The Socratic Seminar

Thoughts from Our Headmistress, Dr. Susan Traffas, on the Socratic Seminar

Several classes at MSW Academy will be conducted as small seminars focused on great texts, rather than as lectures utilizing textbooks. Our headmistress, Dr. Traffas, comes to us with years of experience in this style of teaching and writes eloquently about its virtues —

“[E]verything true or good or simply beautiful that was said, even by pagans, belongs to the Christians.”

– Jean Leclercq, OSB, ‘The Love of Learning and the Desire for God’

“Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savor life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like Saint Augustine could express in incomparable terms: ‘Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you!'”

– Pope Saint John Paul II, ‘Letter to Artists’

As those who have been following Mary Seat of Wisdom Academy as it opens its doors know, we are interested in learning from everyone who has something truthful to teach us. That means we will begin with the pagans and learn that they too sought the true, the good, and the beautiful. We will follow that path up to modern authors learning from them too, sometimes learning how to disagree with them.

Simply reading a great book by yourself is a wonderful thing, but more wonderful still is to read that book together with others. Everyone who does that—the teacher included—will learn something. The purpose of the seminar style of learning is that everyone can contribute, enrich, and deepen the experience of learning.

In truth, the real teachers are the great books themselves. We need to puzzle out together what they are trying to teach us, whether it be Homer or Euclid, Thomas Aquinas or T.S. Eliot. Fruitful discussion is so much better than listening to an expert teaching to a test. I have never led a seminar in which I did not benefit. The day I no longer learn something fruitful—see something in a new way—is the day I should retire.

Student discussion often takes off in a different direction than the teacher had planned. But that is a good thing. A real seminar where we all see what the text has to offer will be remembered for a long time. It is something to build upon. By the end of their education, students will be able to see that all truly great thinkers have learned from the Greeks, and so we should too. That enables us to participate in what is often called “the great conversation.”

Further Reading

For a longer reflection on the seminar style of teaching and on the relationship between students, teacher and great texts, Dr. Traffas recommends the following article by George Anastaplo, published in the Claremont Review of Books:

Visit Seeds of Wisdom, our blog, for previous entries in this series:

Apply Now

The school year has just begun, and is off to a great start! If you are interested in transferring from another school, find the application for the freshman class here:

Mary, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us!