The Great Conversation acts as a cornerstone of the St. Olaf education for roughly one-eighth of every graduating class and has for close to four decades. Despite its prevailing popularity, the program — a five-course series that, according to its website, “introduces the major epochs of Western civilization to students via great works of human achievement” — has faced scrutiny since even before its inception. In a 1980 Messenger article announcing the program’s proposed formation, then Vice President and Academic Dean Gerald Hartwig expressed his reservations to implement the coursework as presented.
“We had the Western heritage in high school,” Hartwig said. “We really don’t get out of our own cultural milieu when we encounter it again as freshmen.”
In a 1982 Messenger piece, Gale Holmlund ’83 wrote “The ‘Great Conversation’ is misnamed; it should be the ‘Great White Male Conversation.’”
In 1984, a college review of the curriculum posed the question: “Does the program address, if not equally, at least proportionally, minority groups which have influenced Western thought?”
Over two decades later in a 2008 Messenger article titled “Program’s ‘greatness’ considered” the name was called “a bit archaic and elite.”
Calls for change have not ceased since the program’s creation, but by and large, the program has not changed much at all. On paper, the coursework as it is presented today closely mirrors how it was first proposed over forty years ago.
The general education framework that the program works within has undergone extensive overhauls, but the program’s specific mission and courses have not changed substantially. The 1980 Messenger piece announcing the conversation’s creation described courses incluing “such illustrious Western thinkers as Plato, Homer, Aristotle, Cicero, St. Paul, Augustine, and Dante,” all of whom wrote works that remain a part of course syllabi today. On a larger level, the current course titles remain almost identical to their original counterparts.
As they read in 1980, and as they read today, the five course titles suggest that the program follows the journey of a single tradition — “The Tradition Beginning: The Greeks and the Hebrews,” “The Tradition Continuing: The Romans and the Christians,” “The Tradition Redefined: The Medieval Synthesis,” “The Tradition Renewed: New Forces of Secularization” and “The Tradition in Crisis: Dissenters and Defenders”.
Despite the designation of this single tradition, Mary Trull, Director of the Great Conversation, says that the approach to the curriculum is outdated.
“It’s important to the program that we don’t have one narrative about the history of ideas that we are pushing out to everyone,” Trull said.
According to Trull, the steering committee, an advisory board composed of past and current faculty, is currently drafting new course titles and descriptions that intend to allow for a more thematic, less geographical approach. While the committee does not have a clearly demarcated set of responsibilities, it maintains the authority to alter the larger framework and mission of the program.
Students are calling for further changes to the Great Conversation’s pedagogy. Zoë Miller ’23 and Seneca Norvell ’23, alongside other members of the class of the sophomore cohort, are in conversations with the teaching faculty as well as Trull to voice student concerns about the program. These include concerns of what works are included in the syllabi, the manner in which they are taught, and larger questions, such as the validity of the program’s name.
One catalyst Norvell cited as an impetus for forming a formal group was reading a New York Times op-ed published in July 2020 detailing Aristotle’s support for slavery. She was concerned that such context was not presented in the study of Aristotle’s work in the Great Conversation program.
“I was thinking ‘Why didn’t we learn about this when we had read his books’,” Norvell said. “Because otherwise I think there’s a tendency to — not idolize [authors] — but you don’t get the full picture of the person. Which I think is really important; to know their flaws.”
In that vein, the group sees allowing space to continue to read these same canonical works, but through a more critical lens as one possible path forward for creating a more complete program.
“One of the first things you read in the program sets up why these texts are classics,” Miller said. “And so it was kind of an idea of if we are going to set this person up on a pedestal and name them as a part of ‘the Great Conversation’ what does that say about us saying they’re good? What if we were a lot more critical of the Western thinkers we are working with. So we read Aristotle and then we read the op-ed allowing space to continue to read these same canonical works, but through a more critical lens — dealing more with who are these people? And how do they impact today?”
Questions of who gets to decide what — or who — makes a work great are at the forefront of discussions regarding where the future of the program is heading. In order to fulfill the conversation’s goal, what needs to be studied? What voices need to be heard? How should they be examined?
The responsibility of attempting to answer such questions largely falls to each series’s teaching team, which crafts unique reading lists and class work for each cohort of the Great Conversation.
“Every time that we teach the first course, we teach Homer and Plato and Aristotle and the Bible,” Trull said. “But there’s no list that absolutely must be taken from. So a lot of it is faculty choosing to teach the same texts over and over again, or relying on tradition. But there’s no rule that says that they have to. That allows cohorts to innovate.”
This amount of flexibility from year to year allows faculty to potentially feature a greater number of voices in the program over time, but ensures no continuity from one semester to another. “That’s really kind of a Band-Aid,” Trull said in regards to individual faculty having the option to include more diverse texts from semester to semester; pointing to the new framework crafted by the steering committee as a more permanent solution.
There is suggestion from students that this fluidity allows for a lack of structural priority on including critical, diverse voices alongside canonical works; giving professors the agency to ignore the roots of texts that have been historically and presently used to diminish and discriminate.
Another aspect of the course that Miller and Norvell pointed to as inciting their call for change was the time spent focused on Biblical texts and Christianity compared to other religious texts and practices. While their cohort read excerpts from the Quran, that work only lasted three days, a fraction of the amount of time spent focused on the Bible. Other student concerns about the focus on Christianity point to the idea that even when other religious texts were studied, those conversations centered around the texts’ relationship to the Bible.
“Everything [we read] was related to the Bible, but the Quran especially,” said Mackenzie Todd ’22, a former Great Conversation student. “A lot of people were raised Christian and it was natural for them, and the professors never really discouraged it.”
Norvell said that she hopes to see more BIPOC authors highlighted throughout the course, suggesting that the class could include these less abundant perspectives through art opposed to literary works that might have been “erased by colonialist empires.”
This call from students for voices beyond those of white men have echoed since initial concerns about the coursework. In a 1984 Messenger article, it was reported that less than 3% of author’s studied across the five semesters were women. That number for the class of 2022 cohort sat at 7%. Also in the class of 2022, approximately 82% of the authors studied were white men, with about 12% being BIPOC.
Across the board, Miller sees changing the curriculum as a valuable way to practice critical analysis — something that in many ways, according to the mission of the program, is at the core of the coursework.
“Reconfiguring some of these older conversations or older traditions,” Miller said. “What is their value today?”
Disclosure: Mackenzie Todd, interviewed for this article, is an Illustrator for the Olaf Messenger