The Education Quartet: A Serious Reader’s Pathway through four Western Classics on the roots of our thinking about the meaning of education

  • Plato’s Republic 

  • Dante’s Divine Comedy  

  • Rousseau’s Emile

  • Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit 


Length: Open-ended

Time Commitment: 1.25 hours per week (no homework)

The session opens promptly with a ten to fifteen minute reading of the text by participants, followed by an hour long discussion based on that selection.

Maximum Group Size: 7

Meeting Day: The first seminar will be held Monday, January 15th, 2018.  Thereafter, the seminars will continue to be on Monday at the group’s discretion.


Meeting Time: 8 pm Central (9 EST, 6 PST)

Meeting Duration: 1 hour 15 minutes

Meeting Place:  Zoom video conferencing

Seminar Leader: David Hunter Saussy and Jason G. Happel 

Register for the Education Quartet HERE


What is it to be educated? We ask this question in all seriousness, without presupposing an answer beforehand. One view maintains that education is a matter of schools and schooling, degrees and educational policies, budgets and curricula. It is a matter merely for kids not for grown-ups. It is moreover supposed to be the royal road to material prosperity and getting a job.

Four voices hailing from deep within the heart of the Western tradition, however, see it differently. How each view the matter of education will have to be seen by the participants in this course – in full color and detail, that is, what disagreements or differences they have with each other, and what agreements or common ground they share – and what fresh perspectives they might offer us, who have forgotten what they have to say and why they say it.

But all four hold that nothing less than the destiny of the human person or soul and human communities is at stake in what we call education.  Each author takes us on a journey –  an ascent from the Cave (Plato), from a Dark Wood (Dante); or setting a course through the tension between our original nature and corrupting civilization (Rousseau); or undergoing the adventure of consciousness on its way to wisdom (Hegel).

Our aim is to listen in to the conversation that develops between all four, as attentively as we can – and, to the best of our abilities – participate in that conversation, trying to take stock of the ultimate grounds and the far-reaching consequences of their respective visions. In doing so, we shall perhaps find ourselves undergoing this very thing called education…on a pathway to freedom. 

Nota Bene:

Symposium Great Books Institute seeks to discover a pathway of serious adult learning not modeled on the standard of school or academic program. We offer neither classes nor a program, but true “courses” in the root sense of the road, path or way.

The design of this pathway through the great books is dictated by careful attention to the needs of lifelong learning.  An end date has been left undetermined for this series, in order to give the group sufficient leisure – flexibility and sovereignty – in determining the work and pacing at hand. There are no prerequisites for joining this course besides a love of learning and a desire to take the time for careful reading and discussion.

Because each meeting begins with a live reading of the text, participants are free to prepare as much or as little as desired prior to meeting. For many participants, minimizing or eliminating prep time is an advantage, considering the length of the series. Reading out loud the pre-assigned selection at the beginning of the session places our attention at the same point, and brings the text into fresh attention. The session duration (of one hour fifteen minutes) is just long enough to work hard, but short enough to not feel burdened by a return the following weeks.

The seminar leaders or facilitators at Symposium are not professional educators, but they are experienced and skilled guides – who have clocked in hundreds of hours of purposive discussion on the great books, who are serious about learning and being a caretaker of the quality of the dialectic that ensues in each session. He or she balances inquiry with advocacy, but is not the ‘chief explainer’ of a great book as a traditional educator might be.  The seminar leader practices silent and attentive listening, and intervenes only when needed. The activity and ownership of the participants in the process of dialectic is essential to what we are doing.            

This group is not about short cuts, but about taking “the longer way around.”  Each week is cumulative – we work through the text part by part at a hiking pace until we reach the top of the mountain. The group will have sovereignty in deciding, however, to take on longer chunks of text if they feel it is needed…to blend the close-reading with longer discursive reading. For example, during the June and December hiatus’, if it seems useful to the group, we can assign a longer reading, and then return with a seminar on that reading, continuing the close-reading pace thereafter.     

