|Interview with Three Students about the Great Connections Seminar|
July, 2009 and July, 2010
Q: I’m talking to Ivy Hood who is a senior at Hohonegah High School in Rockton, IL. She’s 17 and she’s been to the Great Connections Summer Seminar twice.
Ivy, tell me your thoughts about the Great Connections seminars.
I: In 2009, I had had a terrible year at school—I spent the whole year stressed out about all my classes and getting my work done. And I was dreading the seminar because I was thinking “I’m going to have to work again. This is summer and this is the time I’m supposed to take a break, I don’t want to be stressed out again.” And I was worried it was going to be a nerd camp.
Before the seminar, I was actually crying about going, saying “I don’t want to be stressed out again. I don’t even want to go back to school.” And then I went to the seminar and it was so interesting and different. It was so fun because we were experiencing knowledge in a way that was much more entertaining and interesting than what I was used to at school.
It definitely exceeded my expectations in every way. Now I rave about the conference all year to my friends.
At the seminars, you get to think about what you’re learning and why you’re learning it and relate it back to other things you’ve learned. But when you go to school you don’t really have that opportunity.
I have what’s called AP (Advanced Placement) Literature and Composition this year. I was really looking forward to it because I was thinking about the day at the seminar last summer when we talked about Emily Dickinson and it transformed my thinking about literature. I learned that day that poetry is not just about what the author thinks, it’s also about what the reader or audience get out of it.
In my AP class, we’re studying Dickinson, James Joyce and others, but there’s really no discussion whatsoever. We read the chapter and get a test on it, and maybe some brief background lesson. And that’s typical of all my classes.
It’s really disappointing and frustrating. I know a lot of people in my class are frustrated with it because they feel so unsure of what they’re thinking. It’s so much more assuring to talk things out and hear the logic and the reasoning of what you’re thinking and what other people are thinking. And then discover what you’re thinking is illogical or maybe it’s perfectly logical with what somebody else is thinking.
Without that in our school classroom, a lot of kids dread going into that class. They don’t have time to think and it’s really discouraging.
Q: You’re just taking in the material and spewing it out without really processing it.
I: I went in to the poetry seminar totally dreading that day. In school, I always think I have the right answer when I analyze poetry, and then find out that it’s wrong. I get so frustrated because I think I’m interpreting it correctly, but I find out I failed the test.
I was thinking I probably wasn’t even going to talk during that seminar day because I was probably going to be wrong about what I said. But I came out of that discussion realizing that what I think, as long as it’s logical and I have textual evidence to back up my thinking, like the way Emily put punctuation here, or word choice there, as long as it backs up what I’m thinking, it’s certainly logical, it’s a valid explanation.
I came into the discussion hating poetry and came out loving it!
Q: Ahh, that’s so nice to hear. So does this have any effect on you now when you’re working on poetry in school now?
I: Yes, definitely. I try to take the kind of critical thinking we did at the seminar and put it into my school work. Even if I don’t have anyone to discuss it with, I try to make sure I think about it. When we discussed Emily Dickinson in AP class, we had to do this project where we had each line into every day terms. I know a lot of kids were spending an hour on it, but I wanted to make sure everything I said was perfectly valid. So I wasn’t just spending an hour I was spending, I spent a lot more time.
Q: Did you notice if you had any other benefits from going to the seminar that stayed with you?
I: I think my favorite thing about the seminar is being around people who enjoy and take part in the same kind of thinking I like to do. Not only the students but the professionals in different fields we get to meet, like Joe and Diane Bast at the free market think-tank, the Heartland Institute, and clinician/researcher William Dale at the University of Chicago Medical School, and Dan Curran, head of a Chicago trading firm.
And we see the sights and sounds of Chicago. I realized that the people who I see and others see as successful, really successful have to take time and be careful and do what’s best. And to do that, you have to really think about what you’re doing. It’s not something you can just learn from a book, it’s something that comes with experience through the kind of critical thinking we’re learning to do at the seminar
It was really inspiring to know that people who were so high up in their professions had to do that as well. I know that our forefathers, the Founders of America, had to do that kind of thinking, it’s very inspiring to me to know that. It’s like “That could be me!” It’s kind of like a selfish motive. I think: “I’m going to be successful because I know how to think and reason and use logic this way.”
