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Re-Inventing the Trivium: Debate, Dialogue—and Empathy

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LiberalArtsOnline Volume 5, Number 5
May 2005

We opened our three-month series on discourse and liberal arts education with Richard Gunderman’s question, "Is Debate Upstaging Dialogue?" Last month, James Knauer described one specific program geared towards deliberative dialogue. In our third and final essay in this brief series, Niall Slater, professor of Latin and Greek at Emory University and president of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, writes about a new approach to teaching classic texts that is swiftly gaining popularity. Instructors who have used this pedagogy note dramatic increases in classroom participation. Students who might otherwise have tried to become invisible when faced with a professor’s question about The Republic now use Plato’s ideas to vigorously discuss the merits of democracy. Professor Slater examines the nature of these classroom interactions and asks if they encourage true dialogue. We will revisit the topic of discussion and liberal arts education in the future, and invite you to share your thoughts on this important and ongoing issue. 

--Kathleen S. Wise, Editor  


Re-Inventing the Trivium: Debate, Dialogue—and Empathy
by Niall W. Slater
Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Latin and Greek
The Center for Humanistic Inquiry, Emory University;
President, Phi Beta Kappa Society

The seven liberal arts in the middle ages were divided into a naturalistic or scientific Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) and a humanistic Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic). The latter was meant to lead to true philosophical knowledge—but in the eyes of its critics often led only to empty schoolmen’s debates, from which arises our modern meaning of the "trivial." In the March 2005 issue of LiberalArtsOnline ("Is Debate Upstaging Dialogue?"), Richard Gunderman warns of a similar danger today, as the combative culture of popular media threatens to turn traditional Socratic dialogue into debates defending students’ pre-existing opinions. A fascinating test of the differences between debate and dialogue is offered by a new and rapidly growing paedagogical movement called "Reacting to the Past," which, intentionally or not, is reinventing the Trivium for the 21st century.

Winner of the 2004 Theodore M. Hesburgh Award from TIAA-CREF, "Reacting to the Past" aims to teach key historical events and texts by locating students in the original context. Developed by Mark C. Carnes of Barnard College, its strategy is to cast students as participating agents in extended role playing games built around episodes of historical decisions: Athens in 403 BC after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War, the French National Assembly during the Revolution, the Puritan church trying a dissident in Boston, or the Wanli Emperor’s succession crisis in 16th century China. More than a hundred faculty at a score of colleges and universities around the country now use "Reacting," and the ranks of those prepared to teach this approach to the past are growing through conferences in which faculty play speeded-up versions of the games as preparation for running their own courses.

Mark Carnes presents his method as a cure for the frustrations of the traditional Socratic approach to great historical texts. According to his aetiological narrative (Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 8, 2004*), his small and highly able classes at Barnard, when confronted with Plato’s Republic, were reluctant to discuss or express any views about this distant, monumental text. They felt disempowered. The professor was the expert, they were the novices, and the risk of saying something foolish seemed high. Carnes saw a radical disequilibrium of power between the expert professor and the novice students—although it might be more accurate to say that the text of the Republic itself, most unsocratically, had taken on the bullying role of expert. Carnes’ solution was to cast the students as participants in the dialogue and deliberation, requiring them to work up arguments for the various points of view, while withdrawing himself to a managing or "gamemaster" role.

The results, both at Barnard and elsewhere, have been impressive. While there are some initial hesitations (challenges in getting the students to take their roles seriously), most faculty and students report extremely high levels of engagement and often perfect attendance throughout the semester. Students read and re-read not just the major texts assigned (Plato’s Republic in the Athens game, Rousseau’s Social Contract for the French Revolution, Confucius’s Analects in China), but seek out new texts and sources as well. The student games involve significant writing (often in character: the French revolutionaries publish newspapers and pamphlets). Participants feel their writing and speaking skills improve sharply through these courses, though only the latter is so far verifiable. Although these results are certainly exciting, a significant question remains. Does "Reacting" serve a real liberal arts agenda, sufficiently privileging dialogue over debate?

I write this essay in the immediate aftermath of one of the "Reacting" conferences, where we played at revolution and talked extensively with both experienced instructors and student veterans of the games from multiple institutions. Hard-core historians will worry about historical accuracy. While the games carefully position students in key crises, the debates do not necessarily reach the same historical outcomes: Socrates often escapes execution in his trial (though Louis XVI is not usually so lucky), and the French National Assembly may punt by sending a delegation to study the Haitian slave rebellion rather than use military force to put it down. Our Assembly voted to allow all citizens into the National Guard—apparently including French women. Built-in post mortem sessions (a telling metaphor, at least for Louis?) are meant to clarify and reinforce the actual historical results, though these outcomes may be less exciting than the ones achieved in the games.

