IN Conversation with Dr. Pano Kanelos

By Matt Donnowitz, Head of School

Friday, September 2, 2022

The Great Conversation Introduction

Every year, the Head of School chooses a theme, or a focus, for the faculty and staff to explore during professional development. Our focus for the 2022-2023 school year is “The Great Conversation.” This term, coined by Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins in the 1950s, describes the development and exchange of ideas that have shaped Western civilization for the past 2,500 years.

The Great Conversation has been passed down primarily through Great Books—those works of literature, philosophy, theology, economics, science, etc.—that significantly developed or shifted established ways of thinking and living as a result. The theme of The Great Conversation is not on the means of living but on the ends, and how to use logic, reason, and faith to pursue all that is good, true, and beautiful. In other words, the focus is not on how to make a good living, but on how to live a good life. This is why the idea of The Great Conversation has come to represent the classical tradition as a whole. (To explore the idea of The Great Conversation more, start with this podcast by Dr. Christopher Perrin on “The Great Idea of the Great Conversation.”)

This year, I’ve scheduled leaders, speakers, and authors to speak to our faculty and staff on the idea of The Great Conversation, its significance for the cultural moment in which we find ourselves, and how focusing on this idea will help us better accomplish our school’s mission, vision, and purpose, and live out our core values. Last month, we were honored to launch this conversation with Dr. Pano Kanelos. Dr. Kanelos is the founding President of the University of Austin having formerly served as the 24th President of St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD. After earning degrees from Northwestern University (BA), Boston University (MA), and the University of Chicago (PhD), he taught at Stanford University, the University of San Diego, and Loyola University Chicago. 

Today, you’ll get a snapshot of the conversation we had with Dr. Kanelos on this topic of The Great Conversation. After each guest speaker’s visit (approximately every six weeks), I will email a newsletter of their words to our faculty and staff. Below is a snapshot—edited for brevity and clarity—of Dr. Kanelos’s speech, and our conversation together. 

Dr. Kanelos: 

“Robert Hutchins said, ‘The aim of liberal education is human excellence, both private and public.’ The ‘liberal arts’ encompass a wide range of fields, wider than we have come to think, and include those disciplines that are traditionally labeled ‘the humanities’, but also those we refer to as ‘the sciences.’

The purpose of a liberal education is to look across all ways of human ‘knowing’ and to try to understand the patterns, connections, disruptions, and tensions between them. The liberal arts have historically been divided into two groups—the trivium and quadrivium. The trivium focuses on the arts of letters and deals with those disciplines concerned primarily with human activity. The trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—imparts qualitative knowledge to us, that is, they help us understand and use language to discern what is logical or illogical, what we should desire or be averse to, and how to speak and write well in order to best communicate truth. The quadrivium focuses on the ‘arts of numbers’, and deals with those disciplines concerned with the natural world and its phenomena. The quadrivium originally included geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy. Whereas the trivium focuses on qualitative knowledge, the quadrivium focuses on quantitative knowledge. 

All of these disciplines together formed the substance of a ‘liberal education.’ The term ‘liberal’ is grounded in the notion of liberty or freedom. The liberal arts, therefore, are those disciplines that enable one to live as a free person. The freedom we’re discussing is the freedom that accompanies the discernment of truth. Only if we understand what is true can we align our choices with what is best. This truth-seeking activity is the activity of a liberal education, which is the foundation of a classical education. 

As human beings, we have the capacity not only to learn and know but to use that knowledge to create and shape the world around us. Our capacity to create is evidence that we have agency, a type of agency that we alone, as human beings, maintain and nurture. And if we have such an agency, that is, to do things of our volition, we bear responsibility for our decisions. And our decisions are therefore imbued with moral significance. The world around us is altered favorably or unfavorably by our actions, so we must learn how our agency can accord with our flourishing. 

The central theme of The Great Conversation is, after all, human flourishing. Even in the realms of scientific knowledge, our purpose has been to come to know the world so we can live lives that are better. Of course, the meaning of ‘better’ is one with which we are still wrestling. 

And thus, the conversation carries on with us hearing the voices of the past, responding to those voices in the present, and adding our own voices to future conversations that will transpire in a world that we have played a role in creating.”

Question and Answer

Question: In classical education, we tend to focus on reading Great Books of the past. But why do we still read authors from the past whom we have advanced beyond? As one author rhetorically asked, “Why read Copernicus or Faraday if scientists now know everything they knew, and much besides?” 

Dr. Kanelos: The first part of the answer is that I don’t know if we do, in fact, know more than Copernicus. However, what we really learn by studying Copernicus is how to learn and how to apply our own mind to the process of discovering the world. By going through the same process that the great thinkers of the past went through, by reading their works and figuring out how they came to their conclusions—even if sometimes those conclusions have been superceded or are no longer held to be true—we gain the most important thing we can gain in our education—how to think. 

Question: Could you speak to why there is such an emphasis on ‘the West’ in classical education and not more of a focus on other cultures or areas of the world?

Dr. Kanelos: That’s an important question, and one very important for us to ask today. First of all, the whole concept of ‘the West’ is a new and false creation. What we think of as ‘the West’ is a relatively new phenomenon. What we think of as the classical tradition originated in the Middle East. The first book students read in most university-level programs that focus on the Great Books is the Epic of Gilgamesh, and I don’t think Gilgamesh was Italian. But the reasons why the center of gravity for the study of classical education that we embark in is the West (meaning everything from the Judeo-Christian Tradition up to this moment) is twofold. First of all, the Western tradition has been the most influential in creating the modern world. Forms of politics, the scientific method—if you’re going to understand the modern world, you have to unpack the ideas that came out of the European tradition. The other reason why the center of gravity for the study of classical education is found in the West (again, meaning the Judeo-Christian tradition, largely embraced by Europe up to this moment) is because that’s the tradition of the majority of people in our particular culture. Yet I often tell students that this is just the starting point. When you graduate, you’re going to have the rest of your life to expand outwards and make sure your intellectual curiosity doesn’t stop here, because if it does, you’ve stopped learning. It’s ok to be grounded in a particular tradition, especially if it’s a tradition as critical to understanding the world as the Western tradition, but you must engage with others as well—otherwise, you’ll be intellectually stunted.

Question: How do you make room for unconventional wisdom in The Great Conversation? How do you grant value to voices that would not be labeled as “classical thinkers” but are nonetheless essential to our own spiritual, emotional, and intellectual growth?

Dr. Kanelos: That’s an excellent question, and one for me that’s very personal. My parents were immigrants from Greece and are not “educated” people. Yet my father is filled with wisdom and one of the deepest people I’ve ever met. How do you incorporate that into the formal education we’re offering here? That’s a difficult question. Yet one thing the classical tradition teaches us is that books—as ironic as this might sound—are not enough. But let’s remember—Socrates never wrote a single thing. Socrates didn’t have a degree. He was a stubborn old Greek guy like my dad who went around and talked to people. He engaged with and had conversations with people. Many of the great artists and musicians, for example, were not “bookish,” people so to speak. So even within the tradition itself, we point people to the alternative forms of knowledge and wisdom outside of books. Yet even this is embedded within the tradition itself. We need to teach students to seek out wisdom and truth wherever it is found. 


I hope you enjoyed this dialogue with Dr. Pano Kanelos. You may learn more about him and his work with the University of Austin here.

In September, I’m excited to host Eric Cook, President of the Society for Classical Learning, on campus and speak to our faculty on this focus. I will write a similar newsletter next month for our school community following his visit.

In Him, 
Matt Donnowitz, Head of School

Read our [IN] Conversation with Eric Cook here.