Essay / Education

Augustine's Confessions for Middle Schoolers

Shaun Williams runs Williams Great Books Tutorials here in southern California. That means she leads young people through classic texts, the kind of books that have instructed, challenged, and baffled generations of the greatest adult minds in history. And somehow, it works! These are books that you can learn from all through your life, and Shaun leads students into a very early encounter with them. The whole idea is endlessly fascinating to me.

Shaun’s not only a graduate of the Torrey Honors Institute, but also went on to do graduate work at Loyola Marymount and then serve as a member of the faculty here at Biola for a season. I asked her a few questions recently about how she teaches one of the greatest of the greats, Augustine’s Confessions, to students this age. Here are her insights.

Q: Shaun, I’ll start with the objections: Augustine’s Confessions was not written for young people. It’s by a middle-aged bishop, looking back on his life and making sense of the decades. What’s in there for middle schoolers?

One of the things that struck me reading Confessions this time around in preparation for class is that it is no ordinary biography with some great prayers and philosophy thrown in. He seems to be trying to think through his whole life – from birth forward – through the lens of God’s revealed truths (Trinity, gospel, etc.) and so show his life to be a testament/confession to God’s revelation – a miniature and living portrait of Scripture’s truths.

As a result, Confessions has much to offer a 14 year old! She certainly will not grasp the unified vision Augustine presents, but the text itself, in my opinion, wants us to see the individual doctrines and truths manifest in this sinner’s life as much as it wants us to see the unified whole. The 14 year old is ripe for the picking in terms of Augustine’s discussions of sin, God, prayer, etc. The narrative and reflective style of the book is perfect for having Socratic and mind-blowing moments with 8th graders. The beautiful thing about Classical Education and WGBT’s curriculum is that these same students will read Confessions again in 11th grade, blowing their minds even further.

Q: That’s interesting: Even though there’s a great unity and coherence to the message of Confessions, and that kind of “unifed vision” is beyond the grasp of most kids, you’re saying that students can get the bits and pieces of the message, and that’s enough?

The pieces of Augustine’s Confessions are worth more than most other whole books. The way Augustine unfolds the nature of evil through reflection on his own sin and the big ideas of his own age is masterful and in fact intriguing to 8th graders. My students read his search for the nature of evil like a suspense novel.

However, it is important to herd young readers toward a more unified vision. My herding method for 8th graders consists of modeling questions that get at the coherence of a text and praising students when they ask these same kinds of questions. While 14 year olds take much smaller steps than college students in answering these questions, they still move forward.

Q: Shaun, you are an accomplished teacher who has taught Confessions at the university level, with real proficiency. What’s the biggest difference between teaching Confessions to college students, and teaching it to middle schoolers? Do they see different things in it?

Surprisingly, middle schoolers and college students gravitate toward similar passages in the Confessions. The big difference I’ve observed is the speed at which the students work through a passage to understand it and then move to applying it toward that unified vision discussed above. College students will spend approximately a quarter of their discussion time exegeting pertinent passages whereas middle schoolers will spend approximately three quarters of their discussion time exegeting pertinent passages.

Q: Are there a couple of key passages of Confessions that really connect with middle schoolers? The pear theft? The conversion scene? The stuff about being forced to read Virgil?

My middle schoolers gravitate to Augustine’s pear theft and his subsequent reflections on why he did such a thing. A Socratic discussion unfolds beautifully with this passage. The middle schoolers’ initial response is that Augustine is blowing the event way out of proportion. “Sure, he shouldn’t have stolen the pears, but it’s not like he murdered someone.”

Here’s where the power of Augustine’s insights can blow 14-year-old minds. Augustine reveals sinners, in our attempted autonomy from God, to be mocking imitators of God. He concludes that his pear theft was, at root, a grasp at omnipotence. After a close reading and discussion of this passage, 8th-graders are shocked at the treachery of a sin they thought, moments ago, not that big of a deal.

Q: In the classroom, does a Socratic, question-asking approach work well for 14 year olds? Don’t you just have to tell them what to look for in the book, or hand them “the moral of the story?”

The 8th-grade classroom is a strange place. On the one hand, students are very self-conscious. On the other hand, they often are overconfident and make overly-simplistic statements. Overconfidence coupled with overly-simplistic statements is the perfect setup for Socratic questions. While 14 year olds cannot hold two-hour long discussions on one idea like their high school siblings, they can tackle strategically deployed Socratic questions.

The foundation of 8th-grade class time in WGBT is oral reading of a great book. As we read a text out loud together, I stop the reading to ask a Socratic question or to shape a student’s question into a Socratic question. Instead of assigning a whole text before class and beginning class with a question like WGBT does for high schoolers, we ease the middle schoolers into Socratic discussions so they are not overwhelmed by a book but at the same time begin dialectic discourse.

Q: Thanks for answering these questions, Shaun. Can you tell me a little more about your great books tutorial service?

The thing that excites me at Williams Great Books Tutorials is the project of involving young learners in the great conversation of Western Civilization that’s been going on for quite a while. God used and continues to use reading and discussing these great books to draw me into deeper communion with Him, and I want to provide that opportunity to other people.

The nitty-gritty: WGBT provides classes for homeschool students in grades five through twelve. We offer humanities courses that combine literature, grammar and composition, history, Bible, and for the upper grades, philosophy. We also offer a series of courses in logic, rhetoric, and Latin.

We are expanding for the 2011-2012 school year and adding a new instructor. Our new instructor did his undergraduate work in philosophy at UC Berkley where he took classes from John Searle, one of the preeminent philosophers on consciousness and language. We are looking forward to the addition.

Best wishes with this important work, Shaun!

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