Q: That’s fantastic, that’s great, you got a validation of yourself,
Q: Were there any particular readings or ideas from the seminar that you enjoyed the most, and have found yourself thinking about?
I: The one last summer where we discussed the section of Plato’s Meno that talked about right opinion versus knowledge. We discussed the meanings of words—I think about that one all the time. I probably think about it most with either my society and culture class or my literature and composition class.
What happens is this: I might be reading something and then I stop to think about it and then I get this little light bulb in my head and I think “Oh maybe I should think about this unconventionally and maybe I’ll find something different.” Just thinking about the meanings of words and how you put them together.
Q: Was there anything else from the seminar that has affected you in the long run?
I: Actually, there is. We look at a lot of art when we’re at the seminar, whether literature or paintings or architecture. I took the way we learned to look at paintings or artwork and I apply that every day. I like to look at things that might seem everyday and common and see the extraordinary in them.
Q: Are you talking about the fact that we did a class in which you had to look at the artwork firsthand with no outside knowledge and you had to figure out what was going on in the painting and what was the meaning of the painting?
I: Right, and I try to do that with everyday common things. For example, if I’m in a part of Rockford I don’t go to as much and I see something I haven’t seen before, like a promotion sign for a store, I think things like: “So there’s a promotion sign for that store right there, why are they having a promotion? What were the financial decisions the store owners had to come to, what was the thinking process they had to come to, to decide they needed to have that promotion?
That’s just what I like to do, look at things in a less conventional way. I find you look at things every day and they’re not something you think about.
You take them for granted. And I like to take them out of that context and think about “What’s the purpose of it being here?” Why is it here, why isn’t it there. Why does it look this way?” “Why is it engineered that way?”
For example, there’s a smoke shop called "Puff-A-Lot" here in the Rockford area. And since I frown upon smoking, I was thoroughly surprised at the store name. I remember specifically thinking "what in the world could have possibly made the owners decide to call their store "Puff-A-Lot"? Doesn't that just make people think about the health risks that one takes when choosing to smoke? Doesn't that just sound gross?" That was how my brain made connections with the sign. Because I was asking myself why, I came up with some possibilities: maybe there's a large smokers market in this area; maybe the education in this area isn't as focused on health as mine was, hence Puff-A-Lot actually sounds cool or attractive to the kind of customers the owners were expecting; maybe they're marketing to the younger or even minor crowd, hence they picked a "cool" name that minors or young adults might respond to.
I: I know it’s a little weird, I actually feel kind of giddy from trying to think about things like that. And it makes me a little bit happy,
Q: Because it makes you feel empowered?
I: Yeah, I feel like I’ve seen something that maybe not everybody else sees, like maybe I’ve found out a secret.
Q: Sure, you’re discerning a depth to things that other people take for granted, and you’re ‘asking “why, why, why.” You’ve become so active in how you’re thinking about things.
I: Yes, that’s something I learned from the seminar.
Q: That’s fantastic, I can’t tell you how great it makes me feel to hear this, it sure does, because, Ivy, this is exactly what we’re trying to do in the seminar.
I: That’s great. I know that you’re trying to encourage this kind of thinking in every day life, including trying to figure out why you think things and if the way you think things is better than another way. I definitely want to take all these things and put them into my every day life. I really want to improve myself that way.
Q: Is there anything else you want to share about the seminar?
I: Yes, the bonds you make with people there, like the people that you meet, not just the kids you hang out with and you talk to 24 x 7, but with the people that you meet, with the city of Chicago itself. There’s a connection there, like with William Dale and Jonathan Hoenig, I feel there’s a connection to something bigger.
I’m trying to get a couple of my friends to come to the seminar this year, so if there’s anyone listening to this and is interested in going to the seminar, I say “Do it.” It’s such a different perspective; it’s such a great feeling to feel a connection to the world around you in such a bigger, different way.
Interview with Brendan Moore about the Great Connections Summer Seminars, July 2009 and July 2010
Q: Brendan Moore is 18 and a senior at Naperville North High School in Illinois. He has attended the Great Connections seminar twice.