Group size is capped at a maximum of twelve people, to allow for space to join the close-reading dialectic. We will open a new group if more than seven sign up.  Folks are always welcome to join to see if the format will work for them, with no pressure to commit, we will say that those who are serious about this undertaking are prepared for a multi-year engagement in this one-of-a-kind project, perhaps 3-4 years, or even more, if more is what it takes. These books are so rich, they are worth the time.  Even though this is a multi-year project, and the end is as of yet undetermined (for the reasons indicated above), the job of a Symposium leader is to keep the study on track to completion. This is what makes iSymposium different from an informal book group, which tends to be much better at starting projects than finishing. 

If our previous series are any indication (e.g. Plato’s Laws and Socratic Education), a series like this will be sure to forge lifelong friendships in the love of learning through the great books. The iSymposium experience, designed for  serious long-term endeavor, is about as opposite as you can get from canned learning experiences in Massively Open Online Courses and other online courses.  

Register for this pathway HERE   

“The Phenomenology belongs to the quartet of greatest works on education. The others are Plato’s Republic, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Rousseau’s Emile. 

Despite their profound differences, these works have important similarities. One is that each reflects on education through some overarching story. In the Republic, this is the myth of founding the best city in speech, a large part of which is devoted to education of the city’s guardians; in the Divine Comedy, it is Dante’s journey to God with the aid of Virgil and Beatrice; in Emile, it is Rousseau’s fiction of playing governor to a child not his own by nature.  So too, in the Phenomenology — which according to some commentators, is patterned after the Bildungsroman or “novel of education” that was popular in Hegel’s day – education is not simply talked about but presented as a drama or story. It is the turbulent tale about how spirit or mind, Geist, struggles to achieve self-knowledge in the form of philosophic Science. 

Another similarity is that all four are tales of liberation. Each tells of how man is freed from bondage: from the cave of deceptive opinions (Plato), or the dark wood of spiritual self-forgetting (Dante), or the corrupting influence of society (Rousseau). In the Phenomenology, the role of cave, dark wood, and corrupting influence is played by what Hegel calls natural consciousness [26, 77, 78]. Natural here means uneducated, unformed or undeveloped, in a word, naive. Natural consciousness is the familiar. In the Phenomenology, the human spirit finds itself within natural consciousness, like Ariel within the cloven pine, and struggles to be free. But natural consciousness is not merely our prison. It is also a manifestation of spirit: the mode in which our human essence is immediately there. In overcoming natural consciousness, in becoming free, spirit therefore overcomes the most elementary condition of its own existence. 

Finally, each work in the quartet explores the bond between reason on the one hand, and action and passion on the other: between man as thinker, and man as the being who acts and feels. We are reminded of what Socrates says in the Republic about the philosophic conversion: that the whole soul, not the intellect alone, must be compelled to turn from the dark error to the light of truth (7.518C). Genuine education must be complete and radical.  It must change lives, not just our minds. 

Hegel educates his reader by initiating him into the minds of others. He reveals the education of consciousness that has already occurred in history. The Phenomenology, he says, is a picture gallery [808]: a colorful array of human types or “shapes [Gestalten] of consciousness” [89]. These are the phenomena of which the Phenomenology is the logos or reasoned account. In the course of the book, we meet all sorts of characters, just as we do when we read Plato’s dialogues, or when we journey with Dante through his threefold cosmos. We meet the Scientist and the Warrior, the Stoic and the Skeptic, the God-haunted Unhappy Consciousness and the self-deifying Beautiful Soul. Sometimes we meet characters lifted from the pages of fiction: Antigone, Faust, , or Rameau’s crazy nephew. All have their place in Hegel’s philosophic picture gallery. All are stages on the way to the fully developed selfhood that is spirit.”  

-From Chapter 1, “A World of Knowing” -in The Logic of Desire: An Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, by Peter Kalkavage. Paul Dry Books.   

The Education Quartet, Close-Reading
iSymposium: A Serious Reader's Pathway Through Four Western Classics - Plato's Republic, Dante's Divine Comedy, Rousseau's Emile and Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. (Currently Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Join us!) 
A Well-Wishing Adventure: The Complete Sonnets by Shakespeare
iSymposium: A lunchtime close-reading discussion series on Shakespeare's Sonnets
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