Christina Herring ’21 is a current Templeton freshman just finishing up with the Old Testament course taught by Dr. Fred Putnam that all freshmen take during the Fall semester. These are her reflections on what she’s learned from it.
It would seem that if a course is titled “Old Testament” one would assume that its purpose would be to teach a student about the Old Testament. Yet every class causes me to ponder if there is a deeper purpose this course was designed to fulfill. When I take into account every discussion, every prompt, it grows more and more evident that this course’s purpose is more complex than the stories and teachings we analyze. The purpose of this class is in part to teach students of the events and laws of the Old Testament, but also to teach students how to analyze and discuss, and to better understand it and any other subject they put their minds too.
My current understanding of the purpose of this course has been accumulating through each individual class. It was, however, greatly solidified by my last class, where we were given a test not on biblical knowledge or comprehension, but how conversations unfold during class. This for me only supported my idea that this course had a focus other than just remembering the events of the Old Testament. This test asked us, students, to rate the class conversation on different points. Its questions were based on “Notes on Dialogue” by Stringfellow Barr. It was also accompanied by a sheet of conversational guidelines outlining helpful phrases and unhelpful phrases. These are the general ideas this course is meant to instill. We are prompted to discover the best way of conversing, through means such as this test, and then asked to apply them to every conversation we have. Only after we master these lessons do we have the tools to further any ideas or questions brought up in our Old Testament class. These skills are essential not only to this class but to every class or discussion we will have during the rest of our lives.
Each class period’s opening question is designed for the students not only to discover deeper concepts on their own through discussion, but how they relate to the rest of the bible as well, revealing each prompt’s practical purpose. They are meant to teach us how to follow and develop our natural trains of thought.
It is also striking how this course seems to parallel the transition to adulthood. This class does not have quizzes on the text we read, neither any penalties if we don’t come to class; rather if the subject matter is not read and classes are not attended it will become increasingly difficult to partake in class and assignments. Still, there is no penalty for this grievance. This engenders a sense of self-accountability. If I wish to learn and change the way I think and converse on a fundamental level, I will do the readings and I will come to class. It won’t be out of fear of a grade but out of genuine desire to learn. This contrasts deeply with how I have been taught in my youth and I think it marks a different stage in my studies, one where I am the one to decide how I learn and what I learn.
By having a teacher who only prompts when necessary instead of giving speeches, we have the ability to carry the conversation wherever we feel it needs to go. This is what we witness in the ancient works of Plato—wild conversation that unearths understanding. It is just like one of the points Stringfellow Barr outlines in his “Notes on Dialogue:”
Perhaps the first rule of Socratic dialectic was laid down by Socrates: that we should follow the argument wherever it leads. Presumably, this means that some sorts of relevance that a court pleading should exhibit (and, even more the forensic eloquence that pleading encourages) are irrelevant to dialectic. The deliberate manner, and even more the ponderous manner, are mere impediments. The name of the game is not instructing one’s fellows, or even persuading them, but thinking with them and trusting the argument to lead to understanding, sometimes to very unexpected understandings.
What I am trying to convey about this course’s purpose is not that this class does not teach me about the events of the Old Testament and I am mostly definitely not saying that learning the events of the Bible does not have worth. I am simply saying that the thing that sets this class apart, why it is the pinnacle of not only what THC classes should be but every class, is its ability to teach us how to communicate. How it is trying to teach us to listen, to come together with others with like or different views, with an open but thinking mind to strive after the furtherment of everyone’s ideas for the betterment of all. After we master this, and only after, can we understand others’ ideas or even our own and use them for any good. Therefore I venture to say, that the true purpose of this course, its very nature, is to take the rough beings we are, so immature in thought and emotions, and sculpt us into individuals who can not only better their own understanding by conversing and reading and analyzing texts but also have the ability and desire to offer everything they are, everything they think, to others through pensive and open conversation.
Christina Herring ’21 is currently a freshman in the Templeton Honors College.