Can you tell us a little bit about your experience at the seminar and any thoughts you’ve had about it since then?
B: It’s sort of like an explosion. The first time around it was an entirely new experience for me. We read difficult texts from famous authors like Aristotle and James Madison and Ayn Rand and we weren’t being told what to take from the authors. Instead, we had to try to figure out what we thought they said ourselves by carefully discussing them with each other.
I’d never been asked to think on my own but together with a group, and ask questions of each other. I had to come to grips with trying to learn together rather than accepting some kind of knowledge top-down.
And the second time I was comfortable with the group setting so I was learning more about how to be comfortable with my own learning abilities. Not only was I learning about philosophy and history and psychology and science, but I was having a transformative experience. I was learning about myself and learning about myself allowed me to grow even more.
I’d never really had that kind of experience before and I had it twice and each time it was radically different—and that’s the whole point.
Q: How did it help you learn about yourself?
B: I was thrown into the action of it and I was asked to defend my positions and to ask more questions of other people and myself.
It was this meditative process too, especially during the reading. I was alone with myself and the authors, who were long dead, which was being alone with myself and a reflection of myself, which was a really fascinating experience. Because I had to find out what I really believed and why I believed it and whether or not that should change. I hadn’t had to do that in an educational environment before.
So I learned more about how I already learned. I had to question the foundations of that. I was learning how I was at the time and I was also growing and I was learning about how I was growing and I had no idea where that was going from that and in large part I still don’t know but I think that’s part of the growth. You learn more about yourself that way. You see some flaws and some strengths.
By asking me these basic yet complex questions about the outside world, I had to retreat inward and I had to really analyze who I was and why I believed certain things and how I came to certain conclusions and whether they were valid or not. So it was very meta-cognitive.
Q: At the same time as you were learning information or ideas from the texts we were studying, you were learning all about yourself and how you thought and learned – is that what you meant?
B: Yes, exactly. It’s a dual process. You’re getting a second education in education. You’re learning how you learn and you’re learning how other people learn and you’re comparing those. You have to be able to communicate with other people, because everybody learns differently and you have to be able to translate your experience into other people’s experience—and that really challenges you. You have to update your methods and others have to update theirs.
It was a really exhilarating experience.
Q: Did you find any other sorts of benefits?
B: I learned to be a closer reader, because I’d never had my reading abilities questioned. I’d never actually examined how I read. I was used to reading and taking notes about minor details.
But, at the seminar, I got into the habit of reading the texts through and trying to immerse myself in the writing, particularly during the second seminar.
I would spend the whole night up until the early hours of the morning examining these texts I’d never thought I’d find interesting. The process was really exciting—I was learning how to read all over.
That doesn’t sound that profound, but it is because you’re finding out how to engage with the written word, and finding out how you can comprehend new and different lessons in older language. And then, applying it later on, questioning your own assumptions.
Q: And you’re interested in being a writer and were there any particular benefits to writing?
B: Yes, I had my abilities to understand different ideas in different wording challenged. Again that sounds really simplistic but when it comes to writing, it’s incredibly important. As a writer I need to analyze things from different perspectives and not be afraid to question myself, not have this great terror about being wrong about something.
So, in sum, I learned not to feel bad about the flaws in my learning abilities, reading abilities and writing abilities. I gained a lot more confidence, because the whole point of human existence is not to be right all the time but to be able to grow, because omniscience is not a requirement but growth is.
Q: Have you found any particular long term effect from this not being afraid to be wrong?
B: Yes, and I think other people have noticed it too. I’m a lot more confident in my discussions and I don’t have this emotional tendency to “attack” anymore. I used to be afraid of being wrong so I’d be a lot more aggressive but now I’m much more interested in what other people have to say.
I see it as this mutually beneficial interaction. Because if I’m wrong and they’re correct, I gain. The only place I can go is up. And if they’re wrong and I’m correct, I still get something out of it. I gain another perspective or I see another way my views can be tested. I’m stronger in my views. I have more of an incentive to be objective and to really question my assumptions. It’s less about my emotional security and more about my ability to grow as a person.
