The theory behind the seminar is practically in itself a theory of an aspect of human nature. The seminar discussion takes for granted that humans connect by way of shared experience, and that a seminar discussion is one such experience. The second postulate or hypothesis is that better shared experiences lead to stronger connections between people, and the more such strong connections there are between the people in society, the tighter or stronger the society will be. The next part is that in seminars, Great Books are discussed in which acts of tremendous valor and choices of profound difficulty made–also, precise reasoning (for instance in Euclid or Kant) of the highest pitch is offered. So, in the seminar, one is having a shared experience which involves observation and reflection on the motives, nature, and highest offerings of thought and action–by way of some of the best language–that humans have to offer, throughout all time and space.
What, then, is the actual effect of this thing called seminar, and why and for what reason is it more valuable than a simple lecture? A lecture, for example, ensures that students have a shared and logical presentation of the facts (possibly with effective visual tools and dramatic pauses), so it caters to multiple intelligences, and if the students are taking notes, it helps students to prepare for college and learn organization. What does the seminar add to this? For one, the seminar allows for students to connect to the material in a way that simply directly receiving “instruction” does not allow for. What does this mean? One of the greatest benefits of seminar is that one has the opportunity to open up to and converse with people who might not at all times be considered “like-minded”, but that through the vessel of seminar, even the most different people in terms of opinion, life-style, goals, and values do approach each other through a certain respect for the seminar space and what it offers. Naturally, while passively receiving a lecture, a student may write an emphatic “No!” or “So?!” on his or her paper, or simply say so with his or her eyes and dour expression, but this is hardly the same level of rigorous discourse as is allowed for in a seminar. In using one’s basic faculties of speaking, reasoning, agreeing and withholding agreement a student, like an athlete practicing his or her sport, is practicing and honing his or her basic humane skills.
Is the seminar then an effective, perhaps even necessary, tool for the development and promotion of a democratic society? If we take a moment to look through a small blurb by Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America Bk II Chapter 5, we find the following small blurb:
“Among democratic nations, on the contrary, all the citizens are independent and feeble; they can do hardly anything by themselves, and none of them can oblige his fellow men to lend him their assistance. They all, therefore, become powerless if they do not learn voluntarily to help one another. If men living in democratic countries had no right and no inclination to associate for political purposes, their independence would be in great jeopardy, but they might long preserve their wealth and their cultivation: whereas if they never acquired the habit of forming associations in ordinary life, civilization itself would be endangered. A people among whom individuals lost the power of achieving great things single-handed, without acquiring the means of producing them by united exertions, would soon relapse into barbarism.”
There are two parts above especially pertinent to whether seminar supports and enhances a democratic society–“If men living in democratic countries had no right and no inclination to associate for political purposes, their independence would be in great jeopardy,” and “A people among whom individuals lost the power of achieving great things single-handed, without acquiring the means of producing them by united exertions, would soon relapse into barbarism.” Let us analyze the former quote first.
Men in democratic societies, in order to maintain their independence, must be capable of associating for political purposes. How does this relate to seminar, though? It is clear that seminars do not have an active political agenda in terms of either being liberal or conservative. But on a more broadly social level, the seminar is concerned with developing the skills necessary for democratic citizens to civilly gather and speak, listen, and reason with each other over issues both perennial and timely. This means that seminar, effectively, focuses on developing the skills necessary for people within a unified culture to meet and conduct civil discourse towards a unified end, political or otherwise, and that without such training, a people will lack the skills necessary to achieve that which they might otherwise be capable of with other able and willing individuals like themselves. This is where the second quote comes into play.
Without learning the necessary skills which develop, maintain, and promote–reasoning, speaking, listening, and acting in a unified, rational, and civil manner, men become less able of performing unified acts of greatness and become disparate and weak atoms floating in a stream of relative opinion and action. Obviously, a seminar amongst students focuses primarily and almost exclusively on determining the nature, value, and reasoning behind the thoughts and opinions existing within a text–usually one from a different time and country. It is, however, because of these abstract and remote discussions, that more proximate and immediately valuable skills are developed: the ability to analyze data, develop an opinion, share the opinion, listen to a counter-argument to one’s opinion, and then either agree with one’s interlocutor or politely disagree. One would be hard-pressed to argue that these are not precisely the skills which develop, maintain, and promote a democracy, especially the American democracy where the right to assemble to speak freely is, if we think numerically, our highest amended value.
Seminars, therefore, are not only democratic in nature, but if one takes seriously the skill-set necessary for a citizen to himself or herself maintain and promote democracy, they are necessary.