After serving as a teaching assistant for the Summer Scholars Program for two years in a row, I continue to be touched when I reminisce about the bonds I witnessed students forming during the eight or nine day programs. Each course lasted only about a week and a half—a relatively short amount of time; and yet, during each program, I watched beautiful friendships spark from a common love of learning and desire to seek answers to difficult questions.
Some might consider this surprising—after all, how well can you really get to know another person in just over a week? But I was never all that surprised to see students form bonds so quickly, as this closely mirrored my own experience in the Templeton Honors College. Upon entering the college, I expected to receive a rigorous education centered on Great Books (which I did). But what I did not expect was the depth of friendships I would develop or the ways in which my intellectual development would be so closely tied to those friendships.
The Honors College runs on a relatively unique cohort model. Each year, between 30 and 36 students are admitted, and these students form a cohort. This cohort moves through the undergraduate experience as a group, taking a number of classes together and sharing many of the joys and stresses that inevitably accompany one’s collegiate experience. We read Aristotle together and try to wrap our minds about what virtue is; we read through the majority of the Old and New Testament and consider how to study scripture and have fruitful conversation; we read Plato, Homer, Virgil, Augustine, Shakespeare, and Dante, and together attempt to engage with these great thinkers and the larger tradition of which they are a part. Together, we ask questions such as “what is justice?” and “what is the good life?”
These are questions that, if taken seriously, engage the core of who we are. Accordingly, the shared process of questioning immediately unites the members of a cohort in a difficult, yet rewarding process of self-examination. The nature of these questions is such that they often trickle out beyond the space and time of the classroom, permeating dinner conversation and other hang-out time. I’ve found myself talking to dear friends about feminism, theology, and C.S. Lewis while brushing my teeth; talking about quantum mechanics, miracles, and scripture while driving in the car; talking about education, Aristotle, and natural law over lunch in the dining commons. And in my experience, the ability to discuss ideas that bear real weight and often have real personal ramifications inevitably deepens friendship.
But it is not just that questioning and learning together makes for more robust relationships. It also works the other way: the context of community exponentially enriches learning. In a classroom where students barely know each other’s names and sit in rows hardly looking at one another, it can be quite difficult to have a good conversation. Good conversation requires that the participants understand and consider one another’s perspectives, ideally moving closer to the truth by graciously and carefully evaluating ideas. I’ve found that when we bring a certain degree of friendship into the classroom, we are much more likely to accomplish this. When we sit in a circle and begin discussion, we come already possessing a vested interest in the well-being of the people around us, and are more likely to engage graciously. We are more prepared to take others seriously, and thus we become better listeners and in turn better learners.
It is important to note that it is not just the unique relationships between students that creates this environment; it is also largely dependent on the ways that faculty and staff care for one another and care for students. I believe it is rare to find a university setting where professors of such brilliance and scholarly reputation are so gracious to one another, so consistent in modeling genuine friendship, and so eager to serve their students’ best interests. This is the general ethos at Templeton, and it trickles down to the students on a daily basis.
In the Summer Scholars Program, students get just a small taste of this ethos of robust communal learning. Not only are they offered a chance to learn new things, but they are also offered the chance to gain a new perspective on learning itself and what it means to learn in a community of friends. What’s more, they begin to experience this kind of friendship and learning firsthand. And it often seems that, once given a glimpse of this mode of education, there are always a number of students eager for more.