I think my classmates, teachers, and friends have really noticed that in discussion. I’m much more open to people and they’re more open with me.
Q: Did you happen to notice if any very particular effect like when you go to the DMV or deal with a clerk at a store?
B: I think I’m a lot more patient and respectful, and I demand a lot more respect in return. I’m patient with people who are having difficulty because I’ve been there and I sympathize with them. But if someone’s not being patient with me, I don’t give them the time of day. I’m more focused on people who want to cooperate.
This happens in intellectual discussions, and it happens when I’m at the store getting a rain check. If they’re being impatient with me, I say, “Can I talk to someone else.” But if they’re having difficulties, I have sympathy because I know what they’re going through. I have a lot more camaraderie with my fellow human beings. I want them to do well because I know if they do well, I’ll do well. My attitude is a lot less competitive than before, because it’s not about wanting others to fail.
I have friends with whom I’m really competitive, but it’s a healthy competition. We want each other to succeed because that just raises the bar higher too, it’s more exhilarating.
Perhaps the best example is from my philosophy club, SOS (Society for Objectivist Studies). We had a Muslim visitor recently, right when we were discussing faith versus reason. On almost every point, she would throw out her opinion, unsupported, without any kind of explanation. When asked for her reasons, she would say, "Well, it's my opinion."
I pointed out to her that she can't expect to have any kind of constructive discussion with people if all she does is give them unjustified and inexplicable assertions.
Then I asked her question after question about her views on faith, prodding her to go to new levels. I didn't even realize I was doing it. This girl is a pretty good friend of mine, so she knew me well enough to know that's what I do: ask questions.
She couldn't explain a lot of what she said, something which frustrated me but I got a sort of experiential reward out of it: I got to see how she thinks.
It was marvelous; she wasn't offended, she wasn't angry, and she and I are just as friendly as we were before, if not more. I think that came out of my willingness to demand a purpose for everything she said and did—and, simultaneously, my respect, patience, and benevolence. I saw her as another human being—a thinking person—not some kind of obstacle in an argument that I had to win.
Q: Has it had any effect on how you’re working in school?
B: Definitely. I’m much more willing to question not only myself but others. If someone makes an assertion then I question them, I say “Why do you believe this, why is this so?”—not because I don’t like this person or I want to attack them, I may not even know them—but because I ‘m interested, I want to know, “If I’m wrong are you right? I didn’t think this before, but do you have a reason?”
And that really startles people especially in the traditional educational system because they’re not really prepared to look at they’re not really prepared for someone to come in and question the validity of the whole system.
Rather, everything’s set up in work sheets, in class periods, to work within a specific structure and sometimes life doesn’t fit the planned-out structure. You have to revise and the people in the school are afraid about doing that. The structure is essentially bureaucratic and it would take some effort to revise.
I feel I’ve really improved my ability to think. I can approach problems adaptively and that really helps me in my humanities courses, especially when teachers are willing to engage with new ideas or new approaches.
But it’s a bugbear with my teachers who want to do a top down approach and teach straight from the text books or straight from their own beliefs because I don’t understand why I just have to assume what they’re saying. So, the way I learned to question things and demand reasons has both improved my education and given me new challenges.
Q: Have you found any long term effect from any of the content we used?
B: There were two logical fallacy games and an axiom game. The logical fallacy game really, really helped me because I’m able to assess arguments with objectivity now. I consider whether or not I’m making some kind of simple logical error that could be avoided or corrected and I’m really happy to find those errors and correct them. And the axiom game was rather similar.
Also, I really loved our professional excursions where we could speak to people who were implementing the philosophy and ideas that we had read about. Not only was it a great break from the constant reading and the constant discussion, which was great but exhausting, but it was also a great time to see that “Wow, this all has a point to it. It isn’t just some kind of ivory tower kind of thing but it’s something that takes place in the working world.”
And I think one that really touched me, was a trip to the Art Institute, after we had had a session on analyzing art. I went to the Institute by myself during free time and I just, looked at all these different works of art. I evaluated what they were in ways I hadn’t really done before. I questioned these different styles of art, asking “Why does that matter,” and “Why is the institute even here?”
It was really empowering. This is entirely the best learning experience that I’ve ever had and I don’t know if I’ll have one as good as this again, at least in a group setting.
