The Purpose of Tutorials

From the archive: a reflection on the purpose of senior tutorials from former faculty member and tutorial director Dr. Robert Sloan Lee.

4/11/19

In order to really catch the vision of the “capstone” of the Cambridge curriculum, namely, the senior tutorial competition, one has to understand its goal, or end, or purpose – or as the Greek philosophers would put it – its telos.  Ideally, the purpose of the senior tutorials is, in part, to turn our students into scholars.  The purpose of the tutorials is not to showcase The Cambridge School of Dallas as an academic institution – although that rightly does happen.  Nor is the purpose of the tutorials to give the students the chance to be recognized for their hard work – although that certainly happens too.  Nor is the purpose of the tutorials to give the moms and dads (and the grandparents) of the students an opportunity to see the students in action – although, I am glad to say, this happens as well.  The goal of the senior tutorial program is to turn non-scholars (or only partly formed scholars) into scholars. 

So, the next natural question at this point is “What is a scholar?”  In short, a scholar is a learned or erudite person, especially one who has substantial knowledge of a particular subject.  It is a person who engages in the activities of scholarship.  The famous British author, poet and literary critic, Samuel Johnson, gives us the following description of scholarship:

To talk in public, to think in solitude, to read and to hear, to inquire and answer inquiries, is the business of the scholar

This is what we have tried to build into the Cambridge tutorial program.  The senior tutorial begins in the student’s junior year.  Following the tutorial finals in April, we begin working with the juniors for next year’s tutorials.  We help them to select an area of research and recommend reading for them.  Over the summer, they will read widely and deeply in their selected area.  At the beginning of their senior year, the students turn in an annotated bibliography and begin working with a tutor to develop a substantive, defensible thesis statement.  Then, after much writing, additional research, rewriting, meetings with their tutors, and some careful thinking along the way, the students turn in a 15 page defense of their thesis.  At this point, the students will sometimes know more about their particular topics than the tutors – and that is how it is supposed to be.  After the paper is in, the questioning process begins.  The final draft is sent to the semi-finalist judges.  The judges read the tutorial papers, develop objections and questions, and then give the students a chance to answer those questions and objections publically.  Three students are chosen to go before a second academic committee in the finalist round, where an outside committee of judges will select the winner who receives the Trivium Award. 

While this may be challenging for our students, it would be cruel to our students to make it something easy and facile.  Just as it would be wrong for a coach to put his football team on the field without any training and without any equipment, it would be wrong for us to send our students into the university system without the tools and training in scholarship that they will need to defend themselves in the world of ideas.  So, the judges are instructed to probe the weak spots of the students’ tutorials and challenge the unstated assumptions of their arguments.  Instinctively, students know and understand the worth of such an enterprise.  Many intuitively grasp the value of the endeavor.  Moreover, those students who really embrace the tutorial process (and follow the instructions in preparing themselves) learn how to handle this sort of academic undertaking – so when they face similar challenges at the collegiate level, they are well prepared. 

So, what do we want the students to take away from their experience with the tutorial competition?  A few of the things that we hope they will gain include the following.  First, they should gain the knowledge of how to do research, an ability to know how to formulate substantive questions, and then the know-how to go about finding answers to those questions.  Second, we want the senior tutorial process to impart to our students the ability to defend themselves in both speech and on the page – an understanding of how to marshal arguments for one’s own position and against the positions of one’s opponents.  If they can, in the pursuit of truth, learn the fine art of intellectual self-defense now, then they will have learned a skill that will serve them well in the kind of places they are likely to end up.  Third, we hope our students gain a knowledge of their own ignorance.  When a student truly learns the details of a particular issue and the subtle complications and nuances that surround the answers to questions on that issue, the student will begin to see how the scope of our ignorance stretches out before us like an immense ocean before the small beach of knowledge we stand upon.  When the facade of our pretended knowing is exposed as being nothing more than well-varnished ignorance, we suddenly learn the great value of the knowledge we do, in fact, possess – and only then do we gain the desire to guard our knowledge and to pass the flame of the western intellectual tradition on to succeeding generations.  If our students can gain just these things from doing their tutorials, then they will have gained very much indeed.