The School for Ethics and Global Leadership

Seminal Readings Week at ALA

Date: Mar 8nd, 2021

In mid-February, SEGL students participated for the first time in a longstanding ALA tradition: Seminal Readings. In small groups organized by advisory families, students and faculty engage with a set of texts that ALA faculty have determined, over years of honing, to be particularly important.

During their time on the ALA campus, SEGL students are assigned to many different sub-groups that help them integrate into the community, and ALA advisory families are one of these groups. In addition to meeting one-on-one each week with a primary SEGL advisor, each student is assigned to an ALA advisory family, a space in which they are the only SEGL student with 5-6 ALA students and an ALA faculty member. Some SEGL students are grouped with Year One ALA students, and others with Year Twos. Depending on which year they are with, they tackled a different theme during Seminal Readings: For Year Ones, the guiding question was: “When should a leader speak?” For Year Twos, it was: “What defines a good society?”

In this blog post, two SEGL students share reflections on the Seminal Readings experience:

Chase Quijano, from Princeton, NJ, was part of a Year One group: For a week of school, the SEGL students at ALA got to experience Seminal Readings. Seminal Readings is when students break off into groups at certain times of the day and discuss a segment of passages that were assigned to them with their Advisory Group. For me, my advisory group was grouped together with Mr. Thomas’s. We met near the entrance of the school, upstairs in Conference Room 1. Our teacher in charge, Mr. Thomas, greeted us every day of the week and was always incredibly ecstatic with joy to discuss what passages we read the previous night. The environment itself was very comforting and open: everyone made sure to respect everyone’s personal opinions as well as the backgrounds and experiences we all come from. When discussing the various readings, one of my favorite readings was called “The Allegory Of the Cave” by the Greek philosopher Plato. The text itself contains many forms of symbolism related to the path of enlightenment, and there are four stages in particular. The text starts out with the setting of prisoners being stuck in a cave, in chains. Being in the cave is meant to symbolize ignorance and lack of the truth that the real world holds. When the prisoners are released from the chains in the cave, this represents being brought into the world of truth. Finally, leaving the cave itself is entering the world of enlightenment and knowledge. When discussing this passage with my group, I found it fascinating how everyone was able to correlate the meaning behind it with their own personal experiences. Mr. Thomas discussed how his grandmother in France has a very old mindset, and how she is metaphorically still in the cave. I discussed how in the United States there is a situation of many people still being in the cave, and because of that ignorance is flooded throughout our society. That passage is just one of the many we discussed during seminal readings, I feel that taking a week to read these passages was very important for us to realize what we are attending such a prestigious school for. We are attending it to make the world a better place, and to help other people out of the cave.

Audrey Liu, from New York City, was part of a Year Two group: One of my favorites was Julius Nyerere’s “Education for Self Reliance.” As someone in the middle of the education system, it can be hard to find a sense of perspective to look at it with, beyond “I need to work hard” and various ways of thinking about opportunity. What Nyerere encouraged me to do was to see beyond the individual experience of education to the purpose of education for the collective. (Given that Nyerere was a socialist leader of a country, I would probably be confused if he didn’t.) That said, he talked about education as a way for humanity to pass down all its inherited knowledge, and that was intriguing beyond a political concept. I thought about what would happen if we failed to pass down, let’s say, an important Physics concept. There’s nothing innate in writing that down or seeing children as tiny physicists, and so it would just disappear. How long would it take for someone to come up with that again? Humanity prides itself on “progress,” but Nyerere reminded me how fragile that narrative of “progress” is.

If I agree with Nyerere that education’s purpose is a) to pass down skills, knowledge, values, and culture through humanity, and b) to prepare children with the schools they need for their lives–and as of right now, I can’t think of any reason why I should disagree–then I could easily make the argument that education doesn’t serve those purposes. It seems to me that perhaps it was never meant to serve that purpose at all – at least not in the U.S. If U.S. educations were truly meant to work within Nyerere’s vision (a big and frankly unlikely “if”), we would prioritize the availability of that education to everyone. Instead, we have a so-called “merit-based” system that often seems to me like it operates more in service to the goal of societal differentiation than anything else. Given that in the U.S., that differentiation most commonly occurs on race and socioeconomic class lines, how does this modern system in any way reflect the goals Nyerere set out?

SEGL students will get to participate in one more set of Seminal Readings next month. Stay tuned for more thoughtful reflections on these identity-forming texts!