Everyone knows that something is wrong with education in the United States, but no one agrees about what it is. Explanations of our difficulties—driven by one agenda or another—fall as fast and thick as snowflakes in a blizzard, and with a blinding effect.
Some years ago, I asked myself a question: if we wanted to learn or to teach, stripping away our presuppositions of what is truly necessary—degrees, grades, credits, buildings, or campuses—what would we see as the essential core? When we get down to brass tacks: what is education about?
My thinking led me first to joining the faculty in the innovative Great Books program at St. John’s College in Annapolis, and then to founding a new supplementary institute for adult and non-traditional learners, the Catherine Project. The Catherine Project seeks to restore learning for its own sake, as fed by our natural passions for the most important human questions, and to make such learning available to anyone who desires it.
Most of us these days think of education as job training. It is true that we all need various skills, and there are various ways of acquiring them. But education, properly speaking, is about becoming a fuller human being, with powers, habits, and forms of excellence, whatever is needed to take on whatever life brings. Adam Smith himself thought that education providing true human development—beyond what the market demands—was essential for a functioning human community. Smith judged that such education could not survive by the laws of the market. Independent support from the state or from philanthropy would be necessary.
What does human development look like? In an oral culture, we learn directly from our elders. The preservation of writing expands the reach of our elders. In a given language or region, writings form traditions, conversations of great depth and breadth that take place over centuries. Mass translation opens up to readers the whole panoply of human culture and its traditions, speculations on the natural world, as well as reflections on life. Anyone can bring their own burning questions to these conversations.
In principle, to learn in this way one needs only a book and some time. In practice, we are greatly aided by conversations with fellow readers and guidance from experienced mentors, who have traveled a bit further down the same path and can see the landscape with a bit more clarity.
If a person seeks education in this simple form—books, fellow travelers, and mentors—they’d be hard pressed to find it these days. It exists in upper level courses and graduate programs in various fields at many universities. But it goes unadvertised and the way to it is largely unmarked. I found it myself by chance, in an age more hospitable to liberal learning, by landing at the unique Great Books program at St. John’s College as an undergraduate, and then stumbling into graduate school in classics and philosophy.
Mathematics and science also originate in books: in the writings of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Darwin, and their ancient forebears. Finding a way to study these books is even more difficult than the rest of the classics of the great traditions. We set up a great opposition between STEM and the humanities, forgetting that theoretical speculation—sometimes even more than practical endeavor—has driven our understanding of the world.
When I first began writing and thinking about education in 2015, we said that the humanities were “in crisis.” It is fair to say that the crisis has progressed, with the closing of multiple institutions and departments across the whole landscape of higher education in the United States. We can now speak with honesty about the collapse of the humanities.
Again, explanations for the collapse are a dime a dozen. But consider a simple possibility: our classrooms have grown too big for effective teaching. Colleges and universities are chained by economies of scale. As the years and decades go by, administrators pack more and more students into every classroom, in a vain attempt to maximize tuition revenue—while ignoring huge expenditures on administration and the obligatory team of consultants.
As class size goes up, educational quality goes down. Without substantive interaction with teachers and fellow learners, the classroom loses its guiding purpose. Shakespeare is pure joy to discuss in a small group; let someone drone on about the plays from an altitude of five hundred feet, and watch boredom descend like an iron curtain. Someone has to grade those sixty, or eighty, or two hundred students; the only way to make it work is to make the assignments less challenging and easier to fake.
If I want my child to learn karate, or the piano, I do not send them into a large lecture classroom to memorize bullet points in exchange for an obligatory A-. I find a living, human teacher who will demonstrate the forms of excellence in their fields, and who will give my child real-time feedback, encouragement, and correction, calibrated to the student’s unique starting points and unique goals.
We all know that real teaching has the form of personal mentoring. Yet these days one is very lucky to find it outside of the extracurriculars—athletics, art, music, and dance—or apart from the highest levels of training at research universities. Our educational institutions do not foster mentors, and indeed, their structures are hostile to them. The thousands of wonderful and caring teachers who still mentor their students do so only through an enormous expense of personal resources, in time, energy, ingenuity, and passive resistance to institutional pressures.
The advent of the internet has allowed mass education to be tested in many dimensions. Its possibilities continue to be honed and perfected, and its horrors displayed with luminous clarity. So far as the content is concerned, it is hard to see how an average professor in a large lecture hall can compete with a well-designed video class. The university becomes a cartel for credits and credentials which seem increasingly arbitrary. Yet, there is a dark side to the online forms of mass education. The student becomes an anonymous spectator.. The substantive feedback that comes from interaction is gone. All teaching becomes “content,” as if content could ever be properly separated from human intention, purpose, and motivation.
