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Opinion | In the ‘Demandingly Joyful Company’ of Socrates and Plato

To the Editor:

Re “Higher Education Needs More Socrates and Plato,” by Ezekiel J. Emanuel and Harun Küçük (Opinion guest essay, nytimes.com, May 19):

I applaud Professors Emanuel and Küçük and their call for “more Socrates and Plato” in higher education. I add only that their proposals have long been followed at St. John’s College, which I had hoped would merit a mention, since our practices are uncannily similar to what the professors suggest.

To borrow the words of the professors, we offer a “broad-based” education that spans disciplines and is rooted in Great Books. We do so as preparation for “democratic citizenship,” which we embody in “small seminar discussions” led by teachers who function as guides, not experts.

We even give our students, before their first class, a document that outlines the virtues of brevity, “listening at length” and “being willing to go where the argument leads.” That document, “Notes on Dialogue,” was written by Stringfellow Barr, whose close reading of Plato led him to create the unique program of instruction St. John’s College has offered the American republic for nearly 100 years.

We welcome more Socrates and Plato, but our students have been learning in their demandingly joyful company for quite some time.

Brendan Boyle
Annapolis, Md.
The writer is associate dean for graduate programs at St. John’s College.

To the Editor:

What Ezekiel J. Emanuel and Harun Küçük should have highlighted in their otherwise thoughtful argument for renewing higher education’s commitment to “the liberal arts ideals that have made them great” is a more directed focus on what it means to educate students to be intellectuals.

What Socrates, Plato and all the other philosophers and writers whom the authors mention represent are examples of what is historically called “the intellectual.”

Different in form, yet consistent in their desire to know, to learn, to understand, to engage with the hard problems of their day, to discuss, to challenge, to inquire, to provoke, to awaken, to read, to analyze, to reflect: These are the qualities of the intellectual, and we should be educating our college students to embody and practice these dispositions and habits of mind and body from Day 1.

Civic education, as the authors discuss it, should start in early childhood. But anti-intellectualism has so rooted itself in the fibers of higher education that to argue for a liberal arts education is controversial. To argue for educating students to be intellectuals is radical.

Eric J. Weiner
East Hampton, N.Y.
The writer is a professor of education at Montclair State University.

To the Editor:

As a lifelong educator, I think the great books and the great debates over the great questions should be done in high school or even earlier. Why wait until college to engage young people in citizenship? This way when students graduate the foundation is there already, no matter what path they decide on — college or no.

Wasn’t that the idea of public schooling to begin with? Don’t we want to teach to the imagination of students and not just equip them with functional skills?

Julianne Sumner
Lenox, Mass.

The White House Office of Environmental Justice will surely be closed. I can’t even begin to list examples of Mr. Trump’s history of racism, starting with refusing to rent to Black tenants, wanting the death penalty for the Central Park Five, etc., etc.

What is good for Black Americans about this? Does Senator Scott think they are as gullible as he is?

Daniel Fink
Beverly Hills, Calif.

To the Editor:

“Threats and Fear Are Transforming U.S. Politics” (front page, May 20) does an important job of highlighting the “steady undercurrent of violence and political risk that has become the new normal” for our public officials.

I just returned from Northern Ireland, a place that experienced decades of civil war; this spring marks 26 years of peace. I was there with a cross-partisan group of U.S. faith leaders and former politicians to learn how Northern Ireland overcame seemingly intractable, violent, identity-based division.

Three main lessons came through. First, when you hold a mirror to American society, we are much further along the path to normalized violent conflict than we know. Second, prolonged violent conflict leads to immense suffering and destruction. Third, a return to peace is never quick.

And the hopeful lesson is that people who used to hate, bomb and maim one another could find common ground. They found this in exhaustion from the killing and pain, a desire for better lives for their children and a sense of common humanity. By painstaking and determined conversation, they found a way to agree. We, in the U.S., need to do the same.

Tom Crick
Atlanta
The writer is a project adviser with the Carter Center’s Conflict Resolution Program.

To the Editor:

Re “Homeowners Who Planned to Demolish Marilyn Monroe House Sue Los Angeles” (news article, nytimes.com, May 8):

Marilyn Monroe’s housekeeper once said that her Brentwood home, with its thick beams and walls, made the actress feel safe. It became her refuge, a place where she could go when the world became too much. It was also the place where Marilyn kept her beloved collection of books and other items she treasured.

The house wasn’t fancy by Hollywood standards, but it was solely hers, and she loved it. If her “spirit” resides anywhere today, it’s there. Marilyn herself has become a global symbol of not only glamour and sex, but also personal perseverance and courage in the face of great odds. All good reasons to save her beloved Brentwood home from the wrecking ball.

Joe Elliott
Arden, N.C.

To the Editor:

Re “Documents Show Missteps in Overhaul of College Aid” (news article, May 21):

I’m grateful for The Times’s investigation into the yearslong struggle to update the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

I serve as the vice president of programs at Chicago Scholars, a nonprofit that serves students from low-income households or who will be first-generation students and want to attend a four-year college. The FAFSA mishap upended the college decision season for everyone in our organization, and finding workarounds has unfairly fallen to our students and counselors.

Roadblocks like this forced students to choose between a provisional financial aid package and a gap year. Unfortunately, we find that Chicago Scholars students who take a gap year are far less likely to earn a degree. For many of our students, a college degree is the most attainable path to economic mobility, and it is a path they have worked hard to access.

Our students deserve more than they’ve been given in this situation. This latest misstep is only further evidence that they continue to be left behind.

Tamara Hoff Pope
Chicago

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