Senior Seminar (11th and 12th)

The intent of the Senior Seminar is twofold; to introduce the students to some of the structures, materials, and expectations they will encounter in a typical 100 – 300 level college course, and to establish a forum for research, investigation, and cooperative inquiry about the problems inherent in the course topic.


We act under the assumption that human knowledge is both encyclopedic and unified. Consequently, the approach to seminar topics is interdisciplinary in scope, ranging across and throughout the arts and sciences. Depending upon the extent and possibility of each course, materials and readings will often draw from multiple fields: the arts, humanities and social sciences, the physical, earth, and biological sciences, history and law, economics and public policy, and the behavioral and cognitive sciences.


While our use of the concept “seminar” realizes its typical meaning: a group of students meeting for systematic instruction and discussion, our understanding of it appreciates its etymological heritage as a nursery ground, a place to sow and cultivate.[1]


The Senior Seminar is a group activity intended to increase critical thinking, self-responsibility and self-reliance: the qualities necessary to secure a functioning democracy. Enhancing the ability of students to participate toward the democratic ideal means preparing them to participate in both negotiating and communicative dialogues and encouraging their desire for the fostering of their own self-culture.[2]


Self-culture in this context simply refers to the inner shape human beings can attain when developing their aptitudes in touch with and through the agencies of the intellectual and moral resources found in their environment. The term not only implies the dimensions of learning, knowledge and skills, but also values, ethos, personality, authenticity and humanity.


Developing self-culture is also a process of assuming the responsibilities of an adult member of a community. It means becoming an active part of our continuous human history, to have a chance to participate in “the Great Conversation” of mankind. This conversation includes the complexities of current problems as well as the ideas, problems and mysteries that have puzzled and occupied us since the beginning of human experience. Aside from basic dialogic rules, the seminar does not attempt to teach a set of values. Its mission is to foster the intellectual dispositions or habits of mind that allow students to develop practical wisdom, that is, finding ways to act when confronted with a multiplicity of ideas and incongruent values. A fairly simple methodology is utilized to improve the complex interplay of dialogical and intellectual skills.[3]

We emphasize:

  • dialogic method and rules, a restrained form of the Socratic elenchus (ελεγχος)[4]
  • reading primary sources
  • instructor as co-inquirer and facilitator
  • student led analysis and discussion
  • close and attentive reading and listening
  • the fundamentals of thinking and writing: organizing, capturing accuracy, expressing depth
  • careful attention to differing justifications of beliefs (logical, emotional, psychological, spiritual)
  • critical analysis of reasoning structures –continual aim towards the more elegant, coherent and harmonious logical support
  • reciprocal encouragement
  • self-reflective and mutual critique


Our focus is on the texts and the problems the texts illuminate. The inspiration they provide allows us to develop and refine the following explicit skills:

  • comprehension
  • evaluative, logical, and comparative analysis
  • synthesis
  • expansion and summarizing


A typical semester-long seminar generally consists of 36 instructional or discussion hours with 500 to 600 pages of readings and 40 to 50 pages of writing. Students are graded in three general areas: participation and preparedness; weekly written summaries or questions of the readings; and three medium length essays. Throughout the seminar, participants aim for developing full student initiated analysis.

[1] Seminar: from the German seminar; group of students meeting for systematic instruction and discussion; adoption of  the Latin sēminārium, substantive use of the neuter of sēminārius, formed on sēmin, formed on the base of severe, past participle of satus, to sow.  Sēminārium: plant nursery, breeding ground. Also pertinent is seminary; place of production, cultivation, or education. Onions, C. T.  (1966). (Ed.).  The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Oxford University Press
[2] I am indebted to Ann S. Philgren’s research into the methodological similarities between the Swedish Folkbildning, the American Paideia Seminar and Great Books program, and the German Das Sokratische Gespräch, all of which share similar objectives; that of preparing students to be active thinkers and civic participants. In particular see Pihlgren, Ann S. (2007). “The Features of Socratic Seminars.” Peer reviewed paper presented at the 13th International Conference on Thinking. Norrköping, Sweden June 17-21, 2007.
[3] Pihlgren, Ann S. (2007). “The Features of Socratic Seminars”. Also, Pihlgren, (2006). “Sokratiska samtal om att vara människa”, Familjedaghem. No 1, pp 27-31; Adler, M. J. (1984). The Paideia Program. Macmillan, New York.; Billings, L. and Fitzgerald, J. (2002). “Dialogic Discussion and the Paideia Seminar.” American Educational Research Journal. Volume 39, No. 4, pp 907- 41.; and Matthews, G. B. (1999). Socratic Perplexity and the Nature of Philosophy. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
[4] Elenchus, ελεγχος, (e len kis). The outstanding method of questioning in Plato’s earlier dialogues is the Socratic elenchus. ‘Elenchus‘ in a broad sense means examining a statement that someone has made by putting to her additional questions calling for further statements, in the hope that these will determine the meaning and the truth-value of the initial statement. This process normally results in a contradiction of the primary statement. Propositions to which the answerer feels she must agree have entailed the falsehood of her original assertion. Robinson, R. (1953). Plato’s Earlier Dialectic, 2nd edition. Clarendon Press, Oxford. Reprinted in Gregory Vlastos (1971). (Ed.).  The Philosophy of Socrates. Anchor Press.