Why Exploration Tutorials?
Several years ago my sister and I started a book club with some young high school students who I would class among the “bright-eyed”—young people who ask more questions than their more typical peers and are always wondering about what’s going on at the heart of things. Unlike many other students, these boys had been awakened to the world—awakened to its problems, its complexities, to all of its beauty and wonder and danger. We could tell they were craving more than they were getting at school, so we proposed that they explore some of their interests within the setting of a book club.
It was nothing super formal; we met once a week for a few hours and took turns choosing our reading material. One week we might read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, another week Plato’s Meno. Somewhere in there we read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, also some of Kafka, Gogol, and Kobo Abe’s short stories, and on a particularly colorful week I remember some creepy monster tales by H.P. Lovecraft.
Over the course of several months we had a great time, so many wonderful discussions, and even a few field trips. The group understandably dissolved after everyone graduated and went off to college, but we recently met with two of the guys at a coffee shop to catch up. One is currently studying at Berkeley on a full ride scholarship, the other exploring different majors and classes at his local community college.
When we started reminiscing about their experiences in high school, both mentioned that our book club meetings had been particularly formative for them. It was a space for them to explore and wonder and ask questions in a safe and non-stressful atmosphere.
“We loved it,” they both recalled.
That was thrilling to hear, and also confirmed something I’ve noticed more and more over the years: Students need space to explore.
I vividly remember my disappointment during freshman year of college after approaching one of my academic mentors, bursting with ideas for a creative project based on some of our reading. I was met with a frown and a resounding, “No, not yet.” But if we aren’t able to explore during these formative times in our life, then when will we get the chance?
Education is a holistic experience. It should touch our hearts, minds, and spirits. While learning and education is becoming increasingly fragmented and specialized, the reality is that our world is complicated, and not at all easy to compartmentalize. Its nuance and elasticity demands bright eyes, strong and supple minds willing and able to doubt, to question, to wonder, and to do so while discerning the lies and embracing what is good and true—an increasingly difficult task.
And it’s unfortunate when the very education systems designed to encourage and foster curiosity and intellectual growth end up hindering and hampering students in their efforts. Many programs are limited by staff, resources and class size—not to mention their often-frustrating efforts to reach the lowest common denominator in a room full of differing needs and varying levels of ability and interest.
John Henry Newman, a scholar and life-long learner who fathered and summarized the basic principles of most Liberal Arts programs that still currently exist in England and the United States, wrote in The Idea of a University:
"We know, not by a direct and simple vision, not at a glance, but, as it were, by piecemeal and accumulation, by a mental process, by going round and round an object, by the comparison, the combination, the mutual correction, the continual adaptation, of many partial notions, by the employment, concentration, and joint action of many faculties and exercises of mind. Such a union and concert of the intellectual power, such an enlargement and development, such a comprehensiveness, is necessarily a matter of training."
The best way to learn, according to Newman, is simply to explore—and to do so widely and rigorously, following one’s interests by reading extensively, discussing with other interested minds, growing in one’s capacity to see multiple sides of a question, to develop one’s ability to communicate, listen, perceive and understand. Knowledge, according to Newman, should be pursued as an end in itself, not merely as a means to an end—for the piece of paper or the high-paying career, for example.
However, Newman also wrote, echoing the language of Aristotle, that education pursued as an end in itself—as knowledge to be taken to heart and incorporated into our lives with wisdom and grace—will always find a way to be useful.
Like John Henry Newman, I am a strong believer in the power of individual curiosity and bright eyes. I would have loved more opportunities as a high school and college student to explore certain topics more in-depth, to pursue my questions and areas of study that didn’t fall within traditional requirements. At times I did venture out to begin my own attempts at exploration, but was stymied time and time again by my own lack of discipline. I realized that there is a level of motivation that only structure, an authority figure (i.e. teacher, tutor, coach) and learning alongside others can truly provide.
