An Opportunity for “Serious Conversations on Great Books” (guest post)


“I hatched a dream of a zeal-driven education that might be offered with no strings attached to anyone who was interested. But the logistics of it flummoxed me…”

In the following guest post*, Zena Hitz of St. John’s College discusses the Catherine Project, an intitiative she recently launched to bring free tutorials and reading groups on classic works of philosophy, poetry, and literature to interested adults.


The Catherine Project
by Zena Hitz

No grades, no fees, no credits, no degrees — 
Know books; know one another; know thyself.

The Catherine Project seeks volunteers with PhDs or other in-depth intellectual experience to lead tutorials for a new adult-education program based on reading and discussing great books. Our groups are open to anyone free of cost. Our tutorials are capped at four readers, with weekly short writing assignments.  We consider our readers to be driven independently by their own questions. We mentor readers in developing their own thinking and reading. We frequently teach outside our areas of expertise, which lends our conversations spontaneity and an open-ended character. Our faculty join the classroom as full participants rather than detached managers or content providers.

In addition to our tutorials, we also run peer-led reading groups on various books or topics. These groups are larger–we aim at eight to ten readers—and are more flexible as to their length and structure.  We welcome volunteer group-leaders, especially those experienced in serious conversations on great books, conversations which draw in each person at the table and which follow no fixed agenda.

The Catherine Project offers neither credits nor degrees. We believe that the personal feedback given by a trusted mentor is more valuable than any grade, especially for those discouraged by mainstream education. At the moment, all of our offerings are online, via Zoom. We are a non-profit organization and are supported exclusively by individual donations and grants.

Readers are welcome from all walks of life and educational backgrounds; register for our mailing list here.

Prospective volunteers can write to us here.

Below, for those interested, is the story of our origins.

For some years after getting my PhD, I taught philosophy at large public universities. I loved the openness and hospitality of the public classroom. You never knew who would turn up or what philosophy might mean to them. Over time, however, I became disillusioned with what I’d call “classroom management”. The assigning of grades largely determined what I could teach and so what my students could learn. I didn’t judge my students for this. Since the days when I was a new graduate, armed with overconfidence and a patchy transcript, graduate and professional programs have become more exacting and less inclined to take risks.

Grades mattered, I had to give them, and I couldn’t give too many bad ones. Nor could I spend my days and nights grading multiple complex assignments for sixty to ninety students. My assignments became regimented and boring. Class time, too, became regimented, to ensure that students knew what they had to know. There was no point in reading papers too carefully—the students wouldn’t read the comments anyway, and went straight for the grade. Again, I recognized myself in them. I remembered how intoxicating grades were, and how they took my focus off of learning as much as I could because I wanted to.

The most intellectually alive places I had been had not assigned grades, or had de-emphasized them. Without a grade, you were free to work as hard you wanted, in the way you wanted, past a certain threshhold. It was not a coincidence that both of these institutions were also personal: the teachers knew the students, and looked after their education, advising, mentoring, and modeling habits for them, rather than regurgitating content.

When I returned to teach at my undergraduate liberal arts college, where grades were deemphasized, my reflections were confirmed. Without having to grade an assignment, I can press a high-achieving student to think harder, without an A for them to rest in. More importantly, I can encourage, and so actually teach, the many students who think with imagination and clarity but who communicate poorly on paper. Doling out B’s or C’s tells such students—falsely—that it is a waste of their time to study philosophy. Without grades, one can engage with such students as thinkers. Socrates himself shows that philosophical thinking need not involve writing.

When I was still a research professor, I had the time to explore other outlets. I was particularly interested in prison education, and taught two philosophy courses to the incarcerated. Those classes confirmed my suspicion that there were many, many people interested in philosophy, who would enjoy and benefit from a class on (say) Plato’s Republic, who were not conventional college-goers.

I hatched a dream of a zeal-driven education that might be offered with no strings attached to anyone who was interested. But the logistics of it flummoxed me. How could one have a public university either rich or lean enough to make regular mentoring possible, and with it the personal feedback that might replace grades? How could one open up something as expensive as a liberal arts college to everyone? How could one find the people in a mid-sized American city who wanted to spend an evening a week in a coffee shop talking about Homer? They were there, doubtless—but how could one find them and draw them out?

The growth of the internet did not, at first blush, shrink these difficulties. Access to educational material was thrown wide open—but without any capacity for meaningful feedback. Could one learn karate or piano from watching videos? Perhaps. But the best teaching passes on habits in which individual distinctions can flower into forms of excellence. Such a process requires sensitivity to the individual, one-on-one feedback, and calibrated correction and encouragement.

