An opportunity for “serious conversations about great books” (guest post)

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“I concocted the dream of a zealous education that could be offered unconditionally to anyone interested. But the logistics baffled me… ”

In the following guest post *, Zena Hitz of Saint-Jean College discuss the Catherine Project, an initiative she recently launched to provide 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 diplomas –
Know the books; to know itself; know thyself.

The Catherine Project is looking for volunteers with a doctorate or other in-depth intellectual experience to lead tutorials for a new adult education program based on reading and discussing large books. Our groups are open to all for free. Our tutorials are limited to four readers, with short weekly writing assignments. We consider our readers to be independently guided by their own questions. We support readers in developing their own thinking and reading. We frequently teach outside of our areas of expertise, which gives our conversations a spontaneity and an open character. Our teachers join the classroom as full participants rather than seconded 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 are targeting eight to ten readers – and are more flexible in their length and structure. We welcome volunteer group leaders, especially those who are used to serious conversations about big books, conversations that draw everyone to the table and don’t follow any set agendas.

The Catherine Project does not offer credits or diplomas. We believe that personal feedback from a trusted mentor is more valuable than any grade, especially for those who are discouraged by mainstream education. For the moment, all our offers are online, via Zoom. We are a non-profit organization and we are supported exclusively by individual donations and grants.

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

Potential volunteers can write to us here.

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

For a few years after obtaining my doctorate, I taught philosophy at large public universities. I loved the openness and hospitality of the public classroom. You never knew who would come or what philosophy might mean to them. Over time, however, I was disappointed with what I would call “classroom management”. The assignment of marks largely determined what I could teach and therefore what my students could learn. I didn’t judge my students for that. From the time I was a new graduate, armed with overconfidence and an uneven transcript, graduate and professional programs have become more demanding and less risk-taking.

Grades mattered, I had to give and I couldn’t give too many bad ones. Nor could I spend my days and nights correcting multiple complex assignments for sixty to ninety students. My assignments have become regulated and boring. Class time, too, has become regulated, to ensure that students know what they need to know. There was no point in reading the papers too carefully – the students didn’t read the comments anyway and went straight to the grade. Once again, I recognized myself in them. I remembered how intoxicating the notes were and how they distracted my attention from learning as much as I could because I wanted to.

The most intellectually alive places I had been in had not given ratings, or had underestimated them. Without a grade, you were free to work as hard as you wanted, as you wanted, beyond a certain threshold. It was no coincidence that these two institutions were equally personal: teachers knew the students and looked after their education, counseling, mentoring and shaping their habits, rather than regurgitating the content.

When I returned to teach at my undergraduate liberal arts college, where grades were underestimated, my thoughts were confirmed. Without having to write down an assignment, I can push a high-performing student to think harder, without an A for them to rest. Most importantly, I can encourage, and therefore actually teach, the many students who think imaginatively and clearly but communicate poorly on paper. Handing out B’s or C’s tells these students – wrongly – that it’s a waste of time to study philosophy. Without grades, one can engage with such students as thinkers. Socrates himself shows that philosophical thought does not necessarily involve writing.

When I was still a teacher-researcher, I had time to explore other opportunities. I was particularly interested in education in prison, and I taught two philosophy courses to prisoners. These courses confirmed my suspicion that there were many, many people interested in philosophy who would appreciate and benefit from a course on (say) Plato. Republic, who were not conventional students.

I concocted the dream of a zealous education that could be offered unconditionally to anyone interested. But the logistics baffled me. How could you have a public university that is rich or light enough to make regular mentoring possible, and with it the personal comments that could replace grades? How could you open up something as expensive as a liberal arts college to everyone? How do you find people in a mid-sized American city who want to spend an evening a week in a cafe talking about Homer? They were there, no doubt, but how to find them and get them out?

The growth of the Internet has not, at first glance, reduced these difficulties. Access to educational materials has been widely opened, but without any meaningful feedback capacity. Can you learn karate or the piano by watching videos? May be. But the best teaching transmits habits in which individual distinctions can blossom into forms of excellence. Such a process requires sensitivity to the individual, individual feedback, and calibrated correction and encouragement.

I discuss in Lost in thoughts that learning for itself is a basic human need, part of human development. The intellectual life of ordinary people is not a secondary concern, but of central importance for higher education. After the book appeared, I received numerous emails from non-academic readers thanking me for affirming them in their zeal for the study. Many of these letters asked for my opinion: “I want to read seriously and think about fundamental questions. How can I get started? “

These letters troubled me. What can I say? I knew what these future learners needed was a community – people to read with, and people to mentor and advise them. I also knew how hard such a community was to find.

Lost in thoughts was released in May 2020, in the first round of the Covid. Like other teachers and professors, I struggled with online lessons. I noticed that the person-to-person video interactions were more akin to real meetings than large gatherings. It occurred to me that videoconferencing could provide a start for the kind of education I have been looking for all these years. Despite all its weaknesses, the Internet today makes it possible to build intellectual communities that are both personal and open to a large part of humanity.

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


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