A more problematic issue may be the distinction between debate and dialogue in the games. Students strongly identify with their roles, so that contemporary political radicals defend the necessity of a French monarch or Jewish students argue the finer points of Christian theology in Puritan Boston. Instructors report students asking for help in finding more and more texts and evidence to support their characters’ views—but debating technique, especially improvisation (defined by Stephen Greenblatt in Renaissance Self-Fashioning as the subversive ability to perceive another’s reality as an ideological construct), counts for just as much as textual evidence.

A countervailing force to this tendency towards debate in most courses built on the "Reacting" paedagogy is the use of more than one game in each course. Instructors are encouraged to cast students in very different roles in the later game(s). For example, leading players become minor figures, revolutionaries change to reactionaries. Most importantly, all games include students cast as "indeterminates," historically characterized members present in the assemblies and councils who are not yet committed partisans. The lively variation in outcomes relies precisely on how these indeterminates respond to the pressures and persuasions around them. Arguably, then, the indeterminates may have a dialogic experience, but those cast in ideologically committed roles may learn more about debate.

One initially unexpected result, though now eagerly embraced by the proponents of "Reacting," has emerged from a long-term psychological study of participants in such courses. Students show an increase in emotional empathy, as compared to students who do not take such courses. Similarly, they are more likely to believe that human characteristics are malleable rather than fixed.

The key here lies in the fact that students do not choose the roles they play in the games. Rather, their fates are thrust upon them by the gamemaster, and even the most determined atheist cast as a clergyman in the French Revolution must find a way to defend a role for the church in the new state. Carnes speaks of his as a "liminal classroom." Though not specifically articulated as a rite of passage, participation in these games regularly forces students out of their pre-collegiate sense of self, at least for the duration, and requires them to operate out of a newly constructed, temporally and spatially alien identity. An influential theory of Greek tragedy holds that dancing in the chorus was a rite of passage for the young men of Athens (the "ephebes," typically aged 18-20), helping them break from their pre-adult identities by trying on a liminal, "other" role. Almost no Greek tragic choruses portrayed young warriors. Instead, they were regularly composed of old men, captive slave women, or refugees—identities sharply alien to both the young men playing the roles and the fully adult male citizens they were meant to become. Perhaps the games of "Reacting to the Past" are the ephebic choruses for our age.

The proponents of "Reacting to the Past" candidly point out the differences between the reactions of students participating in courses and those of the faculty who play the games at the conferences. Both the briefer compass of the games and the vantage of age allow the faculty to maintain some ironic distance from the historical fictions, something the students rarely experience. The challenge for using these games in a liberal arts curriculum lies both in helping the students eventually achieve such distance themselves and in giving them both the historical and, for want of a better term, philosophical tools for doing so. 

The power of "Reacting to the Past" to generate student interest is clear, and its benefits for oratorical skills well verified. Its use is likely to spread rapidly, which makes it all the more imperative that we consider carefully how to integrate this and similar paedagogies that privilege debate into our whole concept of the liberal arts. Is empathy enough? Or does emotional understanding of multiple positions exacerbate a broader tendency in undergraduate culture toward relativism? In liberal arts curricula increasingly dominated by skills rather than content, the "Reacting" approach offers yet more skills. When the Greek philosopher Carneades visited Rome in 155 BC, he demonstrated his prowess by giving a brilliant speech in favor of justice one day, followed by an equally brilliant speech the next showing that justice was a form of folly. Cato’s instinct was to expel all the philosophers from Rome. Ours must be to ensure that students do not stop with learning the skills of debate, but proceed to ask what the skills of debate are for.

* Article is accessible with Chronicle of Higher Education subscription.


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Over 50 Applicants to National Study of Liberal Arts Education

The Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts extends our thanks to the more than 50 institutions of higher education that applied for participation in the National Study of Liberal Arts Education. We are currently reviewing applications and will notify institutions of our decision by July 8. The first meeting with representatives from participating institutions will take place in August 2005 at the Center of Inquiry.

Researchers designed the National Study to help colleges and universities improve student learning and enhance the educational impact of their programs by gathering evidence about the effects of liberal arts education. Visit the website for more information or send questions to