately 25% of the time in classes, introduces and organizes new information through lecture, reading for content, demonstration, and the utilization of the most current multi-media methods and tools. Through this method, an organized body of facts can be succinctly presented.
Experiential Learning, ideally used approximately 50% of the time classes (and this includes formal time in class as well as required out-of-class work), is application work assigned to students so that they can reconsider, research and construct a quality academic work (either a paper or a presentation) involving several academic disciplines. This interdisciplinary approach allows students to apply classroom knowledge in a self-reliant way that leads to life-long learning.
While much classroom time should be dedicated the Socratic conversation and lecturing or didactic teaching, all of the outside classroom time, in the form of reading, group work, class presentation preparation and the writing of papers, is experiential learning.
While curricular guides focus on the syntopical approach of Socratic conversation and the experiential learning components, the lecturing or didactic teaching is still quite important and for this reason students should attend all class sessions at each students school as lecture will be interwoven throughout the course on every class day. In this article in Middle Ground, Rick Wormeli says that lectures, if done right, can be powerful learning experiences (Source: “Saying ‘Yes’ to Lectures” by Rick Wormeli in Middle Ground, October 2010 (Vol. 14, #2, p. 43-44). Wormeli believes that 90 percent of what students learn from classroom lectures (the most popular teaching technique in secondary schools) comes from the speaker’s physical movements, vocal inflections, and facial expressions—so be prepared to attend not just a lecture but a theatrical performance full of motion and emotion.
Many students have not previously had the opportunity to participate in Socratic conversations. In his essay “Notes on Dialogue” Stringfellow Barr offers some great advice on how to participate in a Socratic conversation.
For instance, Barr suggests that listening is just as important as talking in a Socratic conversation, what he refers to as a dialectic conversation:
“In dialectic, ‘participational democracy’ consists in everybody’s listening intently; it does not consist in what commercial television calls equal time. When a good basketball team has the ball, its members do not snatch the ball from each other but support the man who has it, and the man who has it passes it to a teammate whenever a pass is called for by the common purpose of the team. But in dialectic, as opposed to basketball, the ‘opposing team’ is composed only of the difficulties all men face when they try to understand. The point is that, in dialectic, it does not matter whose mouth gets used by the dialectical process, provided all are listening intently and exercise the freedom to interrupt with a question if they do not understand.”
Later, Barr reiterates the importance of listening:
“(We) will need to be close listeners, in the event that we take Socrates’ advice; we shall, indeed, have to be closer listeners than we now are.”
Barr also offers the “first rule” of Socratic conversation:
“Perhaps the first rule of Socratic dialectic was laid down by Socrates: that we should follow the argument wherever it leads. Presumably, this means that some sorts of relevance that a court pleading should exhibit (and, even more the forensic eloquence that pleading encourages) are irrelevant to dialectic. The deliberate manner, and even more the ponderous manner, are mere impediments. The name of the game is not instructing one’s fellows, or even persuading them, but thinking with them and trusting the argument to lead to understanding sometimes to very unexpected understandings.”
Finally, in his essay, Barr suggests the importance of playfulness:
“There is only one, final rule of thumb that I would offer: When free minds seek together for greater understanding, they tend to move, as the mind of Socrates so characteristically moved-with playfulness and a sense of the comic.”
Read the entire essay here.
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“Meno: Socrates, even before I met you and they told me that in plain truth you are a perplexed man yourself and reduce others to perplexity.”
–Plato’s Meno 80a
Chad Redwing, Ph.D., University of Chicago, Humanities
Academic Editor, Confluence Courseware