I think this is the only way to learn—doing it by yourself but with others. Not being forced to conform to a standard, but cooperating with people spontaneously, working off of each other, bouncing ideas back and forth. Having that sense of friendly competition. Also, being really serious about doing the reading and engaging the authors of the classics, using them to bounce ideas off of others and finding out more about yourself while you do so.
It’s so wonderful to be able to meet other people and tire each other out with endless questions and be able to annoy each other so much by asking too many questions that you know are good points but, my god, it’s 2 in the morning and we’ve been going at this a long time, but it’s great because you know you’ve gotten somewhere. You know that you’re clearing away the rubble in your mind and you’re starting afresh.
I think this has to continue and there has to be more of this, if we want there to be any kind of learning in the future—if we want society to go forward at all. I know this has been one of the most rewarding parts of my life these two summers, these seminars. Often one of the most tiring but it’s a good tiring, it’s hard work and I’ve never thought that hard work could be so rewarding and so enjoyable even in the moment.
It’s the best money ever spent and it’s the best time I’ve ever had. I’ve made some of the greatest friends I think I will ever have because of the questions we ask each other and because we just never really stopped—it’s a great feeling. I hope somehow it will continue to happen for other people, and for me.
Q: Thanks Brendan.
Q: Liz is 22 and just graduated in economics from George Mason University in Arlington, VA. She attended the Great Connections seminar in July of 2009. Liz, what were your thoughts about your experience at the seminar and any long-term effects?
L: When I came back home I was so excited to read, to get my hands on books, and try to find someone to talk about them with..
During my normal classes we read books and we write papers on them, but we never discuss them and we never feed off of each other’s ideas or see how others arrived at a conclusion that maybe we didn’t find, so that was very exciting. That was one of the best parts of the seminar, doing just that.
I can’t describe how fun it was or how excited I was just to feel that connection over reading something with someone and sharing ideas. I never get a chance to do that in my daily life or in school or in work. That was really precious to me.
When my college classes started last fall, they were just a big disappointment.
Q: So by working together, collaborating, is enjoyable because you’re feeding off each other. One person thinks of an idea and then connects with what somebody else thinks. Is that what happens?
L: Yes, I think those were my favorite moments. Sometimes we’ll be reading something nobody understands. For example, we were reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics onThe Principle of Non-Contradiction and we spent so long on just the first sentence, we were going crazy—and then, all of a sudden, someone said something that made it all clear, and I thought “Yes, that’s exactly what I understand it to mean!”
When two people find that same common understanding, that same interpretation of words that someone else wrote hundreds of years ago, that’s so precious and it’s so valuable and you hardly ever get that moment of understanding with anybody.
Q: It sounds like the atmosphere is different, too, instead of feeling like you’re in competition with others, you’re collaborating, trading, exchanging values.
L: Definitely, there’s no upstaging one another or seeing who knows the most. The way you gauge someone is not whether they get all the answers right because the questions you’re asking don’t necessarily have an answer. It’s more how do you interpret this word or sentence or paragraph, or what does that mean.
There’s not that fear of being wrong. No matter what you put forward, it can contribute to someone else’s understanding. It makes discussing books and ideas less scary and more fun, it’s really exciting.
Q: This way of thinking about things, has it had any effect on you this last year, on your relationships, or the way you’ve gone about thinking about things or about learning anything since then? Did your understanding of any of the seminar readings influence the way you have been thinking about things?
L: Usually when I do readings for a class I’m really good at finding what’s important or mostly what we will get tested on, highlighting that section and moving on.
Q: Do you find that there was any way that you have been concretely or practically implementing either the ideas from the content of the seminar or its method?
L: Definitely. For example, in one session we broke down this current events article about globalization. And I realized that everyone’s ignorant about something, but what the seminar taught me was that no matter what text I have in front of me, or what my knowledge on a subject, I can understand something that the author or speaker is trying to say. I can interpret it from their words. I don’t need to do a lot of research and consult a lot of experts. I can use my reason, and their words and the text and find my own opinion, and their opinion, and move from there. It was so empowering just to know I can figure out these difficult words.