I argue in Lost in Thought that learning for its own sake is a basic human need, a part of human flourishing. The intellectual lives of ordinary people are not side-concerns, but centrally important to higher education. Once the book appeared, I received many emails from non-academic readers thanking me for affirming them in their zeal for study. Many of these letters sought my advice: “I want to read seriously, and think about fundamental questions. How do I begin?”

These letters disturbed me. What could I say? I knew that what these prospective learners needed was community—people to read with, and people to mentor and advise them. I knew also how difficult such community was to find.

Lost In Thought came out in May 2020, in the first round of Covid. Like other teachers and professors, I was struggling with online classes. I noticed that the person-to-person video interactions were closer to real meetings than larger gatherings. It dawned on me that video conferencing could provide a beginning for the sort of education that I had been looking for all these years. For all of its weaknesses, the internet now makes it possible to build intellectual communities that are both personal and open to a wide swathe of humanity.

I ran the Catherine Project for a year without a budget, out of my Twitter account, drawing on my former students for reading group leaders and my academic network for volunteer tutors. This fall, we serve 130 unique readers in 7 tutorials, 10 reading groups, with additional tutorials in Latin and biblical Hebrew. We have a grant, a board, an executive director, a website, and a pending application for 501(c)3 status. It is an exciting time for us. Come and read with us, volunteer with us, or donate to us, as you wish and as you can!

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Shay Allen Logan
1 month ago

This is an amazing project with noble goals. The only part about it that worries me is the seemingly exclusive emphasis on great books. I don’t know if the plan is to retain this focus or if it’s an artifact of the network Prof. Hitz was starting with. If the latter, no worries; after all, you gotta start somewhere. If the former, I’m a bit concerned that this emphasis makes the project exclusionary in unhelpful ways.

I suspect, based on mostly-friendly sparring I’ve done with Prof. Hitz on twitter in the past, that the truth is somewhere in the middle. But I’d really love to hear about this issue, since I’m otherwise quite high on what’s being offered here.Report

Zena Hitz
Zena Hitz
Reply to  Shay Allen Logan
1 month ago

Thank you for your interest and for your question! I don’t think that the focus on great books is exclusionary. Of course, in most of history, literacy is reserved to the rich. We take our inspiration from the many grassroots movements of the 19th to 20th century where working people of every stripe sought to educate themselves with old books. The tools and signs of the powerful can be used by the powerless too! I recommend Jonathan Rose, Readers Liberation, on this. ZenaReport

Shay Allen Logan
Reply to  Zena Hitz
1 month ago

Wait, are we talking Great Books or great books? If the former, I can’t see how it can fail to be exclusionary. (After all, there are hosts of traditions, cultures, and fields of inquiry that are utterly absent from the Great Books.) If the latter, I’ve still got worries, based on how the term is delineated. Are there great books on computer science? On linguistics proper?

Even putting that aside, there’s a worry that remains. I feel like a focus on Great Books (and, on most interpretations, on great books) is exclusionary in another way: there just *are* folks who don’t find that particular way of digging in to fundamental questions to be the most productive way to proceed. Pretending this isn’t the case has always struck me as odd, as has the insistence that there are questions that just can’t be dug in to in any other way.

Perhaps some background helps: I grew up dirt poor in Nowhere Western Montana (If you wanna see on google maps where Nowhere actually is, it’s halfway between Paradise and St. Regis on Highway 135.) I did my undergrad degree at Gonzaga University largely by reading Great Books (though there was no official Great Books program). After college I ended up briefly working at a used book store. While there, I read Ayer, then Popper, then Lakatos, then Kuhn, and then kept going. And throughout I was just floored: Here were all these ideas I’d struggled to even start to grasp while an undergrad, just being laid out there in clear, readable, intuitive ways. It was a revelation! Philosophy could be understood by people like me and done in the kind of sentences I actually knew how to use!

I would almost certainly have stayed in math if it weren’t for that. All that to say that I really didn’t understand how to think about fundamental questions until I *stopped* reading Great Books, and started just reading books (and papers).

