Isidore of Seville and Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel Defend the Seminar Method Against the Immoderate Attacks of John Senior

John Senior’s book The Restoration of Christian Culture  is almost pure joy to read. Senior captures so perfectly the ideals of a very good sort of person, a sort that I happen to know well. The sort of Chesterton-and-Belloc reading home-schooling mid-western American Catholic that used to write for C & T.  Only he says things better than most such people. The Restoration of Christian Culture is written in such vigor and emphasis that at times it attains to prose intoxicating enough to have been written by Belloc himself. Still, for TAC graduates the jabs he makes at our alma mater are kind of annoying. After slamming the great-books movement in general for fostering skepticism (he was at Columbia back in the day), he admits that the Catholic version is somewhat better but that it would be good if the “Thomist philosophers among them” would remember that means must be proportioned to ends, and that the medievals didn’t see any use in “class discussion.”

I was reminded of this reading Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel’s Diadema MonachorumSmaragdus was a ninth century French monk, who wrote the oldest surviving commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict. The Diadema is a collection of quotes from the fathers to be read at the collatio, the communal reading before Compline. In a chapter on the collatio itself, Smaragdus quotes the following passage from Isidore of Seville:

Cum sit utilis ad instruendum lectio, adhibita autem conlatione maiorem intellegentiam praebet; melius est enim conferre quam legere. Conlatio docibilitatem facit; nam propositis interrogationibus cunctatio rerum excluditur, et saepe obiectionibus latens ueritas adprobatur. Quod enim obscurum est aut dubium, conferendo cito perspicitur. (Sententiae III.14)

Kees Waaihman translates as follows:

Whereas lectio is good for instruction, collatio furnishes more insight. After all, conducting a conference is better than giving a lecture. A collation makes things comprehensible. Subject matter is set in motion because questions are raised. Frequently hidden truth is proved by objections. For what is obscure and doubtful is soon made transparent by a conference.

In his commentary on chapter 42 of the Holy Rule of St. Benedict Smaragdus explains a little more what is meant by “collatio”:

A ‘conference’ means a ‘bringing, speaking and chatting together’, in which while some bring questions about the divine Scriptures, others bring suitable answers, and in this way things that had long remained hidden become open and manifest to those taking part in the conference. (Smaragdus, In RB 42; translation David Barry)

Hmm, what would John Senior say?

9 thoughts on “Isidore of Seville and Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel Defend the Seminar Method Against the Immoderate Attacks of John Senior

  1. Why not simply reply that the discussion method works very well, and the school has the results to prove it.

    Whether this or that teaching method was used in the past as guide to what should be done today is irrelevant when there are also concrete results that are better known to us that tell us what method to use.

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    • Is your response arguing that the past is irrelevant as a guide to the present? I’d like to know what these “concrete [and apparently irrefutable] results” are that you mention but don’t cite. I am genuinely interested in modern test results, neurological findings etc., but I’ve never been more impressed with any evidence than the test of time.

      And if TAC uses the past as a means to understand the present, then isn’t your whole comment paradoxical?

      I have to side with Cicero on this one, to the effect that not to know history is to forever be a child.

      …but hey, I stumbled on this site randomly (I had been looking at paroxytones mentioned by Smaragdus) and know very little about Aquinas, so I’m easy to dismiss.

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  2. William writes : “Is your response arguing that the past is irrelevant as a guide to the present?”

    No. But it certainly can be. The issue under discussion is a what is the best method to obtain a practical end. And as with any practical end, the closer the knowledge is to us the more certain we are of obtaining that end.

    What as a practical matter is closer to us and more certain? :

    The current superior results TAC has obtained using similar students as the other half dozen Catholic schools. Or The past results from different societies and cultures?

    William writes : “And if TAC uses the past as a means to understand the present, then isn’t your whole comment paradoxical?”

    No. Because the proof is in the pudding.

    Further, “A proposal for the fulfillment of Catholic liberal education” page 25 doesn’t reference the past as an argument for its use of the class discussion method.

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  3. Senior held discussions at his place and . . . . . At the Pearson program, as related by Bishop Conley stated that the discussion would be led by older students with younger students — in the collegiality or at the bar learning poetry or study the constellations — collatio has its place, as does lecture.

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  4. Thanks very much for the responses. @Pawel: it does appear fairly clear that Senior had TAC in mind, though I think that his arguments against it were more applicable to the secular great books programs. There was also his whole thing about “contemporary students” not being ready to read the great books, and having to read the “good books” first and so on, which seems to have been formed by his experience at KU.

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    • Yes, I think he is right that students have to have been prepared by reading the “good books”– but of course there are loads of people out there who have done so from an early age – including now many children of Senior disciples – so if one is setting one’s own admission standards there is no reason to turn college into a nursery school.

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      • pavopaxx writes : “Surely you would agree you have to be somewhat prepared before you tackle Plato, Aquinas, and especially Aristotle”

        The operative word is ‘somewhat’.

        The early graduating classes were not prepared from childhood, and I don’t see them the worse off for it when comparing them to the later graduating classes.

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  5. I have heard from the god-daughter of John Senior that a publication of the letters between him and the founders of TAC is to be published soon, so perhaps it might be of interest to some people here …

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