It might take me awhile and I might quibble over the meaning of one sentence for a while, but once I’m done analyzing it, it’s such a sense of relief and satisfaction. You don’t feel like anything can fool you.
Q: So when you are reading the words of some political candidate, you feel like you can understand more exactly where they’re coming from and you can make a judgment about it?
L: When I’m reading something about politics, I can take things to their logical conclusion, following the logic, see if they’re contradicting themselves. I can see what they’re trying to say on my own—it makes a big difference.
Q: I know you’ve just graduated and you’re looking for a job. Did anything we did influence what you’re doing in your interviews, or how you’re talking to people, or what you’re looking for in work?
L: We did a career-building exercise at the seminar where we gave a presentation about what we thought our future career goals would be to the group. Mine have changed a lot since then.
I’m usually really shy and timid and I’m really reluctant to contribute to people I don’t know, to strangers. I’m terrified of them. But being in this group of really passionate people who you knew only cared about the ideas, and wouldn’t judge you for your GPA or what school you went to made me more self-confident because when I raised my voice and decided to contribute and participate, when I gave ideas, they were well-received and people were excited by them. It made me feel better—that I do have something worthy and valuable to think and say.
So now, when I go into my interviews I’m not shy and timid and not confident about what I have to offer. And I think that I can contribute good work and I’m productive. I think “Not only do I have technical skills, I have a brain. I can analyze texts, no matter what it is, I can figure it out. Even if I’m ignorant on the subject.”
It does wonders for me to have gone from someone who’s so shy and quiet to someone who feels really confident about what she has to offer.
And an example of how it’s helped me is my experience at the IHS [Institute for Humane Studies] seminar “Liberty and Leviathan: Policy from the Libertarian Perspective” I went to last summer. The people attending the HIS seminar were really intimidating, these political science guys. They went to Harvard or MIT or they were graduate students, and I just got my undergraduate degree. I was a puny nobody.
But in discussion groups I realized I had something to say and even though I don’t know this economist or that philosopher or this theorem, I can still understand the sequence of ideas, I have logic, whatever policy issue; I can form an opinion on it.
I normally wouldn’t able to speak up with these people who are highly educated and well-read, but I was able to not be self-conscious about myself.
And maybe sometimes I would say something wrong, I would make a silly mistake in reasoning. But because you’re willing to step in and stick your neck out, people respect that vulnerability too; they don’t really want to push you down. So that was encouraging.
Q; You felt that you were their cognitive equals, even though they might know more about political science, or went to a college that was rated higher—that didn’t matter, you could reason with the best of them?
L: I often found that a lot of their ideas I didn’t agree with, that they were just wrong, these people from a better school or with a higher degree. Or maybe they were just following the ideas of their teachers or maybe some intellectual they like, and they really didn’t have good reasons for what they said.
You could tell who really pays attention to the fundamental ideas, who knows the principles. And I have felt the same thing talking in my economics classes this year or with people about economics. If you know basic fundamentals, you can understand so much about the world with just a basic econ course. I felt that’s the same with other subjects when I’m talking to other people, after taking the seminar because we have the same tools.
I feel like something I say can inspire somebody to think of something even greater. It changes that dynamic completely.
Q: Do you think you’ll be able to use this ability when you’re making practical decisions, like making investments or taking care of your kids?
L: Yes. More than just understanding a text, you understand how you think, what drives you, your thinking pattern and it helps you make decisions.
One of the biggest things we do today is try to consult someone else when we should be making our own decisions. What does the leading expert say about this, which stocks should I invest in, what school should I go to, or should I go to grad school now or start working. There are so many opinions out there and everybody seems to think they know what’s best for you.
For example, I was really set on going to grad school and joining academia, but I realized that’s not my best path for now. I have all these influences telling me to do one thing or another, and it takes a lot of discipline to listen to just your reasoning and your drive and decide what’s best for you.
I’m able to do that now because I’m not so insecure about my ability to make decisions for myself and feel responsible for the consequences.
The entire seminar was such a wonderful experience, I keep wanting to have more experiences like that again with a group of people.
Q: Well, you’ll have to come again!
L: I know, I want to!
Q: Thank you.