This is too long already, but I’ll end by emphasizing that I think what you’re doing is dope. And I think there’s an audience that will benefit immensely from it. But I think there’s more folks who would benefit from something that studied maybe just some Ok Books (or perhaps even mere ok books) as well.Report

Aaron Goldbird
Aaron Goldbird
Reply to  Shay Allen Logan
1 month ago

I am totally on board for an Average Books program though I think it’s funny how we interpret the Greats. I would have thought Ayer, Popper, Lakatos and Kuhn were the Greats. Reminds me of the time I casually referred to Austin’s How to Do Things with Words as a minor classic only to be pulled up by my Dad (a linguist) who insisted that it is an unqualified capital-C Classic. Maybe, to paraphrase Austin, it is time we got past the Great and instead focus on the sweet, sloppy, tight, weird or wild.Report

Zena Hitz
Zena Hitz
Reply to  Shay Allen Logan
1 month ago

Thank you so much for the dope reply. I think great books are usually parts of traditions (books which rely on or respond to other books) and those traditions are the best objects of study. I consider any tradition (including Chinese, Indian, Islamic, Latin American, African American, etc. ) to be fair game for the Catherine Project, and we welcome volunteers to teach in those traditions.

As for those who don’t find this particular way of digging into fundamental questions helpful — that’s not a worry for me! Opting out of the Catherine Project is even easier than opting in. We focus on one mode of education and try to do it well. If someone would prefer to take our egalitarian approach into other educational modes and sources, that’s great! Let a thousand flowers bloom. My own commitment is to the great-books-and-fundamental questions approach.Report

Gordon
Gordon
Reply to  Shay Allen Logan
1 month ago

There are certainily great books in a number of traditions and those with expertize in e.g. Indian philosophy should suggest a book and maybe run the discussion. Also it is certainly true that what counts as great book is a subjective judgement. For me, Plato’s Republic and Kan’t’s critique of reason stand out–but this no doubt has to do at least in part with my own prejudices… It is best to let everyone’s prejudices have their day. Pluralism should be inclusive–but that does not mean excluding old fashioned “great book” It means bringing in other voice and traditions. And I would also say that it is good to focus on those books you consider great, because these delve most deeply into the issues, encouraging readers to think deeply. Most philosophers nowadays are not Cartesians, but few would deny the incredible importance of the Meditations not just as a piece of intellectual history, but as a springboard for thought on central philosophical issues (while not any kind of disciple, I actually think D is on to some thing–but again, that is my judgment that is based on all the various philosophical thoughts i have had over the years as well as my continued re-reading of the text.Report

Postdoc
Reply to  Shay Allen Logan
1 month ago

I never read and was never taught the Great Books (the kind that are very “problematic” and “exclusionary”) in high school, undergrad, or elsewhere. I constantly heard references to Homer, Virgil, The Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, etc. Never got the references. Once I got my PhD and a cushy postdoc I said, “I’m going to read this Great Books stuff–professional incentives be damned.” And I did. All the ones listed above. And I loved it. 10 out of 10, would recommend. If I ever have kids, they’re getting the Great Books. The value of these books is so high that, even if the claims about their disvalue are true (and I don’t think for a second they are), a person is almost certainly WAY better off having read them than not having read them. I also wonder “What alternative canon do the critics propose?” That alternative almost certainly has its own costs and benefits. Why think that canon will be better all-things-considered than the “problematic” canon?

Also, for critics of Great Books programs, if you find these books exclusionary or problematic, by all means, start your own program. But there are TONS of people like me out there who want to use our scarce time and energy reading the Great Books (capital “G”, capital “B”), not the really-good-books-written-by-authors-deemed-suitably-diverse-by-the-intellectuals-of-our-day (as if Homer, the prophet Isaiah, Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes aren’t diverse, but MLK Jr. is, even though MLK’s views look almost identical to most contemporary Americans’ by comparison).Report

Sherry Ackerman, PhD (Philosophy)
Sherry Ackerman, PhD (Philosophy)
Reply to  Postdoc
1 month ago

Absolutely! They are not called The Great Books for nothing. Perennial wisdom.Report

Prof L
Prof L
Reply to  Postdoc
1 month ago

Thank you! I wanted to respond but wasn’t sure how.

I did have a Great Books education and it changed my life. Sure, it was centered on the west, but it’s been wonderful to expand beyond that, to discover what other traditions have to offer, and I never would have done that I not been taught to be curious by those very books in the western canon. I learned that works in very different circumstances and cultures had enduring and universal significance. Sure, expand the canon. *Suggest* something. But geez, I can’t take anyone seriously who misses precisely what is life-changing and great about the Great Books, and dismisses them as “exclusionary” without saying what is excluded. By all means, of you have something in mind, let’s talk about it! But that’s not how these conversations go.Report