Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why Aren't There More Juntos in American Colleges?

In Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography he describes a group he created called the Junto:

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, [1727] I had form'd most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss'd by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.

Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

I usually teach the Autobiography once a year and I always make a point of emphasizing this passage. I ask my students to consider the possibility of leaving history class and joining a group of fellow students in an extended conversation about the ideas discussed that day. Most students have never really pondered such a concept. The thought of going back to their dorms and discussing the impact of industrialization on rural life in the nineteenth century is an absurd one. For them college is about getting a degree or developing some kind of practical skill that they could use to make a living. In such an economic climate as the one in which we live today, to suggest that students should spend time discussing ideas in a Junto-like fashion seems useless or at least a bad use of one's time.

My Junto sermon ends by explaining to my students how a truly liberally educated person needs to be engaged with the world of ideas. I expound on how ideas have social consequences and can be useful in real life. Ideas can often motivate people to serve others and the common good, a thought that I hope has some appeal among my Christian students. I then, in good Puritan homiletical style, hit them with the "application" by exhorting them to start a Junto of their own. I reinforce the message of this sermon throughout the semester. Whenever we run across a big idea (which is basically every class period), I finish class by telling the students to "continue the discussions in their Juntos." The remark usually gets a laugh as students pack up their books, but that is about it.

Is it too much to ask that students take the ideas they learn in class and make a conscious and deliberate effort to converse about them away from the classroom? I know today's students are extremely busy, but Franklin and his Junto managed to put aside a small amount of time each week for this kind activity. Students can find plenty of time for Facebook, Myspace, weekend road trips, and video-games. Why not ideas?

I often wonder if my efforts to get students to think about course content outside of class is little more than tilting at windmills. Sure, students tend to study together for exams. Such gatherings, I am guessing, could be intellectually stimulating. But there is also an obvious utilitarian dimension to these study-groups. Where are the Juntos that meet when there is not an exam scheduled the next day (or later that afternoon)? I am guessing many of the potential members of such a Junto are sitting in front of a television set watching "The Hills."

Perhaps I am being overly naive, but I still hold out hope that these kinds of Juntos can exist, especially in the kind of residential liberal arts college where I teach. My hope was rekindled a few years ago when a group of students were sufficiently inspired by Franklin to form a Junto of their own. These students met several times a week over lunch in one of the college eateries. They would occasionally report back to me the nature of their discussions, but I largely remained out of it. I wanted them to have a professor-free space to converse. Over the course of the academic year they developed a real intellectual community. Not only did they debate things like immigration policy or the meaning of the "American Dream," but they strengthened their friendships, bonded as group, and experienced college in a way that most of their fellow students did not.

In the spring of their senior year, several of the members of this Junto approached me after class one day with an invitation. They wanted to know if I would like to "sit in" on one of their final meetings. The semester was ending and they would be graduating and getting on with life. Needless to say, I accepted the invitation. We met for about an hour, eating bad hamburgers and soggy french-fries and talking about the values that undergird the American culture that they would soon enter as new college graduates. I don't remember a lot about the specifics of that conversation, but it was one of the greatest moments of my teaching career thus far.

Just yesterday I spent an hour or so with Josh and Phil, members of the Messiah College class of 2006 who were in town for a visit. They were both participants in that Junto. I now consider them friends.

And the conversation continues...