By Cameron Hines
A New Zealander, a Barcelonan, a Londoner, a Kenyan, a Texan, a German, a Philadelphian, a Californian, a Coloradan, and a New Englander walk into a room on Wednesday, October 3rd at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They are tutors, grad students, staff members, freshmen, sophomore, junior, and senior undergrad students. Their topic for the next two hours? Truth and Politics, and an essay by the same name written by philosopher Hannah Arendt for the New Yorker in 1967.
All-college seminar is a yearly tradition in which students of all class years, staff, and faculty join together to examine a single text. Like our regular Monday and Thursday night undergrad seminars, every seminar has two tutors to help open and guide discussion, but above all, as in regular seminars, they are participants.
A tutor asks our group a question the 40-some page Arendt text raised for him: “What is the problem with self-deception?” The room goes heavy with contemplation. There are no quick, defensive responses. We turn the question round and round in our minds and compare it to the text. There will be no easy answers.
St. John’s College has been called one of the “Best Colleges for Debaters.” If this is true, it’s because it takes the debater out of us. The goal is neither to convince nor to win. The goal is only to get that much closer to an understanding of the text at hand and to some larger truth collaboratively. This is well demonstrated by the temperament of the more experienced Johnnies in the all-college seminars. “It gives us a chance to see the way seniors are involved in discussion,” says sophomore Cyntia Osario, “in a way that shows they also want other people to be involved. They encourage the freshmen.” Senior Jack Isenberg, the most quoted man on campus, says that all-college seminar “exists in part to show underclassmen what a conversation can be, and actively to involve them in a reading of a text led not just by tutors, but by their peers who were in their position just a year or two ago. It’s also a time for reflection on behalf of upperclassmen as to how far they’ve come in their education.”
We only talk about the text in front of us. We don’t debate the political context in which Arendt wrote her piece. We do not discuss our own political context. Instead, we meet each other in civil discourse quite literally on the same page, regardless of our political standings or beliefs. For these two hours, we practice freeing ourselves from prejudice and unexamined opinion.
Arendt writes that, “the result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will be accepted as truth, and the truth he defamed as lies, but that the senses by which we take our bearings in the real world– and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end– is being destroyed.” By the act of questioning the nature of truth and fact in our all-college discussions, we do our part to keep that faculty alive in ourselves. We might not have discussed current politics explicitly, but after seminar, I feel more capable of “taking my bearings in the real world.”