Mass education is valuable in its place: well-curated and designed pedagogy, freely available to those with few resources, can make skills available where they would not be otherwise. But as a substitute for learning, it is a colossal disaster, just as if karate, piano, and soccer were taught exclusively by online video. I believe this disaster is widespread, extending through mathematics, science, and professional fields. But I focus on what I know best: literature and philosophy, core disciplines in the humanities.
What are literature, philosophy, and history for? Such studies transmit habits of reading, thinking, and writing. They preserve modes of reflection on the basic questions of human life and its place in the natural world. As such, they have no determinate “content” that waits to be “provided” or “accessed.”
We can put together the best databases for the humanities in the world, but they are worthless without a human being with the habits, skills, and virtues to use them. The point of such material is to aid individuals in gathering insights into the human questions. But as individuals with the training to do so diminish, so does the fruitful use of the data, content, and other resources.
As the age of Covid and video-conferencing has displayed, the internet need not only be a space for mass education. It can also open up realms of person-to-person interaction in a manner and on a scale that has not been imagined since the age of the correspondence course. It is in the Covid moment, then, that new visions for rescuing the humanities come to light.
I founded the Catherine Project in the summer of 2020, when we were all in between long lockdowns, and when online learning seemed here to stay. The Catherine Project provides online person-to-person education at a high level for anyone who is motivated and interested. Our courses are based on the Great Books and the traditions in which they find a home. A Great Book, unlike a YouTube video or a pre-digested and spoon-fed lecture course, trains readers to think for themselves. The online communities we build put interested readers in touch with the senseis, maestros, guides, and mentors they need to make their way in pursuing the great human questions.
Since the best video interactions take place on a small scale, our signature tutorials are very small. Four readers meet weekly with a PhD holder or equivalent for twelve weeks, with readings from a stretch of canonical texts. We began with Homer, Aeschylus, and Plato; we have continued with Virgil, Ovid, and Dante, along with Montaigne, Aristotle, Thucydides, and Euclid. We hope to offer tutorials on books from the modern area; from the Chinese or Indian traditions; and to increase our coverage of the great works of mathematics and science.
The intensity of our tutorials may be daunting to beginners, and we want to train free readers to find their own resources to learn without depending on credentialed experts. Accordingly, we also offer a large slate of reading groups on various texts and authors, from the Russian novels to the comedies of Aristophanes to Bergson to Kierkegaard. These groups are peer-led by young people experienced in leading open-ended and serious conversations, where everyone at the table matters. We keep these conversations a bit bigger, aiming at eight to ten readers.
I ran the Catherine Project for one year out of my Twitter account, advertising groups on books and topics and drawing on volunteers from my academic network. We had no budget and no expenditures, and managed to serve 120 unique readers.
In our first semester, one of our reading groups started out with Kafka’s The Trial and wanted a few more readers to take up the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard’s massive and dense Either/Or. I put out a call on Twitter: who wants to read Kierkegaard on Saturday evenings? I needed three or four readers. I got about one hundred. I scrambled to find willing leaders for them. One Kierkegaard group became five; the groups ran all winter and some into the following summer. A Kierkegaard participant wrote to me: “Life now feels more vibrant and laden with meaning.”
One of our volunteer tutors disappeared part way through our first term, without anyone informing me. The readers were undaunted. They continued meeting every week, reading through the Iliad and the Odyssey, from their homes in Montreal, Nairobi, and Dubai. One of them wrote to me later: “The Catherine Project is an oasis, it has opened doors and windows.”
Now we have built a simple institutional foundation, designed for basics and basics only, with 501(c)3 status pending, a staff director, and a webpage. We have continued to expand our offerings and our readership as we go..
We do not charge fees to our readers and plan never to do so. Rather, we encourage our participants to donate in accordance with their means and as befits the quality of their experience. We hope that the breadth and depth of our vision for education will also attract philanthropists who share our concerns for the future of liberal learning and its lasting availability to ordinary people of all walks of life.
The elements of an intellectual adventure are simple: a book, a guide, some fellow travelers, and a space in which to talk. The Catherine Project seeks to restore that simplicity, to extract the core of learning from the credentialing machinery that has been stealing its oxygen. Learning for its own sake lives! If the readers of the Catherine Project have anything to say about it, it will live forever.