These tutorials are for students who are not afraid to work hard, dig in, ask questions and accept responsibility for the quality of their own development and education. Really, for students of all ages (but more realistically middle school/high school and up) who love reading and stories, who are curious, and who care about what is true and good and hard in this world. Students who get distracted from their math problems because they’re wondering about what the imaginary i means, who hide in a bathroom or a closet to finish their latest book choice, who spend hours laboring away at a stop-motion short to post to YouTube, students who are forced to read Antigone and then finish Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonnus just because they want to. Students who enjoy a deep but meandering conversation with a friend about anything and everything under the sun, recognizing all of the world’s problems and wondering about the solutions.
These tutorials are my attempt to provide other students some of the opportunities I was given, and create a space for creativity and exploration that is not at the expense of structure and rigor. I am quite ecumenical when it comes to education. If it works, why not try it?
Inspired by my own experiences in the Liberal Arts, I’ve drawn from the last several years I’ve spent coaching students with their writing, as well as two years of teaching and tutoring students through a survey course of English Literature. Elements of my high school Great Books and English Literature courses (Escondido Tutorial Service) will always be prominent; I will never forget those golden days full of vibrant discussions, discovery, challenge, travel and community. My experience in Biola University’s Torrey Honors College, with their intentional community and discussion standards, dynamic listening and collaborating, spiritual and academic mentorship that allowed us to engage our ideas in alternative, innovative ways, also changed and formed my thinking and perspectives about education. A memorable term spent at Oxford inspired me with its unparalleled tutorial method, which provides ample space for thinking, reading and study with a more experienced guide.
Before that, however, were the hours upon hours I spent reading and being read to by my Mom in my late elementary school and middle school years—reading that formed my heart, mind, and instilled in me strong rhythms of writing and communication. Those authors became friends and companions who revealed the world—our past, our present, and our future—as a marvelous adventure to explore and embrace with courage, honesty and faith.
I do not pretend to be and have no wish to be mistaken for an expert. I have worked very hard for many years to hone my craft, but I am still learning, still growing. And I never want to stop.
We know, not by a direct and simple vision, not at a glance, but, as it were, by piecemeal and accumulation, by a mental process, by going round and round an object, by the comparison, the combination, the mutual correction, the continual adaptation, of many partial notions, by the employment, concentration, and joint action of many faculties and exercises of mind. Such a union and concert of the intellectual power, such an enlargement and development, such a comprehensiveness, is necessarily a matter of training.
John Henry Newman
Again, hello! My name is Alyssa Carr.
Since I was very small, I’ve always asked a lot of questions. Sometimes too many questions. I can still see the wry smile of my environmental science professor after class one day when I walked up to ask about something he’d said in his lecture.
“We’re already a few weeks into the semester,” he grinned at me. “So I guess I’ll just get used to you coming up and asking me questions after every single class?”
Yep! I sure did, and loved every minute of it.
As for a little more about me: some will understand me when I say I’m a Ravenpuff, mostly hobbit with a strong dash of elf (probably the Rivendell variety). I’m also a proud twin, enjoy asking probing questions and learning new things, working in my garden (I’m especially fond of anything that's a legume), playing my piano, cello and singing with my sis, spending quality time with friends and family, reading and discussing books and movies, loitering around hedges, gardens and green spaces, traveling the world, and exploring the uncanny similarity of fairy and folk tales across cultures. Recently I’ve also been delving into sci-fi (Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Gene Roddenberry) and wondering what took me so long.
I am extremely grateful for a rare background and education that allowed me the freedom to ask hard and honest questions, to explore every possibility, to develop my thinking, reading and communication skills, and search unflaggingly for what is good and true.
As I mentioned above, I am an alumna of Fritz Hinrichs’ Great Books program, and graduated from Biola University and the Torrey Honors College with a degree in Humanities (History emphasis). I also spent a Michaelmas (Fall) term abroad at Oxford University and studied Medieval and Renaissance Romance, Philosophy of Science, and the views of George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis on the power and effectiveness of fantasy. More recently I enjoyed working on freelance editing projects ranging from a Bible study curriculum of Romans to PR articles featured on platforms like the Huff Post and Forbes. I've spent the last several years working one-on-one with high school students to improve their writing, and two years teaching an honors level English Literature survey course.
I have a profound love and deep appreciation for the vast sweep of all authentic Christian tradition, history and experience—but most especially where I find Jesus Christ glorified, His Father revealed, and His Spirit embraced.