Brandon Rakowski ’20, a philosophy major from Weston, Connecticut, returned to Kenyon this fall an educational convert. His junior year abroad at Oxford University, saturated with late-night conversations about truth, justice and free will, had impressed upon him the value of education based in dialogue. Peer-to-peer symposia in Oxford’s student lounges and pubs pushed Rakowski to elaborate his own positions on ideas incubated in the classroom, expanding his mode of thinking. Back in Gambier, Rakowski wanted to keep the conversations going with his Kenyon classmates.
The result: the inaugural Kenyon Socratic Series, a collective effort by Rakowski, philosophy majors Patrick Hudnut ’20 and Noelle O’Neal ’21, and Matthew Manno ’20, a classics and English double major, to create a home for friendly, dialogic education at Kenyon. Every other week, a professor or community member delivers a lecture on topics ranging from divine ineffability to quantum paradox. Following each lecture, the curious attendees mull over the speaker’s ideas in an open symposium held at the Village Inn, where impromptu speeches and philosophical musings pepper cheery conversations among new friends.
Impressed by the group’s initiative and intrigued by the educational power of conversation, I recently sat down with Rakowski to discuss the thinking behind the Kenyon Socratic Series.
What was your inspiration for the Kenyon Socratic Series?
The idea came from my study-abroad program at Oxford. At each college, there are junior common rooms, social spaces, where people gather and inevitably end up discussing their studies. In theory, a lot of the learning takes place through these conversations. It worked very well at Blackfriars Hall, my college, where many students shared interests in philosophy and Catholic theology.
About halfway through the year, one of my instructors began hosting some friends and me for drinks at a local pub. He’d invite one of his friends, usually a masters student, to give a 10-minute speech about their topic of expertise. After the 10 minutes were up, we had the floor to gently pick apart the speech. I wanted to bring something of that atmosphere — as well as the junior common room atmosphere, where people would get together and have conversations — back to Kenyon.
Conversations among friends outside of the classroom foster a much different experience than in-class learning. What’s the value of education through dialogue?
I think philosophy especially needs to be studied through dialogue, because its aim is to reorient your view of yourself and the world. It requires that sense of personal responsibility, a desire for truth and a willingness to change, and I think that’s only invoked through conversation with people who also long to know and live well. When you’re reading a text, you don’t have the benefit of the author’s presence; you have to do your best by marking it up and carrying out a conversation in your head.
Do you feel that the form of education the Socratic Series facilitates complements traditional classroom learning?
It complements it in the sense that it forces you to come out and take your own position. You can go through and learn what Marx said, what Freud and Nietzsche argue. But eventually you reach a point where you need to be asked, “How do you think society should be organized? What’s the purpose of politics in the first place?” My hope is that we’ll provide something like that opportunity. That’s the ideal we’re trying to approximate, at least.
How did you select your speakers?
Originally, I designed the series around issues related to philosophy and religion. But as things developed, Patrick, Noelle, Matthew and I decided to broaden our focus to big ideas across the liberal arts curriculum. We picked professors with broad interests and organized the series around the three transcendentals — beauty, goodness and truth. We were also looking for speakers who’d be willing to take a stance on their chosen topic, who would be open to criticism.
You even got President Decatur on board. How did that come about?
That was Matthew. I told him that I thought President Decatur would be a fantastic speaker, and suggested we send him an email, just a shot in the dark. Matthew said, “Well, I’m at an event at Cromwell Cottage right now, and Decatur’s standing right over there. I can go talk to him.” It turns out President Decatur was surprisingly enthusiastic about the opportunity. We were grateful he made time for us.
What would you say to Kenyon students looking to follow your lead in forging their own educational pathways?
Kenyon’s a particularly good place to come up with new ideas and to implement them. I think the benefit of being on a beautiful campus like ours is that you have peace, quiet and time to think here. That undergirds the substance of a liberal education: Yes, you’ll go to class, read and do homework, but you’ll also reflect on your studies. It’s through reflection that you solidify your view of things and that further ideas arise. Kenyon is a place to discover new possibilities, new things about yourself.
Plus, from a practical standpoint, it’s very easy to plan events here; we scheduled one of the largest theaters on campus with the click of a button.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
—Ben Hunkler ’20